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Catholic Spiritual Direction

When is prayer not prayer at all?

January 13, 2012 by  
Filed under Dan Burke, Difficulties, Prayer, Teresa of Avila, Vocal

Q: Dear Dan, I read your post about praying at the speed of light. I agree, however, one of the commentators seems to be attempting to dull the point that we must be attentive when we pray for it to be real prayer? They said that it is only our When is prayer not prayer at allintent that matters. If our intent is all that matters, then what if we regularly intend to pray and be attentive to God but never or rarely are, in fact, attentive to God. Is this really prayer? I understand that God is a God of mercy and that he does take these things into account (our intent) and helps us but it seems to me that we should work hard to be attentive and to love him in practice, not just in our intent. If our intent doesn’t result in a change in our practice, then our intent is suspect – at least in my mind. What do you think?

A: Great question! Why don’t we let St. Teresa of Avila answer this for us? She was designated as a Doctor of the Church because of her profound life of holiness and her teachings on prayer and the interior life. What she has to say about this is very simple and straightforward:

Since vocal prayer is prayer, it must be accompanied by reflection. A prayer in which a person is not aware of whom he is speaking to, what he is asking, who it is who is asking and of whom, I do not call prayer; however much the lips move. Sometimes it will be so without this reflection provided that the soul has these reflections at other times. Nonetheless, anyone who has the habit of speaking before God’s majesty as though he were speaking to a slave, without being careful to see how he is speaking, but saying whatever comes to his head and whatever he has learned from saying at others times, in my opinion is not praying. Please God, may no Christian pray in this way. (Interior Castle 1:1)

Jesus also made a distinction between prayer that is not really prayer and worship that is not really worship, etc. We need to be careful not to seek to transform the “narrow path to life,” into a wide path to destruction.

 

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About Dan Burke

Dan is the founder of Catholic Spiritual Direction, the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, and author of the award winning book, Navigating the Interior Life - Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God. Beyond his “contagious” love for Jesus and His Church, he is a grateful husband and father of four, the Executive Director of and writer for EWTN’s National Catholic Register, a regular co-host on Register Radio, a writer and speaker who provides online spiritual formation and travels to share his conversion story and the great riches that the Church provides us through authentic Catholic spirituality. Dan has been featured on EWTN’s Journey Home program and numerous radio programs.

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  • judeen

    , we need to want to pray… and try hard to be reverent.. yet the HOly Spirit talks to our souls with out our knowledge… and one wonders what God is saying yet the soul knows.. I heard a saying … there were 2 nuns .. one could pray so reverently.. the other beside her fought to pray distracted by all kinds of things in life… yet kept trying to pray with reverence , yet her mind would not stay on track.. after both were done.. a crown from Jesus came down on the nun who was so distracted.. for she put all her might into prayer.. and her struggle was very pleasing to the Lord… sometimes things are not what they seem.. it is the heart that God looks at ,

    • jack g.

      I am with you judeen. Many times I experience dryness, distractions and other kind of issues during my prayer time. Also temptations, some sinful visions for seconds at a time, I keep on turning back to God and just try my best at all times.
      It is not always easy and full of consolations and I believe that our commitment  and heart are two most important characteristics of prayer pleasing to God.
      I cannot imagine myself not praying anymore and, yes, I am tired many times, sick and just lazy, but will always pray even if it is just 15 minutes.
      I also pray during day in many different ways, but here I am talking about that time set aside for God where one can be alone with Him in the calmness of the night or early morning, or at any time for that matter.
      Commitment and obedience run together and we all know that our Lord is very pleased by our perseverance in commitment. It is very hard in my opinion to call a time set for God as “not a prayer” just that is a prayers. I can imagine it only possible when one is not in a state of Grace. To be not praying one must willingly decide in such a manner.
      With love of Jesus, jack g.

    • Becky Ward

      Amen Judeen!! It is the heart that matters.  And if we are working to have a “pure heart” our prayer will reflect that.

    • jack g.

      I am with you Judeen. Many times I experience dryness, distractions and other kind of issues during my prayer time. Also temptations, some sinful visions for seconds at a time, I keep on turning back to God and just try my best at all times.It is not always easy and full of consolations and I believe that our commitment  and heart are two most important characteristics of prayer pleasing to God.I cannot imagine myself not praying anymore and, yes, I am tired many times, sick and just lazy, but will always pray even if it is just 15 minutes.I also pray during day in many different ways, but here I am talking about that time set aside for God where one can be alone with Him in the calmness of the night or early morning, or at any time for that matter.Commitment and obedience run together and we all know that our Lord is very pleased by our perseverance in commitment. It is very hard in my opinion to call a time set for God as “not a prayer” just that is a prayers. I can imagine it only possible when one is not in a state of Grace. To be not praying one must willingly decide in such a manner.With love of Jesus, jack g

  • Becky Ward

    Hard to misunderstand what St. Teresa means here!!  :)

    • http://www.spiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

      Hard to dull that knife… steel tempered by the Holy Spirit.

  • http://rcspiritualdirection.com/blog Mary@42

    “When you pray, go to your little room, lock yourself and there pray to your Father in Heaven……..”or words to that effect from Jesus……yes, St. Teresa says it very well. Distractions do come during Prayers especially when one is tired; dryness, too.  But if one perseveres and calls the mind back and the heart is committed to remain before God, the Holy Spirit comes to one’s help during those difficult moments.

    • http://www.spiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

      Absolutely

  • Marie Teresa

    St. Teresa also teaches that God gave us minds which are distracted. It seems with regard to intent, if when the inevitable distraction comes we follow that thought, then we’re not praying just moving our lips. At this point we no longer intend to talk to God.

    However, if when those distractions come we repeatedly bring our minds back to God, then our intention to pray remains. God sees our love not the wayward thoughts.

    Prayer which lifts us so close to God that our intention never wavers is a gift from Him!

    • http://www.spiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

      Marie – very well said. The key is to always turn our heart back to the beloved… he will always receive us even with the slightest turn…

  • Ibvikinggirl

    Thank you so much for posting this subject and the comments, I have fallen off the path, have been neglecting my prayer time. Yes the cares of life, a family crisis and about to start a major move and life change, but this is the time I should be praying without ceasing, instead I’ve gotten heavily burdened with my own thoughts and feelings and haven’t turned to Jesus much through any of this…. But before I stopped having my daily prayer times I was fighting so hard to pray without distractions, and yes more appalling were the terrible sinful images that would pop put of nowhere and startle me so much and shame me, even brought it up to a priest during confession as I was shamed to no end. Truly maybe it was a battle that was being waged to discourage me, as I felt it was me not deserving to go before His throne…now I’m feeling more determined to pick up the battle after realizing that I’m not the only one this has happened to….. I will go to His throne again today, it was only by chance I read this post today as my family is in crisis and I’m not checking my email much at all….thank you all for showing me the way back to my daily prayer time.

    • http://www.spiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

      AWESOME! All you need to do is turn – even if only slightly – and you will always be received in love and mercy.

  • ThirstforTruth

    Remember how the Little Flower, Therese of the Child Jesus, tells
    us of falling asleep while in chapel saying her prayers…What did
    she tell us when that happened to her…what did she think ? If one
    truly loves the Lord he/she can sit in total silence, a listening silence, and let the Holy Spirit speak…and that is prayer. There is all manner of prayer…as there is all manner of those who pray. Constant simple awareness of His Presence is prayer.  We should not get too bound up in the “methods” of prayer, Fr Jacques Phillipe writes…nor think the only way to pray is the way of the saints, good examples as they are of prayful lives.  Being sincere and attentive are two things that come to mind when one prays, however one prays. How to pray best
    outside of the Liturgy is highly individual and should be as “custom-designed” as we are made to be unique.

    • http://www.spiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

      Very good thoughts. Fr. Philippe is fantastic.

  • zelmo

    Prayer begins in heaven.

  • Chakko64

    Prayer is a dialogue between God and a person although as a child one may be relying on more on vocal prayer. As one grows in age and experience he/she needs to educate in prayer and spirituality with a regular practical application of it, otherwise prayer becomes something merely vocal which is happening in today’s context very much. Gradual regular growth in prayer brings interior silence where one experiences genuine peace, joy and happiness; and leads one to engage in justice. Blessed Teresa of Calcutta is an example for it. She never proposed/adopted any particular type of prayer method but in deep silence she could engage in prayer hours after hours and that made her to touch with everyone in the world including atheists.

    • http://www.spiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

      Well said except I don’t want to leave the impression that the Rosary or Liturgy of the Hours or other important vocal prayers are to be left behind – the most spiritually mature and spiritual infants all should practice vocal prayer.

  • Debbrunsberg

    We should also be aware that sometimes, if the same distraction keeps coming to us and we keep pushing it away, we may be pushing away something that the Lord is trying to bring out of our heart and to our attention.  Discernment is needed, even in prayer. The Lord can help heal our wounds by bringing them to us when we are in silence and in his presence.

    • http://www.spiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

      Good perspective

  • Zamorabril

    I´ll say this in spanish, if you don´t mind, it is so much easier for me, I hope some of you understand it. Please let mi know if this is not permited.
     Yo creo que orar a Dios al tiempo que se está pensando en todas las ocupaciones o compromisos que me esperan, o en cualquiera otra cosa,  es una absoluta y gravísima falta de respeto a la majestad de Dios como dice Santa Teresa, es otra cosa tratar de mantener la debida atención a pesar de las distracciones que llegan involuntariamente. 
    Supongo que la mayoría de nosotros batallamos con esto, algunas veces será mejor que otras pero no debemos dejar de orar.

  • http://www.emahlou.blogspot.com/ Elizabeth Mahlou

    Along not totally unrelated lines — intent vs meaningless words — my job takes me to many other lands, and on many occasions I am in prayer situations where I do not know the words to the vocal prayers (or, if I do, cannot say them fast enough to keep up even with normal speed in a foreign language). And, in some cases, I do not even understand completely (depending upon my proficiency in that particular language). Still, there is something about a group of people praying that allows one to bond with God even if the words are not fully meaningful, and I would not want to miss out on such worship simply because I cannot keep up, do not understand, or am otherwise seemingly left out. God makes sure that I am “in”, not “out.” It is not about me; it is not about the group; it is not about the words of the prayer or how the prayer is said. It is about God and the desire to worship God (imho).

  • Jan England

    +
    Just want to express my gratitude for this blog and all those who take the time to share their experiences and thoughts – it’s all very helpful.

    • http://www.spiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

      Thanks Jan! Your input is very helpful as well.

  • Erin

    Hi Father and Dan,
    As much as I appreciate St. Theresa’s approach to prayer, it makes me want to stop praying altogether. In order to have a personal relationship with Christ, we need to be able to converse with God about many things, sometimes with many questions, always reverently, but with the knowledge that the Holy Spirit will guide us, even if we are ‘rambling’ occasionally.

    • http://www.spiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

      I can’t seem to find a contradiction between what you have written and St. Teresa. It seems more like an affirmation. Where’s the problem?

  • Mobrien7

    Hello,

    Thanks for clarifying this – I would like to share this with my family and when appropriate, my friends.

    Mike