The Catechism of the Catholic Church begins its teaching on prayer with the question "What is prayer?" and with a quote from St. Terese of Lisieux: "For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy" (CCC 2558). Obviously, St. Terese's answer encapsulates the meaning of prayer both succinctly and profoundly. But, the Church doesn't end its instruction on the subject there; more must be unpacked and discovered regarding the definition offered by this Doctor of the Church. Therefore, the Catechism introduces prayer in terms of gift, covenant and communion.
When we enter into prayer, it's easy to fall into the lofty assumption that I am speaking to God and somehow that elevates my status, in other words, our attitude screams: "Look how holy I am!" The Catechism reminds us: "humility is the foundation of prayer, [sic] Only when we humbly acknowledge that 'we do not know how to pray as we ought,' are we ready to receive freely the gift of prayer" (CCC 2559). And, often we assume that we initiate prayer, it is our decision to start the conversation with God. Yes, we do indeed decide to pray; it is a conscious effort on our parts. However, prayer is a response to the call from Our Loving Creator, it is He Who desires to speak with us and calls our name and offers us the gift of His presence in prayer. Our work in prayer is to be docile and remember who we are in relation to Our Creator and open our hearts to receive His Word.
When we think of the word covenant with regard to the people of God, we recall the Old Testament Covenants with Noah, Abraham, etc., and the New Covenant established in the coming of the Messiah in the New Testament. These images are important to understanding prayer as covenant. "Christian prayer is a covenant relationship between God and man in Christ. It is the action of God and of man, springing forth from both the Holy Spirit and ourselves, wholly directed to the Father, in union with the human will of the Son of God made man (CCC 2564). Just as God established covenant relationships with Noah, Abraham, Moses and David in the Old Testament, in the unique, individual prayer of every person, The Holy Trinity forms a union that binds man to God and God to man. This unity in prayer is one of love and mutual self-giving -- it is a relationship of hearts. Prayer, especially after reception of the Eucharist is the closest man can come to heaven on earth. Again, St. Terese of Lisieux expresses it beautifully and simply: "My heaven within the Host safe hid and peaceful, lies, here Jesus Christ abides, divinest, fairest Fair. From that great fount of love doth endless life arise; There, day and night, my Lord doth hearken to my prayer" (Poem: My Heaven on Earth).
Prayer is a relationship. It is not one sided: I speak and ask; you listen and give. We have seen that prayer is given freely and responded to freely; it is a bond of the heart to one Whom we love and Who loves beyond measure -- in Creation; in Passion, Death and Resurrection; in the indwelling Spirit. "[P]rayer is the living relationship of the children of God with their Father who is good beyond measure, with his Son Jesus Christ and with the Holy Spirit" (CCC 2565). In this communion of hearts, we join with the angels and saints in offering just praise and worship to God, in giving thanks for the joys and sufferings that will sanctify us, in begging forgiveness for our transgressions and in asking for heavenly assistance in our needs. Queen of Angels and of Saints, Our Blessed Mother intercedes for us in our needs, as well. In these ways, we receive the grace necessary to reach out beyond our individual and unique relationship with the Trinity to offer the gift of prayer to others, to invite them in and teach them how to pray. This is the communion we know as the Body of Christ in the Church Triumphant, Church Suffering and the Church Militant. St. Paul explains by use of analogy: "If [one] part [of the body] suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy" (1 Cor 12:26). It is up to His faithful disciples to honor all people by sharing with them the gift of prayer; helping them to hear the loving call of God and respond with humility and awe.
Prayer as gift. Prayer as Covenant. Prayer as Communion. May we each enjoy this experience of prayer during our Lenten journey. And may we make time to pray before the Blessed Sacrament so as to understand the meaning and value of these words spoken by Archbishop Fulton Sheen: "The holy hour in our modern rat race is necessary for authentic prayer. Our world is one of speed in which intensity of movement is a substitute for lack of purpose; where noise is invoked to drown out the whisperings of conscience; where talk, talk, talk gives the impression that we are doing something when really we are not; where activity kills self-knowledge won by contemplation…" Slow down, visit with Jesus, listen to Him speak to your heart, and share the glorious gift of prayer with your neighbor. By Kathy Vestermark, Professor at CDU and US Correspondant for Catholic News World