Posted by: Thomas Richard | July 24, 2017

Simple Guidelines for Profound and Effective Prayer


To describe the simple guidelines for vocal prayer, in a few words, is easy:
— Slow down.
— Pray attentively.
— Pray with fervent devotion.

I’ll expand on the few words a bit later; first let’s consider what prayer is, and why we ought to pray. Then, the question of how to pray becomes seen in the light it deserves. It is fundamentally, crucially, even urgently important to pray well.

What is Prayer?

What is prayer? There are several ways to describe what prayer is; each of the descriptions below are worth some time to listen and to consider. They all come from men and women of prayer – men and women who have experienced what they describe. They are not academics; they are not (merely) theologians; they are witnesses. They have lived lives of prayer; they have experienced, and they know of what they speak.

The briefest definition of prayer I have heard is from St. John Vianney: “Prayer is nothing other than union with God.” (“Catechetical Instructions” – Catechism on Prayer, Ch. 8.)

Another saint of the Church, Therese of Lisieux, wrote: “For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.”  (Catechism # 2558)

And more from the Catechism: “Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God.” [St. John Damascene] But when we pray, do we speak from the height of our pride and will, or “out of the depths” of a humble and contrite heart? [see Ps 130:1] He who humbles himself will be exalted; [Cf. Lk 18:9-14] humility is the foundation of prayer. Only when we humbly acknowledge that “we do not know how to pray as we ought,” [Rom 8:26] are we ready to receive freely the gift of prayer. St. Augustine wrote, “Man is a beggar before God.” (Catechism # 2559)

The Catechism also includes this: “Christian prayer is a covenant relationship between God and man in Christ.” (Catechism # 2564) “In the New Covenant, prayer is the living relationship of the children of God with their Father who is good beyond measure, with his Son Jesus Christ and with the Holy Spirit.” (Catechism # 2565)

If prayer is truly prayer – if God is truly present with the one praying – if prayer is not merely talking to oneself, but in truth “union with God” – then prayer has a supernatural and divine dimension, pervading the natural and human dimension of the person in prayer. When we pray, we are not alone! Prayer is a union, a communion, a living relationship with God, an embrace of love.

If prayer is truly prayer, it is lived and experienced in a process – a growing, advancing process – a journey – a “living relationship of the children of God” with God Himself, the Holy Trinity. If we have a life of prayer, it is growing – and we are growing, in the life of prayer. If we have a life of prayer, we are on a journey of prayer in Him, to Him, with Him and with all who are in Him with us. To have a life of prayer, we must have times of silence and solitude with God alone. And with God alone, we are never alone.

How then are we to pray?

— Slow down.
— Pray attentively.
— Pray with fervent devotion.

These three requirements for praying especially vocal prayer well, are mutually linked. If we don’t slow down, it is very easy to pray unconsciously, merely reciting words out of memory, possibly day-dreaming and mentally a million miles distant from where our bodies are. Such is not praying! St. Teresa of Avila, writing to help her sisters in the Carmelites to grow in prayer, wrote of the very first steps:

… if it is prayer at all, the mind must take part in it. If a person neither considers to Whom he is addressing himself, what he asks, nor what he is who ventures to speak to God, although his lips may utter many words, I do not call it prayer. Sometimes, indeed, one may pray devoutly without making all these considerations through having practiced them at other times. The custom of speaking to God Almighty as freely as with a slave–caring nothing whether the words are suitable or not, but simply saying the first thing that comes to mind from being learnt by rote by frequent repetition–cannot be called prayer: God grant that no Christian may address Him in this manner. I trust His Majesty will prevent any of you, sisters, from doing so.
Interior Castle, 1st Mansions, Ch. 1, #9)

We must pray attentively! We must be attentive to who is praying, and to whom I am praying, and what it is that I am praying. When I am in prayer, I must be conscious of reality: without pretense or role-playing, without affectation, posturing or posing but in simplicity and sincerity. God knows me inside and out! He is not impressed with artificial flowers or theatrical oratory:

Thus says the LORD: “Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool; what is the house which you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest?
All these things my hand has made, and so all these things are mine, says the LORD. But this is the man to whom I will look, he that is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word. (Isa 66:1-2)

I am praying; it is to almighty God that I am praying; and this is what I am saying in prayer to Him. Let us pray slowly enough that we can be confident that we are praying attentively, and devoutly.

Yes, let us pray with devotion – honest, sincere, full-hearted devotion. Devotion is consecration – commitment – self-offering, self-gift, self-donation according to these words, the words of my prayer, binding me to God and with Him in our covenant in Christ. As cited above from the Catechism, prayer is a “covenant relationship between God and man in Christ.” Christ has died to open the way for our union – to seal our union by a covenant in His sacred blood.

So, for example, if I pray, “Our Father…,” do I commit myself and consecrate myself to be brother or sister to all who are of “our Father”? Do I see us all as called into Him with one another? Is my heart big enough, and wide enough, to hold all who are of “our Father”? And is He held in faith as my Father? Am I living a life worthy of His Name, which I claim to possess in Him by faith? Do I mean it, in other words, when I say, “our Father”? If I do not mean the words, as I say and remember this holy prayer, then my prayer ought to be for the grace and mercy of God to help me grow into meaning them, in sincerity and truth.

The life of prayer is a process, a life of growing and maturing in Him. He calls us all to holiness and to the perfection of charity. (CCC # 2013) The journey to holiness is the journey of prayer, a life of prayer and the living of the fruit of prayer: works of holy charity. Let us slow down enough to listen and to learn the truth of ourselves, and the truth of God. He calls us to a real, authentic union with Him. He created us for this union! And our hearts will be restless, until they find their rest in Him. (St. Augustine)

Let us resolve to make our prayer – even our most familiar vocal prayers of the Church – the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be – let us make our prayers true: truly from the heart, true in conscience. Let them be meant, and believed, every word. As St. Francis of Assisi said, very near the end of his life, “Brothers, finally, let us at last, begin.”

Thomas Richard



  1. Dear Thomas,

    Thanks so much for this encouragement to “begin” by God’s Grace to grow ever closer to God in Prayer. How very much we need God’s Grace, to pray well.

  2. Thanks so much, Thomas. Sometimes at Mass the prayers are said so fast I cannot keep up. I have to stop and get caught up. How sad God must be that we cannot slow down and truly pray to Him. “Brothers, finally, let us at last, begin.” Again, thank you Thomas, for sharing the wisdom God has blessed you with.

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