Prayer (Theology of)

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Prayer in its general notion and its differences of kind is here presented in the light of revelation, according to the teachings of the Church and Catholic theology.


Prayer (Greek, ευχή, προσευχή; Latin, preces, but most frequently since the 2d century, oratio, meaning petition, request, pleading) is, in the strict sense, the filial expression of one's desires for self and others to the heavenly Father from whom come all good things, natural or supernatural. In a wider sense, it is the ascent of the mind to God; and in the widest sense, it is speaking with God. These three definitions are found in every age of the Christian Era.

History of the Christian concept. We are not concerned here with the notion of prayer in non-Christian religions (see prayer). For the idea of prayer as it is found in the Bible, see prayer (in the bible).

Patristic Age. Prayer in the strict sense is a petition to God. St. Basil says prayer is "an appeal for good things made to God by devout people" (Patrologia Graeca 31:244). According to St. Augustine prayer is a petition (Patrologia Latina 38:409414). St. John Damascene says, "To pray is to ask becoming things of God" (Patrologia Graeca 94:1089). The most perfect example of the Christian prayer of petition is the Our Father.

Prayer in a broad sense is "raising the mind to God" (St. John Damascene, ibid.; Evagrius of Pontus, PG 79:1173). In its broadest sense prayer is "speaking with God" [St. Gregory of Nyssa (ibid. 44:1124); St. Augustine, Serm. 130 de temp. (Patrologia Latina 39:1886); St. Jerome (Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum 54:178)] or as St. John Climacus says, "Prayer considered in its essence, is a conversation and union between God and man" (Patrologia Graeca 88:1129).

Scholastic Age. In the scholastic period, the definitions of the Fathers and early Church writers were analyzed and retained. St. Thomas, quoting Augustine and John Damascene, defines prayer (oratio ) as petition and considers it in this sense in 17 articles of the Summa (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 83.117; 3a, 21.1; In 4 Sent., He also attests to the wider definitions, citing St. John Damascene (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 83.1 ad2) and St. John Chrysostom (ibid. 2a2ae, 83.2 ad 3). F. Suárez holds with St. Thomas that prayer in the strict sense is a petition to God and says that this is also the mind of St. Bonaventure, Richard of Middleton, OFM, and others (De oratione, 1.1.8).

Modern Age. With the decline of scholasticism, the notion of prayer was less and less restricted to petition, so that in the 16th and 17th centuries prayer frequently included meditation and the various degrees of contemplation. Consequently, while spiritual writers in the 20th century accept the patristic definitions of prayer and recognize that in the strict sense it is a petition, some show preference for the wide definition, "speaking with God." This wide sense has the advantage of including all the forms of prayer while at the same time it emphasizes that prayer is not a monologue but a dialogue in which man responds to God, who has first spoken through His word and especially through the Word made Flesh [A. Fonck, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique 13.1:175; J. de Guibert, Revue d'ascétique et de mystique (1930) 227].

Those who prefer the definition "the ascent of the mind to God" generally add the motive, or the end, since the elevation of the mind alone is insufficient for prayer. In study, for example, one thinks of God without praying. The "elevation of the mind," therefore, is further qualified as both an affective and a noetic act, as is done in the following typical modern definition: "Praying means raising our hearts to God to praise Him and thank Him or ask something of Him."

Value of prayer. There have always been some who find prayer worthless: the skeptics who say that God already knows one's needs, the Deists who say that contact with Him is impossible since He is not interested in the world, others who find petition an expression of selfishness, and those who find petition an unreasonable attempt on man's part to bend God's will to his own.

Against these errors Catholicism teaches that since God knows everything, prayer is not an attempt to inform Him of man's needs, but rather an act of acknowledgment of one's insufficiency and dependence on God. Furthermore, prayer is not selfishness since one seeks the object of prayer with humble submission to God's will and in obedience to His command (Lk 11.913). Finally, man cannot attain salvation without graces from God, and many of these according to divine providence are granted only in answer to prayer (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 83.2). Prayer, therefore, is not useless or selfish but a postulate of man's filial relationship with God. It is an obedient and loving response of a child to his Father.

More specifically, prayer has four special values in relation to man; namely, satisfactory, meritorious, impetratory, and psychologico-moral. In common with every good work (e.g., giving alms), prayer has satisfactory and meritorious value; that is, when man is in the state of grace, his prayer can obtain satisfaction for temporal punishment due to sin and can merit for him an increase of grace. The impetratory value, distinct from the meritorious value, is proper to prayer. Something merited is given in justice. Something obtained by impetration is given because of the generosity of the donor, who is in no way obliged to grant the gift. For example, the increase of grace merited by the prayer of the just man is bestowed in justice, since God has promised it to him. On the other hand, the gift of final perseverance, in no way promised as a reward for prayer or good actions, cannot be merited but is given in answer to prayer solely through the mercy of God. Likewise, the sinner cannot merit sanctifying grace in strict justice through prayer, but his prayer moves God to show mercy (ibid. 2a2ae, 83.16). The psychologico-moral value of prayer is a particular spiritual refreshment (ibid. 83.13): prayer furnishes the intellect with religious knowledge; produces in the will sentiments of admiration, respect, fear, joy, and desire for God; and makes the virtues of faith, hope, and charity more vital and dynamic in a person's life.

In view of all these effects, it is not surprising that the habitual practice of prayer is sanctifying. Spiritual writers emphasize its role in effecting detachment from creatures with hatred for sin and imperfections, progressive union with God, and gradual transformation into Christ.

Ends of prayer. Prayer in the broad sense may be directed, as is sacrifice, to one or several of four ends: adoration, thanksgiving, propitiation, and petition. Other classifications of endspraise, love, abandonment to God's willmay ultimately be reduced to this classical division. Praise, for example, which is the expression of joy in adoration, is a specification of adoration. The four ends are proximate objectives of prayer, namely, acknowledgment of God's excellence and man's absolute dependence, gratitude for benefits received, sorrow for sins, and petition for fitting things. These ends are intimately connected so that often they form parts or elements of the one prayer of petition. In every petition there is at least virtually adoration, thanksgiving, and sorrow. This is clearly seen in the Our Father, essentially a prayer of petition, in which one finds adoration ("hallowed be Thy name") and sorrow ("forgive us our trespasses"). Thanksgiving for favors received is only implicitly expressed. While the prayer of the wayfarer is especially one of petition and sorrow, in heaven after the general judgment, when all petitions will have been fulfilled, the prayer of the blessed will be essentially one of adoration and thanksgiving.

Efficacy of prayer. To the prayer of petition alone Our Lord has added the promise of infallible efficacy. "Amen, amen, I say to you, if you ask the Father anything in my name, he will give it to you. Hitherto you have not asked in my name. Ask, and you shall receive, that your joy may be full" (Jn 16.24; Mt 7.7, 2122). Theologians agree that this promise is infallibly fulfilled not only for the just man but even for the sinner, provided that a person prays for himself with the proper dispositions listed below and directs the prayers to an object that will be advantageous to his eternal salvation (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 83.14; 83.15 ad 2). Prayer for another is not always infallibly heard because resistance to the grace of God on the part of others is not under the control of the one who prays. Finally, prayers for souls in purgatory, certainly effectual in general, may not be heard for a particular soul, for one does not know what conditions God requires for prayer to be efficacious for a particular suffering soul.

Necessity and obligation of prayer. While the Sacraments and meritorious works are also means of obtaining God's grace, nevertheless, in the ordinary providence of God, for an adult, prayer of petition is a necessary means of salvation (ibid. 3a, 39.5; Suárez, De oratione 1.28; A. Liguori, 2:428430, citing St. Augustine and other theologians). St. Augustine, writing against the Pelagians, who denied the necessity of both grace and prayer, says "that God gives us a few things even when we do not pray, such as the beginning of faith, but that He has provided the rest, including final perseverance, only for those who pray" (Patrologia latina 45:1017). According to theologians, one can reduce to three the divine graces that cannot be merited but can be obtained only by prayer of petition: internal efficacious graces, the gift of final perseverance, and external efficacious graces[P. de Letter, "Merit and Prayer in the Life of Grace," Thomist 19 (1956) 472].

Because prayer is a necessary means of salvation, Christ has imposed upon man a precept to pray (Suárez, De oratione 1.28.4). "And he also told them a parable that they must always pray and not lose heart" (Lk 18.1). "Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you" (Mt 7.7,26.41; Col 4.2; Eph 6.1718; 1 Thes 5.17; see Persons Who Pray, infra, for the time when the precept obliges).

Qualities of prayer. To be efficacious, prayer must be adorned with special qualities. It should be devout, attentive, full of confidence, and persevering.

Devotion. The will should be turned to God, humble and submissive, ready to do the things that concern His service (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 83.1). True devotion should not be confused with spiritual and sensible consolation, which may be present or absent in true prayer, because even in the state of aridity the will can be determined to serve God promptly. The more devout one is, the closer his friendship with God and the more likely the prayer will be heard (ibid. 114.6). Nevertheless, the sinner, although lacking devotion, is obliged to pray, and Christ often invited sinners to pray (Lk 18.1314). "Oh, what a sweet consolation for a poor sinner, to know that his sins are no hindrance to his obtaining every grace he asks for, since Jesus Christ has promised that whatever we ask of God, through His merits, He will grant it all!"(A. Liguori, 2:441).

Attention. Some attention is required in every prayer. In mental prayer, internal attention is necessary, that is, the application of one's intellectual faculties to the consideration of truths and the eliciting of affections. In the recitation of a vocal prayer, the minimum requirement is the intention of praying and external attention, that is, the avoidance of any act incompatible with the correct pronunciation of the words (e.g., writing or talking to another). Internal attention to the meaning of the prayer, while praiseworthy, is not necessary. Consequently, the recitation of prayers (e.g., the Divine Office in Latin) that one may not understand has satisfactory, meritorious, and impetratory value, and, if one's thoughts are devoutly centered, may not be wanting in spiritual refreshment. Perfect attention in vocal prayer consists in turning the mind to God in loving adoration and union. The devout Christian will always try to have his mind and heart centered on God and the meaning of prayer (1 Cor 14.1415). Involuntary distractions that come and go during prayer do not destroy its value.

Full of Confidence in God. One should pray in the name of Jesus, that is, full of confidence in His redemptive love and in the power of His merits to obtain from the Father what one asks. Thus in many official prayers of the Church addressed to the Father, the petition ends with the words "Through Christ our Lord." To approach God with little or no hope is to offend Him (Jas 1.6).

Perseverance. One should never cease to ask in prayer. "And he told them a parablethat they must always pray and not lose heart" (Lk 18.17; 11.513;21.36). Short, frequent, devout prayers are preferable to long, tedious ones, which tend to discourage lasting prayer.

Psychology of prayer. When man speaks to God to ask something, the intellect and the will, the supernatural virtues, and the emotions all play a part. In prayer the whole man with his natural and supernatural faculties goes forth to meet God. Other factors that influence prayer are the following: imagination and memory, the conscious and the unconscious, temperament, education, mental health, the cultural ambient, and other circumstances recognized in applied psychology. [G. Frei, "Gebet, psychologisch," Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche (Freiburg 195765) 4:550551].

Prayer in its strict sense is an act of the intellect. The intellectual act here is not merely speculative, an act of simple apprehension, judgment, or reasoning, but practical, i.e., causative: man asks God to do something (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 83.1). St. Thomas taught this doctrine against certain voluntarists such as Hugh of Saint-Victor (Patrologia Latina 176:474) and St. Bonaventure (In 3 sent, 17.1.1; ad 3), who considered prayer an affective motion of the will. As St. Bonaventure pointed out, the prayer of petition is not the desire of the heart, but the interpreter and expression of that desire (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 83.1 ad 1). Both intellect and will are operative, it is true, but prayer is formally of the intellect because the will's role is to move the intellect to make the petition.

Besides the intellect and will there are other faculties, and these are supernatural, that function in Christian prayer. Prayer, while it involves the exercise of the theological virtues, is actually an act of the moral virtue of religion. The theological virtues are rather dispositions for prayer. They enable man to enter into divine intimacy with God. The virtues of faith and hope, for example, give man the proper and befitting disposition of belief and trust in the goodness of God, his Father, as he stands before Him pleading for his needs. The habit of charity, too, should be present, although the sinner who is without habitual grace and the habit of charity can and should pray with the help of actual grace. Perfect prayer, however, the prayer of the loving child, is the one that is directed by charity. Prayer should be an expression of one's friendship with God, just as it is an expression of one's faith and hope.

But to elicit an act of prayer is proper to the virtue of religion. Religion gives God the honor that His divine nature deserves. Every prayer is an act of homage in which man bows before God, recognizing that all good things come from Him. Prayer, then, is an act of the virtue of religion and after devotion the principal act of this virtue. Without prayer religion would be merely external, like a body without a soul.

The moral virtues, some more than others, are, like the theological virtues, dispositions for prayer. Humility, obedience, penance, and fortitude, for example, are virtues that provide the qualities of prayer mentioned in the preceding section: humility, submission, contrition, and perseverance. While prayer depends upon the infused virtues, the emphasis here is to show that the virtues depend on prayer for their increase and subsequent influence on man's moral conduct. The Church prays, "Almighty, everlasting God, grant us increase of faith, hope, and charity" (Collect for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost).

The intellect and will elevated and perfected by the virtues are thus the efficient cause of prayer. But in their complex activity at prayer, as at other things, these higher faculties are sometimes influenced for good or evil by the emotions, which can be useful or harmful to the spiritual life of man. In prayer, controlled or reasonable emotions can stimulate and help one to pray more intensely. Joy can excite one to fervent adoration and petition. On the other hand, uncontrolled emotions (e.g., violent anger and fear) can disturb the attention of the intellect and make prayer difficult or almost impossible. In general the emotions, controlled by reason and faith, should be made to aid prayer.

Persons who pray. Only intellectual beings can pray. In their order of excellence they may be listed as follows: Christ as man, the Virgin Mary, the angels, the blessed, the souls in purgatory, and wayfarers. The devils and damned souls cannot pray for they are turned irrevocably away from God.

Although our concern here is primarily with the wayfarer, it is important to observe that the object of prayer will vary according to the state of the one who prays. For example, Christ in His human nature adores the Father and renders eternal thanks to Him in heaven. He also intercedes for mankind. The Virgin Mary prayed on earth and prays now in heaven, where she intercedes for mankind, obtaining by her suppliant omnipotence the graces that man needs for salvation. The angels can pray for an increase in their accidental glory and for the salvation of mankind. The blessed can petition for the glorification of their body on the day of final judgment, for accidental glory of honor and cult, and for all the needs of men on earth. The souls in purgatory can pray for themselves, although they are not able to satisfy or merit a condonation of their punishment. St. Thomas thought that the souls in purgatory do not know the needs of the faithful and consequently cannot help them (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 83.4 ad 3), but some theologians hold as a pious opinion that the souls in purgatory do intercede for the faithful (Suárez, De oratione 2.8.2528). In spite of this opinion, in liturgical prayers the Church never prays to the poor souls but always prays for them.

As for the wayfarer, whether he be in grace or in sin, he should in the first place pray for himself. Second, charity urges him to pray for his neighbor, "Pray for one another that you may be saved" (Jas 5.16). In particular, prayer should be made for the Holy Father, bishops, priests, religious, members of the Church, catechumens, the suffering, enemies, the souls in purgatory, rulers of states, and for all outside the Church that there may be one flock and one shepherd. No one except the damned should ever be excluded from prayer, for charity must extend to all. In the mind of the Church, prayer's social value is immeasurable. "This is truly a tremendous mystery upon which we can never meditate enough: that the salvation of many souls depends upon the prayers and voluntary mortifications offered for that intention by the members of the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, and upon the cooperation which pastors and faithful and especially parents must afford to our Divine Saviour" [Pius XII Mys Corp 2728]. Obviously, one does not pray for the blessed in heaven, except in the sense of praying that their name be held in higher esteem and their virtues be more widely imitated.

Those to whom prayer is addressed. Man prays to the one, triune God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. One may direct his prayer to all three Persons or to one of them. Liturgical prayers usually address the Eternal Father through His only-begotten Son. But on some occasions, even during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, prayers are immediately directed to Christ, for the Man Jesus Christ is truly God (ibid. 81). The first known prayer addressed to Christ is that of St. Stephen, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit Lord, do not lay this sin against them" (Acts 7.60). One prays to the Blessed Virgin, to the angels and saints in heaven, but only in the sense that they may intercede before God for us. To God one prays, "Have mercy on us"; to the saints "Pray for us," as the litanies exemplify.

Objects of prayer. For what does one pray? One asks for all desirable goods and in the order that Christ has given us in the Our Father. One asks absolutely for God's glory, the coming of His kingdom, the fulfillment of His will by men and for salvation and the graces necessary and useful for it. "All our prayers should be directed to the acquisition of grace and glory" (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 83.4). One asks for temporal goods conditionally, that is, if they are expedient for salvation. No one would expect from God anything that would be injurious. Consequently God does not grant every request for good health, gainful employment, and other worldly goods that He foresees may be spiritually harmful. Nevertheless, prayers for temporal goods are heard by God, and some spiritual good (e.g., merit and spiritual refreshment) can be obtained.

Circumstances of prayer. Although one can pray for fitting things at any time, in any place, and in any posture, there are certain principles that govern the order of prayer.

Time. When must one pray? It is difficult to determine precisely when this obligation binds. Nevertheless, it can safely be said that one is bound to pray many times a year. Some say that to omit prayer for one month or at least for two months could be a mortal sin [J. Aertnys and C. A. Damen, Theologia moralis (Turin 1958) 1.414]. "We must certainly pray in temptations that cannot, without prayer, be overcome; also when other precepts (e.g., the precept of confession) require prayer, and on occasions (such as war, famine, pestilence) when divine help is necessary. Lastly, we must pray at the hour of death if we are not in the grace of God, for then most of all it behooves us to be friends of God" [H. Davis, Moral and Pastoral Theology (London 1941) 2.7]. Catholics who pray at Mass on Sundays and feast days surely fulfill the divine precept to pray often. Although there is no precept to say morning and evening prayers or table prayers, these are laudable Christian customs and should not be neglected. The good Christian will pray many times each day.

Place. Certain places, such as a church or one's private room, lend themselves to recollection and are more conducive to prayer. But if one wishes to learn to pray always, one must become accustomed to speak to God in short prayers while walking, riding, sitting, or working. In a word, one can pray wherever one may happen to be.

Posture. The general rule is to assume a posture that helps one to pray better and with less hindrance. One may kneel, sit, stand, walk, or lie down. Exterior reverence, being an outward sign of interior sentiment, should regulate the circumstances of prayer, but in such a way as not to cause discomfort, admiration, or embarrassment to others. One's interior devotion or state of health will often indicate external behavior; for example, the sick will be forced to pray while lying down and fervent souls may be moved, as early Christians were, to stand erect with hands extended, imitating Christ on the cross.


In general, prayer is mental when the internal acts of intellect and will are not expressed externally in words or gestures. In modern usage the term is not restricted to an internal petition but embraces every interior act of faith, hope, charity, every thought of God with the object of serving Him and of fostering charity and the other virtues, every movement of praise, thanksgiving, penance, petition, adoration, and love.

Kinds of mental prayer. As an exercise in the spiritual life, mental prayer may be either formal or diffused (virtual). It is diffused when internal acts are intermingled with other occupations, as in the practice of aspirations while cooking or sewing. It is formal when a definite space of time is devoted to making these internal acts to the exclusion of all other occupations.

Necessity of formal mental prayer. There are some simple souls with little education who cannot regularly practice formal mental prayer and nevertheless by the devout practice of vocal prayer and asceticism come to a high state of perfection. For this reason it cannot be said that formal mental prayer is necessary for all who strive for Christian perfection. Neverthless, it is a normal means of Christian perfection, and usually it cannot be neglected without spiritual loss (De Guibert, The Theology of the Spiritual Life, 210). Its daily practice is strongly recommended to the clergy and religious in Canon Law (1917 Codex iuris canonici cc.125.2, 595.1n2) and by numerous popes. Pius XII, writing to the clergy in Menti Nostrae [Acta Apostolicae Sedis 42 (1950) 657] says there is no substitute for it; and John XXIII in the first Roman Synod made the daily practice of prayerful meditation a law for clerics living in Rome because "this is very necessary to foster piety in souls" [ Prima Romana Synodus (Rome 1960) 28]. St. Thomas says that meditation is necessary for devotion (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 82.3).

Division of formal mental prayer. Since the 17th century, it has been common among spiritual writers to distinguish three degrees of formal mental prayer: (1) discursive, (2) affective, and (3) contemplative. The latter is subdivided into acquired contemplation (also called active contemplation or the prayer of simplicity) and infused contemplation (passive contemplation or mystical prayer). Here emphasis will be placed on the basic form of mental prayer, namely, discursive prayer or meditation. (For the other degrees, and infused contemplation, see contemplation.)

Discursive prayer or meditation is most strongly recommended for beginners in the spiritual life, although it remains most useful even for the advanced (H. U. von Balthasar, Prayer 211). It is composed of reasoning, analyses of concepts, and comparisons, as well as affections, resolutions, and communion with God and the saints. Its characteristic element is the predominance of reasoning and consideration. It has always been practiced by Godfearing people in some form or other, as is evident in the Scriptures [Ps 38 (39).4; 62 (63),7; 76 (77).13; 1:18 (119); Eph 6.18; Col 4.2; 1 Tm 4.15; 1 Cor 14.15]. In the course of time, systematic methods of this type of prayer were constructed. Here only the principal ones and their value will be considered. All modern methods, as we shall see, are essentially the same, and one or another is used more or less regularly by seminarians, priests, religious, and devout lay people at set periods of the day. But history shows that this was not always so.

The early Christian Fathers and monks had daily periods of holy reading (lectio divina ), during which they often meditated and prayed. The Rule of St. Benedict provided for about four hours of reading every day and recommended that the monks frequently give themselves to prayer.

Methods of Mental Prayer. It is only in the Middle Ages that the foundations of methodical prayer were prepared. Guigo II, a Carthusian, in his small masterpiece Scala claustralium (c. 1145) tells how monks prayed in the 12th century. He presents four steps of man's "spiritual exercise": reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation. Reading is the application of the mind to the Holy Scriptures, meditation the careful consideration of the truths, prayer the heart beseeching God (petition), and contemplation the soul resting in God. These parts of prayer are intimately linked: the first are of little use without the others, and the last are rarely attained without the first. Through these four steps man ascends to union with God. St. Bernard made a remarkable contribution to the technique of mental prayer by teaching souls to center their meditations on the mysteries of Christ and by outlining a formula for meditation. Later, in the 14th and 15th centuries, under the influence of St. Bonaventure, who suggested how to apply the faculties in meditation and prayer (De triplici via 1.19), the Franciscans popularized meditation on the life of Christ [Meditations on the Life of Christ, St. Bonaventure (Princeton 1961)].

However, it was only in the 15th century with the devotio moderna that the first full-scale systematic methods of meditation were developed. In 1483 John Wessel Gansfort composed his Scala meditatoria and presented a method of 23 steps. This set the pattern for future methods, but with time they were simplified. In 1500, Ximenes Garcia Cisneros, abbot of Montserrat, produced such a simplified method, with subjects for each day of the week. St. Ignatius, who visited Montserrat after his conversion, was probably familiar with it. In the 16th century, many methods were developed among the new apostolic congregationsthe Jesuits, Oratorians, Minims, and Theatinesall of them seeking a practical prayer for their active life. The most influential treatise in this development of methodical prayer was the spiritual exercises of Ignatius Loyola. In the same century, another important method, often underestimated, was that of Louis of Granada, which was later simplified by Peter of Alcántara; this highly effective method was recommended by Teresa of Avila and influenced the method used among Carmelites and other religious orders [Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, La mistica Teresiana (Fiesole 1935) 52; K. Healy, Methods of prayer in the Directory of the Carmelite reform of Touraine (Rome 1956) 108120]. In the following centuries Francis de Sales (2.27) and Alphonsus de Liguori evolved their own methods but with dependence on Ignatius and Louis of Granada. Finally came the method of Father Olier, later developed and known as the Sulpician method, which is highly affective and Christocentric. These methods, still in use, are helpful for progress in the spiritual life. But since the Holy Spirit is the principal guide in prayer, methods should be subordinated to His divine action.

Every method has three essential parts: the preparation, the body of prayer, and the conclusion. Although commonly considered in relation to discursive prayer, these three parts can be found also in affective prayer and the prayer of simplicity. We consider them here especially in relation to discursive prayer. The preparation is remote and proximate. The former consists in one's accumulated religious experience; the latter includes reading the subject before the meditation, or at least at its beginning, placing oneself in the presence of God, and asking His help to meditate well. The subject matter varies with individual tastes and needs. The body of prayer consists in the profound consideration of the subject matter with consequent affections. The memory, imagination, and intellect serve to arouse the will to elicit affections. Consequently the actions of these faculties should cease, once the will is moved. Even in times of aridity, ample attention should be given to thoughts and affections but without violently attempting to arouse the will to devotion. A specific resolution, although beneficial in every meditation, is not necessary.

The conclusion, especially important in the Ignatian method, always consists of a colloquy with God, our Lady, or the saints. Attention should also be given to acts of adoration, thanksgiving, and petition. Francis de Sales and others suggest a spiritual "nosegay," that is, taking some thought or affection from the meditation to ponder during the day. In this way meditation extends its influence over the whole day.

Such is the general plan of mental prayer in all the methods. The various ways of developing the body of the meditation give rise to the different methods of prayer. (1) In the method of the three faculties, the best known of the many methods proposed by Ignatius (Spiritual Exercises, 1st week), the memory and intellect play an important part. The use of these faculties is important for beginners who stand in need of profound thought before conviction and affections are reached. (2) In the method of contemplation (ibid., 2d week), the intellect with the aid of the imagination contemplates or considers a mystery in the life of Christ, for example, the Christ Child in the manger, the bleeding Christ of the cross. The persons, the words, the actions, etc., that pertain to the particular mystery are then considered (who, what, why, when, by what means, etc.). Finally, a practical application is made to oneself. (3) In the method of the application of the senses (ibid. ), one employs the five senses to move the will to affections.

Other beneficial methods that can be used in the body of the prayer, especially for those who have difficulty with the standard discursive methods, are meditative reading and mixed prayer. In the first one reads, then reflects, in order to move the will. Such a process is repeated during the period of prayer, as often as necessary (Teresa, The Complete Works 2.69). In mixed prayer (oral and mental) one employs a fixed formula (e.g., the Our Father) and repeats it slowly, stopping to reflect after each thought or petition, with the intention of eliciting affections (Ignatius, 4th week).

Affective Prayer. This kind of prayer stands between discursive and contemplative prayer. It received this name in the 16th century (Philippe, "Mental Prayer in the Catholic Tradition," Mental Prayer and Modern Life 51). It is not discursive prayer because it has little or no reasoning and the affections predominate. It is not contemplative prayer because it has a multiplicity of affections (e.g., humility, sorrow, hope, love), whereas contemplation is characterized by its simplicity of affection. Although it is proper to those who have progressed in mental prayer, Teresa of Avila, who practiced it, recommended it even for beginners (The Complete Works 1.71). In fact she defines mental prayer in terms of affective prayer. "And mental prayer, in my view, is nothing but friendly intercourse, and frequent solitary converse, with Him Who we know loves us" (1.50). Carmelite and Franciscan spirituality lean heavily toward affective prayer, as did the original method of Father Olier (Lercaro, Methods of Mental Prayer 236). Some even consider the method of contemplation and the application of senses in the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius as forms of affective prayer (Tanquerey, The Spiritual Life 989995).

Those who practice affective prayer must at times return to discursive prayer to keep the mind occupied and the will motivated. For unless convictions are deeply rooted, there is danger of mere sentimentality with little effect on one's moral life, especially in those of an affectionate temperament. But should the Holy Spirit invite one to leave discursive prayer for affective prayer, it is important to recognize the opportune time. The signs for the transition are the following: considerations become fruitless, convictions are so deeply rooted that the will is easily moved, and the soul tends easily and gladly toward God.

Diffused mental prayer (virtual prayer). Besides formal mental prayer, the soul may engage in exercises of mental prayer that consist in short, frequent internal acts in the midst of daily occupations. The chief forms of this practice are the following: (1) the exercise of the presence of God, (2) prayer of aspirations, and (3) the renewal of the good intention. Acts of conformity with and abandonment to the will of God and short periods of recollection and retreat may also accompany these practices. This value of diffused prayer consists in prolonging the thoughts and affections of formal mental prayer and thus influencing and pervading man's conduct throughout the day. For this latter reason it is called virtual prayer. By this prayer one does "the work of Martha with the spirit of Mary" (J. M. Perrin, "Making One's Life a Prayer," Mental Prayer and Modern Life 113). Thus, the conjunction of diffused prayer with other spiritual exercises enables one to fulfill to an eminent degree the admonition of Christ to pray always and not to lose heart (Lk 18.1; 1 Thes 5.17).

The Exercise of the Presence of God. This is a practice in which the soul thinks lovingly of God frequently throughout the day and often speaks to Him in aspirations, ejaculations, or colloquies without interrupting or neglecting one's daily duties. This is dealt with elsewhere (see presence of god, practice of).

Prayer of Aspirations. According to their role in the spiritual life aspirations are brief, fervent elevations of the heart to God. Sometimes they are called ejaculations because like arrows shot toward their target, they go quickly to the object of the affections. In this sense they are affective prayers proceeding from charity. Generally speaking, therefore, the greater the charity, the more perfect and frequent the aspirations. The faithful practice of discursive prayer is a normal disposition for the prayer of aspirations, which is often considered a distinct exercise of prayer. Some, however, prefer to make aspirations the predominant part of the exercise of the presence of God, in which the memory recalls God's presence, the intellect focuses its attention upon Him, and the will fervently turns toward Him in aspirations (F. Blosius, Book of Spiritual Instruction, ch. 4, 6; A. Liguori, Complete Ascetical Works 1.508; and Carmelite Directory, 439480). Such a mode of presentation has many advantages, but one should remember that the exercise of the presence of God does not always terminate in aspirations, but sometimes in loving thoughts or even colloquies.

The Good Intention. There is not a single action of the day that cannot be directed to God's glory, subjected to His will, and offered for the good of the Church and the salvation of souls. It is usually done through the good intention made in the morning offering and renewed at intervals throughout the day. "I offer to Thee, O my God, all my thoughts, words, acts, and sufferings of this day; grant that they may all tend to Thy glory and my salvation." To make the intention more pure, one should have removed not only every bad motive but every natural motive and strive to act from love (J. M. Perrin, "Making One's Life a Prayer," Mental Prayer and Modern Life 114). To act from lesser supernatural motives, e.g., obedience, gratitude, renders the act less perfect but still meritorious. However, sometimes only a lesser supernatural motive will be effective, and it is better to use it. One may act with many motives, e.g., desire for happiness, fear of hell, but should try to place them all under the direction of "Making One's Life a Prayer," Mental Prayer and Modern Life love [A. Rodriguez, The Practice of Christian Perfection, (Chicago 1929)]. The renewal of the good intention not only exercises influence on one's actions but prolongs prayer throughout the day. Alphonsus de Liguori considers it along with aspirations as part of the exercise of the presence of God (Complete Ascetical Works 1.510).

Purity of intention is aided by joining it with acts of conformity to God's will. To say often "Thy will be done" in union with the good intention helps one to act from a more pure love (ibid. 604). Pope John XXIII granted a plenary indulgence to be gained once each day under the usual conditions by the faithful who in the morning offer to God their labor of the whole day, whether intellectual or manual, using any formula of prayer, and a partial indulgence of 500 days as often as with contrite heart they offer the work at hand, using any formula of prayer [Acta Apostolicae Sedis 53 (1961) 827].

Vocal Prayer

From the point of view of expression, prayer is vocal when it is manifested externally in words or, sometimes, in gestures. An internal act of the mind is always presupposed. Vocal prayer may be an intimate and personal cry that springs spontaneously from the heart, but more often than not it is a recitation of a fixed formula, for example, the Our Father, psalms, hymns, and such repetitive prayers as litanies, the angelus, and the rosary. (For an excellent collection of prayers, see A. Hamman.)

Usefulness. In opposition to Quietists the Church has defended the usefulness of vocal prayer for every state of the spiritual life (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 2234). Everyone should at times pray vocally for the following reasons: first, to awaken thoughts and desires that may have been dormant, and thus, to stimulate devotion; second, to serve God with the body as well as the soul, for the whole man should serve God with all that he has from Him; third, to express the feelings of the soul that naturally find their outlet in the body; and last, to give good example to others (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 83.12; 91.1).

Kinds. Vocal prayer may be private (either individual or common) or public, depending on whether one prays in his own name or officially in the name of society. Private prayer is individual when said alone, communal when recited in a group (e.g., the family rosary). Public prayer, called by St. Thomas "common prayer" (ibid. 2a2ae, 83.12), requires the following three conditions: use of an approved formula, recitation in the name of the society, which for the Christian is the Church, and legitimate delegation. Consequently, a priest or cleric in major orders who recites the Divine Office alone, offers public prayer because he not only uses the approved formulas but because as the Church's official delegate he prays in her name (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 3757).

Liturgical prayer. The public prayer of the Church is called liturgical prayer and is found in liturgical actions, namely, in the Mass, the Sacraments, the Divine Office, the sacramentals, and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament [J. H. Miller, Fundamentals of the Liturgy, (Notre Dame, Ind. 1960) 2728]. In all liturgical prayer it is Christ who prays in the first place, and His members pray only insofar as they pray through Him, with Him, and in Him. In the Mass, for example, Christ is the High Priest and Victim with whom the faithful spiritually associate themselves and along with the priest at the altar offer themselves with Him and through Him to the Eternal Father.

The relative excellence of liturgical prayer in comparison with private prayer, especially mental prayer, has often been discussed [L. Bouyer, Liturgical Piety (Notre Dame, Ind. 1955) 243256]. The Church's teaching is quite clear: "It is true that liturgical prayer, being the public prayer of the august Bride of Christ, is superior to private prayers; but this superiority does not mean that there is any conflict or incompatibility between them" (Pius XII, Mediator Dei ). Indeed, there exists the greatest harmony between private prayers and liturgical prayer, and both are necessary if Christ is to be formed in man. Consequently, private devotions (e.g., the Rosary or the Way of the Cross) may be considered as aids to the liturgical cult. Through them the Christian is prepared to offer the Sacrifice of the Mass with better dispositions, to receive the Sacraments with more fruit, and to participate in the sacred rites with greater fervor and recollection. "But these devotions should be so drawn up that they harmonize with the liturgical seasons, accord with the sacred liturgy, are in some fashion derived from it, and lead the people to it, since, in fact, the liturgy by its very nature far surpasses any of them" (Vatican Council II, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy 13).

Bibliography: alphonsus liguori, Complete Ascetical Works, ed. e. grimm, 22 v. (New York 188697), excellent meditations esp. in v. 1 and 2; The Carmelite Directory of the Spiritual Life (Chicago, Ill. 1951). j. c. fenton, The Theology of Prayer (Milwaukee 1939). francis de sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, ed. and tr. a. ross (Westminster, Md. 1948). r. garrigoulagrange, The Three Ages of the Interior Life, tr. m. t. doyle, 2 v. (St. Louis, Mo. 194748), esp. v. 1. j. de guibert, The Theology of the Spiritual Life, tr. p. barrett (New York 1953). a. hamman, Early Christian Prayers, tr. w. mitchell (Chicago, Ill. 1961). f. heiler, Prayer, tr. and ed. s. mccomb and j. e. park (New York 1958) [non-Catholic]. john of the cross, Complete Works, tr. e.a. peers, 3 v. (Westminster, Md. 1963). v. lehodey, The Ways of Mental Prayer (Dublin 1949). g. lercaro, Methods of Mental Prayer, tr. t. f. lindsay (Westminster, Md. 1957), contains bibliog. of books of meditations. marie-eugÈne de l'enfantjÉsus, I Want to See God, tr. m. v. clare (Chicago, Ill. 1953). p.p. parente, The Ascetical Life (St. Louis, Mo. 1951). p. philippe, "Mental Prayer in the Catholic Tradition," Mental Prayer and Modern Life, tr. f. c. lehner (New York 1950), partial translation of L'Oraison (Paris 1947). r. plus, How to Pray Always, tr. i. hernaman (London 1942); How to Pray Well (Westminster, Md.1948). a. poulain, The Graces of Interior Prayer, tr. l. smith (6th ed. St. Louis, Mo. 1950). f. suÀrez, De oratione, devotiones et horis canonicis, Bk. 1, in Opera Omnia, 28 v. (Vivès, Paris 195678) v. 14. a. tanquerey, The Spiritual Life, tr. h. branderis (Westminster, Md. 1945). teresa of Àvila, The Complete Works, ed. silverio de sonta teresa and e. a. peers, 3 v. (New York 1946). thomas aquinas, Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 83.117. h. u. von balthasar, Prayer, tr. a. v. littledale (New York 1961).

[k. j. healy]