“Oh Lord, help me.”
“Lord, have mercy.”
“My Lord, what a beautiful day.”
We all pray. Sometimes we pray formally — in church or with familiar prayers. At other times, our prayer is spontaneous and unpolished. Sometimes we read a prayer, and sometimes it just blurts out. St. Paul even tells us that, guided by the Spirit, we can pray without words, but through the help of the Spirit’s “inexpressible groanings” (Rom 8:26).
A few weeks ago, this column explored “how-not-to-pray” (Sept. 27). A reader pointed out that not expressing gratitude was another “how-not-to” of prayer.
Gratitude is indeed a form of prayer. It’s one of several forms of prayer recognized by the church — but, no matter its form, all prayer has the same goal. That is what St. Thomas Aquinas called “raising up of one’s mind to God” (Summa Theologica: II:II:83).
We raise our minds to God for four basic reasons, which can be grouped as four types of prayer: adoration, petition, thanksgiving and contrition.
Each of these four types usually appears in every prayer — although not necessarily in equal amounts. For example, a prayer of contrition will be more heavily centered on, well, contrition. But it may also include petition — as in “forgive me”; adoration — as in “Oh my God, I love you and am sorry”; and thanksgiving — “with your help, I will avoid future sin.”
The best prayer of all, of course, is the Mass. And celebrating Mass includes all four types of prayer. (There will be many more examples in each Mass than we can cover here, but it’s a start.)
“Catholics worship God in a variety of ways, but the chief act of corporate or communal worship is the liturgy of the Eucharist,” explains Scott Richert, who writes the “Catholicism” page at about.com. Look at how many times we are reminded that we are at Mass to worship: from the Gloria to the songs, from use of incense during certain prayers to genuflection when we come in and kneeling at the eucharistic prayer. All these remind us that it is God whom we adore. As “The United States Catechism for Adults” reminds us, adoration “flows from an attitude that acknowledges we are creatures in the presence of our Creator. … We adore God from whom all blessings flow.”
By expressing contrition — sometimes called prayer of reparation — we acknowledge that we have not always lived up to our potential as children of God, have not always shared the gifts we have been given and have not always accepted the fullness of God’s love in our lives. During Mass, we express this most clearly during the penitential rite, when we confess our failings and ask the Lord’s mercy. We also express contrition as we prepare to receive the Eucharist and remind ourselves that, but for grace, “I am not worthy.”
However, even as we acknowledge our sins and seek to repair our relationships, we realize God has already come to meet us. Like the father of the prodigal son, God is ready to welcome us back, even before our prayer of contrition is complete — or perhaps even before it’s begun. Whenever our hearts turn toward God, we will find him already there. Love is freely given, even before we ask. We see this revealed at each Mass, and receive it most fully, during holy Communion. Our hearts can only respond with gratitude.
“Thanksgiving is probably the highest form of prayer. …. A grateful heart simply wants to say thanks — for life for faith for redemption, for others, for all things in your life,” writes an Anglican priest, Fr. Charles Nalls, in an e-book called, “Prayer: A Field Guide.”
The entire celebration of Mass is really one long prayer of gratitude to God. Grateful acceptance of all that we have received from God is expressed most perfectly in our sharing of the Eucharist. This is the time when we gather together to place ourselves before God and to accept his very life through the Body and Blood of Christ, who is “God With Us.”
Gratitude can often fill us and leave us wondering at the gifts we have received. Voicing awe and wonder is what we do during worship and through prayers of thanksgiving. During Mass, much time is specifically devoted to gratitude: during songs, during the psalm responses and with the prayers after Communion.
In life, the most frequent type of prayer is probably petition, asking for something we need, or for help. Whether we are praying for ourselves or for others (called intercessory prayer), we place our needs before God in hope and trust. Petition is a form of prayer that Jesus urged us to use: “Ask and it will be given you” (Mt 7:7).
During Mass, the Prayer of the Faithful most obviously expresses this form of prayer; however, petitions are sprinkled throughout the Mass: in the Eucharistic Prayer, at the penitential rite, in the specific intention of the Mass, and in the songs.
Why would God be so fond of hearing us ask for things? Not because of what that asking does for God, but because of what our act of petition does for us. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that petition requires us “to turn back to God” (n. 2629), to acknowledge our reliance upon the Lord and seek his help. Such turning back to God puts us into right relationship with the God who created us, who loves us and sustains us. Once we have returned to that good relationship with God, we will realize all the times we have not been in that good place, in right relationship with God — or with each other. And we will be on the path to right living — with God and each other.
That communication, that loving relationship, is the whole purpose for all prayer — no matter what type we use.
Sources: Catechism of the Catholic Church; about.com; “The Catholic Catechism for Adults; the Summa Theologica; “Prayer: A Field Guide.”