Let the Holy Spirit Form You in the Life of Prayer

‘The Holy Spirit who teaches the Church and recalls to her all that Jesus said also instructs her in the life of prayer, inspiring new expressions of the same basic forms of prayer: blessing, petition, intercession, thanksgiving, and praise.’ (CCC 2644)

Heinrich Hofmann, “Christ in Gethsemane,” 1886
Heinrich Hofmann, “Christ in Gethsemane,” 1886 (photo: Public Domain)

When I was going to school at the University of Notre Dame, I would go down to the Grotto the night before a big test and light a candle.

My prayer went something like this: “Lord, I know I didn’t study for that biology test but I really need an A in this class, and I am planning on being a doctor so that I can do some good things.” (Smart, huh? Well, no one is calling me Dr. Tom, so you can tell how that worked out.)

Many people seem to have a similar misconception about prayer. 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines prayer using a quote from St. John Damascene: “Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God.”

We often tend to skip the first part (“raising of mind and heart”) and focus on the second (“requesting of good things”). My purpose of this article today is to give you a different perspective on prayer. 

So if prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God, how does one do that? What does that mean? God calls us to be in relationship with him. He wants us to interact with him. But how?

God puts us in relationship with people to show us how to love. Think of your relationship with God as you would with a potential boyfriend or girlfriend, and imagine opening with this conversation: “Could you come over and do my laundry? And on the way, stop at the grocery store and pick up a few things? I won’t be here — I’ll be out my friends. Thanks, and goodbye.”

Prayer is a means of communicating with God. We talk, and we listen. How do we do that? Again, think of the boyfriend/girlfriend relationship. When you think about that person, what do you think? You think about the characteristics that draw you closer. So too in prayer we start with praising God for who and what he is.

After saying something nice to your girlfriend or boyfriend, you don’t prattle on. You stop, wait for a response and listen. So too in your relationship with God. You contemplate, and you listen. God doesn’t necessarily give you a verbal response, but he makes himself known in many ways if you stop, listen and think.

I used to struggle with the difference between praise and thanksgiving. Praise is recognizing God for what he is and thanksgiving is thanking him for things done for your benefit. 

Returning to our girlfriend/boyfriend example — we are quick to thank someone for helping with a problem, washing our car or making dinner. This recognition and the ensuing “thank you” brings joy to both of you.  Think about that. When you praise and thank God you are thinking outside of yourself about the majesty and mystery of God. Both you and God are pleased with that. So that shouldn’t be a rushed part of your prayer. Think of different attributes of God to praise him and thank him for ways God has blessed you.

Lord God, thank you for my family, for my health for bringing Lauren safely through her surgery. Thank you for your Providence in having me run into Joan today. It was a blessing to be able to talk to her.

I often messed up a lot back when I was dating. I still do mess up in my marriage. I have acted without thinking. So, I have apologized many times, and I have had much time to think about my errors. I want to be a better husband. I want a better relationship. And so it is with God — and he can truly forgive. The next step of prayer is asking for forgiveness.

Next, when you pray for God’s grace, you might be asking for things that don’t lead you to heaven, even if they are good things. He might have a better plan. So, in your prayer, have faith and trust in him, and be sure to add, “if this be your will.”

The goal, whether through praise, thanksgiving, contrition or supplication, is to go deeper in the communication.

A wonderful time for prayer is at Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Following our analogy, when you read Scripture or Catholic teaching at Adoration, it’s like going on a study date in college. You are just happy to be with that person. And that feels good. Sometimes, it’s fruitful just to contemplate and talk with God. It’s like a dinner date. How great is that!

I started this talk about how our conversation with God can be like our conversation with people. Well, our conversation with people can be like our conversation with God. We can use these same techniques in relationships with friends, coworkers and family. We can praise their achievement, thank them for their help, ask them how we might be of help to them — and we can tell them we’re sorry when we mess up. 

So I am suggesting that you evaluate both the quantity and quality of your prayer life. As for quantity —do you have God compartmentalized and think of him only at set times or when you need him? Or do you think of him and communicate with him often? As for quality — are we distracted when praying or do we have periods of prayer throughout the day when we are fully focused on our prayer and communion with God?

The older I get, the dumber I think I am. I used to be so sure of things, and I’ve found out so often that I was wrong. Today, I try to defer to God. You remember my desire to become a medical doctor — I now tell people that not becoming a doctor is the best thing that never happened to me.