(This week's column is dedicated to the memory of John F. Whealon, Archbishop of Hartford from 1969 to 1991, for reasons which only he and I would know.)
One of the most notable developments in post-conciliar Catholicism is the broadened interest in prayer.
Before the Second Vatican Council, many Catholics regarded prayer as something done primarily by priests, nuns, and a few pious lay persons. Today, an increasing number of lay Catholics want to know how to pray and they seek out those who might help them, either directly or through their books and tapes.
Although there is a lot more talk these days about prayer, many Catholics still have a vague understanding of its meaning.
The traditional definition of prayer is the raising of the mind and the heart to God. It is the act by which an individual or a community enters into conscious, loving communion with God.
Prayer is differentiated by reason of its purpose. Thus, there is the prayer of adoration, whose immediate end is the praise and glory of God; the prayer of contrition, which expresses sorrow for sin; the prayer of thanksgiving, which gives gratitude to God for blessings received (the Eucharist is the prayer of thanksgiving par excellence); and the prayer of supplication, or petition, which asks God for blessings upon oneself or others.
Older Catholics will recall the mnemonic which the nuns taught them: A-C-T-S (adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, supplication).
Prayer is also differentiated by reason of method. Mental prayer may or may not use words, but if it does use words, they do not follow a pre-set formula. Vocal prayer does use a given formula, that may be spoken or sung. There is also the prayer of bodily gesture, such as expressed in dance.
There is another methodological distinction between discursive and affective prayer. In discursive prayer reason, or thinking, dominates. In affective prayer the feelings dominate (trust, surrender, gratitude, love). The normal development in the life of prayer is from discursive to affective prayer.
Meditation, which is a form of mental prayer, involves an extended reflection on the presence and activity of God. When the awareness of God's presence is not apprehended by thought but by love, it is called contemplation.
Meditation (sometimes called "active meditation" to distinguish it more clearly from contemplation) is generally understood to involve discursive reasoning, while contemplation is affective. It is simple awareness of, and focus upon, the presence of God.
It is important to note that contemplation is not a method of prayer to be chosen at will, like meditation. It is a gift into which one is drawn. The most intense form of contemplation is attained when there is ecstatic union between the one praying and God so that the human senses can no longer communicate with the outside world. This is sometimes known as absorption, or rapture.
Centering prayer is a special method of contemplation in which the person simply attends to the presence of God within, that is, at the center of one's being. A mantra or short phrase is sometimes repeated to keep one's attention centered.
Mystical prayer is also a form of contemplation in which the mind and heart are directly and powerfully influenced by God to operate in a way that is beyond the capacity of human effort, unaided by grace. This method of prayer has many forms and stages. Lectio divina ("divine [or holy] reading"), originally a monastic term, refers to the prayerful reading of, and meditative reflection upon, Sacred Scripture, the Christian classics, or other types of spiritual writing.
A final, practically important distinction may be made between intensive and extensive prayer. The former occurs at particular periods and is done either communally or privately. The latter permeates one's whole day; indeed, one's whole life.
One lives in the presence of God (extensive prayer), but one's direct attention is focused on God only at particular moments and under particular circumstances (intensive).
For most of us, most of the time, our prayer is extensive rather than intensive. And it is utterly crucial to remember that extensive prayer is as much a form of prayer as is intensive prayer. In other words, we don't have to be engaged in formal prayer to be praying at all.
Truly Christian prayer is at once trinitarian, Christological, ecclesial, pneumatological, and eschatological.
In simpler English, this means that Christian prayer seeks union with the triune God, is centered on Jesus Christ, occurs within and by the Church, is empowered by the Holy Spirit, and is oriented to final and complete union with God at the end of human history.
As such, it is a vital and indispensable part of the Christian life.