Now, what are some of the methods of prayer? Certainly, one which is familiar to all is vocal prayer, or formal prayer. In vocal prayer we follow a set formula such as in the Our Father or the Psalms, and we allow our hearts and minds to be lifted up to God through these words. Another less formal method is simply to speak to God in our own words, telling Him of our troubles, our joys, our needs, and our desires. This is typically called conversation. A third method of prayer is meditation, that is, thinking about the Word of God or events in the life of Christ. Sometimes called mental prayer, this is considered a richer type of prayer than vocal prayer or conversation with God. We will dedicate the next chapter to meditative prayer and to contemplative prayer (something God works in us).
“Vocal prayer, founded on the union of body and soul in human nature, associates the body with the interior prayer of the heart, following Christ’s example of praying to his Father and teaching the Our Father to his disciples” (CCC 2722). To put it more simply, vocal prayer is praying a set formula. Presumably, most of us say the Our Father every day, but do we really know what it means, and do we think about what it means? This is a necessary element of a prayer from the heart—knowing what you are saying, and thinking about it when you pray. Any other way is a kind of thoughtless recitation of words that is not very pleasing to God.
The Our Father
What exactly does the Our Father mean? The first word, Our, reminds us that the Lord would have us pray with others. St. John Chrysostom taught, “[The Lord] teaches us to make prayer in common for all our brethren. For he did not say ‘my Father’ who art in heaven, but ‘our’ Father, offering petitions for the common body.” In fact, Jesus is so pleased to see us pray together that He joins us: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matt. 18:20). If Jesus prays with us, we shall certainly be heard! St. Francis de Sales said, “God has ordained that communion in prayer must always be preferred to every form of private prayer.”
The word Father reminds us of the intimacy God wishes to have with us. He is not merely a king or emperor or teacher, but our own Father. And, He is the perfect Father. If on earth we had a father who was not so great, we can discover perfect fatherhood by getting to know God, especially in the Psalms. We are His sons and daughters. He loves us passionately, unconditionally. He cares for us and has counted every hair on our heads (Luke 12:7).
“Who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name”: In other words, may Your name be held holy by all. And, we are asking not only that God’s name be held holy, but that the entire Person of God be held holy. In Scripture, when the term “your name” is used, it refers to the person as a whole. We speak of “calling on your name,” “glorifying your name,” and “loving your name” in the Psalms. When the apostles were beaten and told not to speak about Jesus by the Sanhedrin, they rejoiced that “they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41). So, with these words, we are praying: may Your entire Person be held as holy by all.
“Thy Kingdom come.” By this phrase, we are saying, Lord, may Your Kingdom soon be fully established in me and in the hearts of all, so that we might live together in Your peace and love. St. Francis of Assisi and his friars brought the joy and peace of God’s Kingdom everywhere they went. In doing so, they rekindled the fire of God’s love throughout Europe and beyond.
“Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” This is a parallel phrase to the one just given. May we all do and accept Your will here on earth as it is done and accepted in Heaven. This is one of the most difficult phrases in the Our Father, and it should never be spoken lightly. It involves a surrender of our wills to God’s will, be it pleasant or unpleasant. When we lose a loved one, it is hard to say, “Thy will be done.” In fact, it is a barometer of our love of God to be able to say this sincerely in such a time of intense sadness. This is the cross Jesus promised us if we would follow Him. Mysteriously, our happiness is contained in the will of God; nowhere else.
What is God’s will for us? That we become holy, “perfected,” as Jesus said (see Matt. 5:48). We should keep that in mind when we pray the Our Father.
“Give us this day our daily bread.” Bread here refers to our needs. We ask God to supply them as He does for the birds of the air and the flowers of the fields. And, if we pray this sincerely, we can be sure that God will indeed supply us with our true needs. The Fathers of the Church also saw this bread as referring to the Bread of Life, the Eucharist, the food for our souls.
“And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Here again is a difficult thing to say. May You forgive our sins, Lord as we forgive others, even our enemies. In fact, this is the only passage in the Our Father upon which Jesus elaborates. He says “If you do not forgive [others] their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matt. 6:15). Forgiveness is a central trait of a true Christian. When we think of the many sins God forgives us, it is a mere pittance for us to forgive even the most grievous injustices we have received. In fact, our chances of getting heart disease or cancer are considerably reduced if we forgive others.
“And lead us not into temptation.” That is, keep us not only from sin but from the very situation where sin is appealing. Anyone who truly loves another will not only avoid sinning against that person, but will stay far from the situation that has led to that sin. We pray to be delivered from temptation, but we must do our part to accept God’s grace to avoid it. How many young men and women seek forgiveness for their sins of the flesh, yet go back to the same situations which have led to those sins.
“But deliver us from evil.” That is, Lord, deliver us from the evil one. Let us never be under his spell in any way.
“Amen.” Let it be so
Notice, in this beautiful prayer, sometimes called the “perfect prayer,” three of the four motives for prayer are exercised. Adoration is behind the words “hallowed be Thy name”; supplication, or petitions are found throughout the prayer (for example, “Give us this day our daily bread”); and, contrition is the motive for saying “forgive us our trespasses.” We should often pray the Our Father and slowly meditate on the meaning of these beautiful words.
St. Teresa of Ávila wrote a long meditation on the Our Father and wrote at one point,
To keep you from thinking that little is gained through a perfect recitation of vocal prayer, I tell you that it is very possible that while you are reciting the Our Father or some other vocal prayer, the Lord may raise you to perfect contemplation.
Conversation with God
The more we pray, the more comfortable we feel talking to God during our day. There should be scores of things each day that we thank God for, such as the weather, our own health, the blessing of food, our family and friends. Every good thing we experience should remind us to thank God. And, of course, we should feel comfortable asking God for what we need, adding the condition, “If it be for my good and according to your will.”
Ours is a personal God. Jesus told us that God has counted every hair on our head (Luke 12:7). He cares about everything we do. If we have a personal relationship with God, we should feel comfortable speaking to Him all day long, knowing how close He is to us.
This article on how to enter the narrow gate is adapted from a chapter in Straight to Heaven by Fr. Thomas Morrow which is available from Sophia Institute Press.
Art for this post: Cover and featured image used with permission.