What do you picture yourself doing when you start to pray? What image, conscious or not, do you have in mind? Maybe you see yourself merely fulfilling a duty, as when you mechanically recited the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of homeroom in elementary school. Maybe you see prayer as an exercise in self-mastery and self-help, an activity (pseudo-yoga, aerobics, or weightlifting) that keeps you fit. Whatever you think you are doing when you pray affects the way in which you do it. So the more your idea of prayer matches God’s, the better.
Prayer at its most basic level is conversation with God. This seems obvious, but it harbors an awesome reality. To converse with someone implies that that someone wants to pay attention to you; otherwise you have a monologue, not a conversation. The mere existence of prayer, then, implies that God is paying attention, that he is interested in spending time with you. Christian prayer is an invitation from God to the one who prays — it starts with God, not with you.
The whole Christian edifice is built on this simple but awe-inspiring reality. The Catechism highlights it in its very first numbers: “At every time and in every place, God draws close to man. . . . God never ceases to draw man to himself” (1, 27). God is always drawing close to you, and he is always drawing you closer to him. That means he is always thinking of you, just like the Good Shepherd who is always thinking of and watching over his sheep. Prayer starts here.
You are the lost and hungry sheep; God is the shepherd who knows what you desire and need and is guiding you to the lush fields and cool, refreshing waters of his Truth and Love. The shepherd sees the big picture, the whole landscape, the weather, the seasons, the dangers and the opportunities; the sheep can only focus on this little patch of grass here, and then that one over there. Prayer is the Good Shepherd, wise and loving, guiding the hungry, shortsighted, and needy sheep.
God is the real protagonist of Christian prayer. Prayer is the soul’s response to God’s initiative. The essence of Christian prayer is relationship. As the Catechism puts it: “‘Great is the mystery of the faith!’ . . . This mystery, then, requires that the faithful believe in it, that they celebrate it, and that they live from it in a vital and personal relationship with the living and true God. This relationship is prayer” (2558, emphasis added).
Prayer, then, is more than just a dry religious duty, more than self-centered and self-sufficient self-help techniques; Christian prayer is a friendship with God in Christ. It’s being led by the Good Shepherd to ever richer pastures in the Father’s Kingdom.
This article is adapted from a chapter in The Better Part by Fr. John Bartunek which is available from Sophia Institute Press.
Art for this post on Prayer: Cover and featured image used with permission.