Prayer: What is it?

This is part two of a series on prayer. See Part One


Prayer is often defined as a movement, or lifting up, of heart and mind to God. I like this definition because it indicates relationship and getting closer to God, but it doesn’t specify or limit how this can happen.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) has one of the best, and most autism friendly descriptions of prayer I’ve seen. The section called “what is prayer” describes prayer in three ways: as a gift from God, as covenant, and as communion. I’m going to look at one paragraph from each in relation to autism. (You can see the whole section online here.)

Prayer as God’s gift

“Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God.” But when we pray, do we speak from the height of our pride and will, or “out of the depths” of a humble and contrite heart? He who humbles himself will be exalted; humility is the foundation of prayer, 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. “Man is a beggar before God.” (CCC §2559)

I love the emphasis on humility as the foundation of prayer. Prayer is in no respect about my own ability or effectiveness in communication, understanding, or “goodness”. This truth levels prayer for all people regardless of age, ability/disability, intelligence, personality, or spiritual state. Every person needs to admit that “we do not know how to pray as we ought”. When we come to God in prayer we are all equally unable to pray as we ought to, and so we all equally accept prayer as a freely given gift from God. He gives us the desire to pray, He gives Himself to us in prayer, and teaches us how to give ourselves to Him.

Prayer as covenant

Where does prayer come from? Whether prayer is expressed in words or gestures, it is the whole man who prays. But in naming the source of prayer, Scripture speaks sometimes of the soul or the spirit, but most often of the heart (more than a thousand times). According to Scripture, it is the heart that prays. If our heart is far from God, the words of prayer are in vain. (CCC §2562)

This paragraph could have been written for me as an autistic person. “Whether prayer is expressed in words or gestures, it is the whole man who prays.” It is the whole person who prays, it is not about words or specific methods. The methods are just the means for expressing what is happening in the heart. Because of this, it doesn’t matter at all how well or badly I use a specific method. I do not, as I used to think, need to be able to eloquently compose speeches to God in order to be praying effectively. Realising this allows me to accept and enjoy the gift of praying to God.

Although prayer is a gift from God, we must play our part. “If our heart is far from God, the words of prayer are in vain.” I often find it too easy for prayer to fall into autopilot, ticking it off the to-do list. When that happens, my heart isn’t in it. But I think it is worth persevering through times when it becomes automatic and “dry”, because without sticking to a routine I would soon stop doing it all together. I think the main thing for me is trying to notice when I’m not engaged, and making that part of the prayer. Admitting I’m not doing very well and asking God for help. That way my failing becomes part of prayer, and recognising it lets me say I do not know how to pray as I ought.

Prayer as communion

In the New Covenant, prayer 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. The grace of the Kingdom is “the union of the entire holy and royal Trinity . . . with the whole human spirit.” Thus, the life of prayer is the habit of being in the presence of the thrice-holy God and in communion with him. This communion of life is always possible because, through Baptism, we have already been united with Christ. Prayer is Christian insofar as it is communion with Christ and extends throughout the Church, which is his Body. Its dimensions are those of Christ’s love. (CCC §2565)

Prayer isn’t a chore or an obligation, it is a joyful privilege and the foundation of “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.” Through the effectiveness of baptism, we can have confidence in the objective reality of this intimate union with God. It’s a wonderful thing to remember at times when I don’t feel close to God, or when I think I’m not managing to pray well enough, or when life is confusing and stressful and I feel isolated even from God. But that’s not all; the love of God doesn’t end with one to one personal relationship. It “extends throughout the Church, which is his Body. Its dimensions are those of Christ’s love.” I often find it hard to fit in and make friends and get to know new people. Busy noisy churches can be uncomfortable places for me. Communal prayer can be challenging because it often relies on verbal methods I find difficult. But sharing prayer with others can emphasise the relationship of all being members of the Body of Christ, and be a shared activity that helps build social relationships too. So, I find it worth persevering and finding groups and methods for communal prayer that are more accessible. However hard it feels to join in, the fact of being a member of the Body of Christ means we are given unity with other people that is created and sustained by the love of Christ. It may not make talking to a stranger any easier, but it gives me more courage to try. It makes me feel more like I belong since, regardless of my social skills, unity with other Christians is an objective reality.

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