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Prayer in Christianity

This article is about the many forms of prayer within Christianity.



Elements of the oldest Christian liturgies may be found in liturgies such as the modern Roman Catholic Mass, the Orthodox Divine Liturgy and Anglican services.

Seasonal prayers

Seasonal prayers such as found in the Breviary, which provides prayer for each liturgical season including Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost, as well as the other parts of the liturgical year. The Breviary developed over the centuries. Different religious orders sometimes have their own breviaries.

Prayer to saints

Prayer to saints: in Catholic and Orthodox tradition, prayers of petition may be addressed to saints. This may be done at Mass, within the Breviary, or privately during vocal prayer (see below). It is understood that the saints answer such prayers by means of their own prayers to God on behalf of the petitioner. Catholics often refer to this in connection with the "treasury of merits"¹, and distinguish between latria, i.e. prayer of sacrifice due to God alone, and dulia, or prayer of praise due only to a creature such as a saint. Other Christians, mostly Protestants, reject the notion of prayer to saints, and feel that it leads to polytheism, or maybe even approaching the borderline of necromancy. See Communion of Saints and Intercession of Saints.

Prayer for the dead

Prayer for the dead: Roman Catholics believe that prayers for the dead can diminish their suffering in Purgatory; for this reason, requiem Masses are offered for the repose of the faithful departed. Eastern Orthodoxy rejects the notion of Purgatory, but offers prayers for the dead asking God to have mercy upon them; in particular it believes that Christians who have fallen asleep remain part of the Church, and as such are both able to pray and to receive the benefits of prayer for them, whatever those may be. Protestants have historically rejected the notion of prayer for the dead, believing that such prayers cannot affect the fate of departed souls. The appeal of this sort of prayer to those in mourning exerts constant pressure on this theological position, however. It is also possible to pray for the dead in one's private vocal prayer, without the prayer being part of a liturgy.


There is no one prayerbook containing a set liturgy used by all Christians; however many Christian denominations have their own local prayerbooks, for example:


Vocal prayer, of course, is prayer made with the lips, normally producing sound. Practices of vocal prayer vary across denominations, but have common themes:

  • Renouncing distraction, often by closing the eyes
  • Presenting oneself by bowing the head, placing hands together, or making the sign of the cross
  • Making a request for grace, enlightenment or assistance
  • Invoking the name, glory, or life of Jesus
  • Closing, often with "Amen"

The prayer is supposed to receive the full mental and spiritual effort of those involved, whether speaking or listening. Even if a standard wording is used, mechanical recitation is discouraged.

Vocal prayer may be prayer of petition, perhaps the simplest form of prayer. Some have termed it the "social approach" to prayer. In this view, a person beseeches God for a need to be fulfilled; God is thought to listen to prayer and to be free to grant the request or not. Vocal prayer may also subsume prayer of adoration, praise, thanksgiving, intercession, and communion. Particularly common vocal prayers include the Lord's Prayer; the Psalms; the Jesus Prayer; the Hail Mary; the Canticles throughout the Old and New Testaments; Grace, a prayer of thanksgiving usually before, sometimes after, a meal; and prayers associated with the rosary and the prayer rope. See List of prayers.


This is prayer of a more interior character than vocal prayer would tend to imply. Christian theology, e.g. St. John of the Cross, teaches that this type of prayer is intended to help "obtain some knowledge and love of God" (Ascent of Mount Carmel). In this prayer, "thought is subordinated to love" (Gabriel, p. 449, see References below). A Christian seeking to meditate may commence by reading from a holy book of some kind, perhaps the Gospels or any spiritual book that seems suitable. Then, when a suitably affective recollection takes hold, the book will be gently laid aside, and the person will pray interiorly. The person may form sentences mentally, or may simply bask in what the Christian would consider the love of God. Christians are especially likely to select works written by the Saints, as these are people who have already led lives of prayer and left writings intended to help others. Subjects for meditation include any of the mysteries of Jesus or the events described in the Gospels, or the presence of God in the subject about which one has been reading. The Christian may meditate on the condition of Man according to Christian theology: "Although I am but dust and ashes, shall I speak to You, O Lord? Yes, from this vale of tears...I dare to raise my eyes and fix them on You, supreme Goodness!" (St. Peter of Alcantara) in Gabriel. Christians believe that the Gospels are actually true, so that one is praying within the context of actual events and receiving actual graces. In other words, Jesus, i.e. God, actually did die to effect our salvation, and we really can be united with such a loving Father Who allowed His Son to be sacrificed in expiation for the sins of Man; so awful is the sinfulness of Man that such a sacrifice is necessary: these are the roots of Christian meditation. In other religions, a more general conception of truth or creation may serve the same meditative end; the Christian would posit that the source and the long-term result are different. Other religious traditions have a meditative component, but the Christian believes that the source and subject of the meditation is fact, not philosophy; the philosophy flows from the facts for the Christian.

Prayer of recollection

St. Theresa of Avila teaches that this is "the highest of the active forms of prayer" that "depends upon our volition"; that is, it is not a given state of prayer, as is contemplative prayer. In this prayer, we seek to "concentrate entirely on God present within us, and there at His feet will be able to converse with Him to our heart's delight" (Gabriel p. 457). Again, the Catholic Eucharist is essential to understanding Christian mystical experience. The Catholic believes, with all the love his or her soul can open herself [the soul is feminine in Christian theology] to experience, that God literally comes to him or her in the humble form of the Eucharist. It is within that theological setting that this prayer can be understood: God's presence within us takes on a very real meaning for the mystics; and those mystics teach furthermore that we are all called to that union with God. The prayer of recollection, then, is the last volitional stage where the soul can endeavor to be still and know that God Is.

Contemplative prayer

The progression from vocal, to meditative, to contemplative prayer is not a straight road, nor does the Christian travel in one direction. Rather, the soul enters into contemplation, then returns to reflect in a more discursive vein, and may suffer from distractions at any point along the way. This stage of prayer, the mystics teach, is one into which God conducts the soul. The person praying cannot will to enter into contemplation. A modern exponent of the details is Fr. Thomas Dubay, who has a number of books and videos about this subject. St. John of the Cross teaches that this phase of prayer begins with purifying aridity that marks the beginning of infused passive love that is stronger than the love corresponding to the period during which the soul received consolations, i.e. the prior experiences of prayer. Here, God does the work of reaching to the soul, yet the soul must be sufficiently mature to grow without requiring constant consolations.

Many of the Saints experienced years of dryness and spiritual desolation, as God effectively tested their love for God. St. Pio, recently canonized, prayed deeply over how difficult faith is; St. Therese of the Child Jesus experienced years of agonizing dryness immediately after joining the convent: these people became saints because their love for God gave them perseverance, and they entered into contemplative prayer, and a state of "loving attention to God". The soul is not passive during contemplative prayer, but rather learns to keep that attention to God in a loving way.

Charismatic prayer

In the past 100 years a form of prayer has regained popularity among some Protestant fundamentalist Christians, called praying in tongues. According to practitioners, the Holy Spirit comes into the body of the person praying and speaks on their behalf in a celestial language. The person praying may later deny any knowledge of what they said while praying. If done in public, it may be followed by another person claiming to give an interpretation of the prophecy, also through the grace of the Holy Spirit. Some deny that this is a revival and suggest it is an innovation. A characteristic of this prayer pattern is that people will make unusual sounds or adopt unusual postures. For example, a person may emit shrieks, or may lie on the floor face-up with the hands in an askew posture. It is a prayer pattern that resembles quietism.

A Christian philosophy of prayer

For some Christians, union with God is a paramount purpose of religion. Christians believes that God is seeking union with His creature, Man. Prayer is the expression of the soul seeking to speak with God.

St. Therese of the Child Jesus explains: "For me, prayer is an uplifting of the heart, a glance toward heaven, a cry of gratitude and oflove in times of sorrow as well as of joy" (Story of a Soul). The Christian seeks to raise the mind as well as the heart to God. Prayer, as discourse with a friend, is not constrained, but rather is spontaneous. Certain prayer events are organized, of course, as in the case of the Breviary, or the Mass, or other liturgical events; yet even during such events the specific discourse between the soul and God may be spontaneous. A Psalm, for example, may offer different meanings depending on the mood of the person praying. For the Christian, prayer is love, and to "Pray always" (Lk 18:1) is to love always.

The Christian grows spiritually through the life of prayer. A classic way to distinguish among phases of growth is three-fold: beginners start on the "purgative way", later comes the "illuminative way" with "affective prayer", and eventually one may experience the "unitive way". See Doyle book in References, below. Christians who have been especially helpful in developing an understanding of prayer include St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, both Doctors of the Roman Catholic Church. In the purgative way, the Christian attempts to leave behind a life of sin, for "sin is iniquity" (Jn 3:4). The Christian is enjoined to recall that "my sin is always before me" (Psalms 51:5). Growth toward holiness is ongoing, as the Apostle writes "he that is holy let him be sanctified still" (Apoc 22:11). Next, in the illuminative way, the soul seeks the imitation of Christ to "have the light of life" (Jn 8:12). There is a famous book by Thomas Kempis titled The Imitation of Christ. While in purgative prayer one is mostly engaged in vocal prayer, in the illuminative way one tends to be more affective along the lines suggested by St. Therese, above. Affective prayer of this sort may best permit us to fulfill the command "always to pray and not to faint" (Lk 18:1). Last, in the unitive way the soul now seeks to say "I live now not I; but Christ livith in me!" (Gal 2:20). For Roman Catholics, the Eucharist is a key expression of this union with Jesus.

Other religions may share aspects of this seeking of union with God.

Epistemological issues

Geoffrey K. Mondello (see References below) believes that a mystical experience of God is real and provable, and is possible due to the claimed fact that God exists. He holds that given the reality and logic of writers such as St. John of the Cross, religious mystical experience is not irrational exuberance but is rather "a profoundly rational experience" with consequences for the structure of knowledge.

A dimension of this influence on knowledge is the extent to which the purgative process rectifies our relationship to God which "has become, as it were, eccentric; that is to say, God is no longer central to ordinary consciousness [after the Fall], but rather exists on its periphery as only one of a multiplitity of notions competing to varying degrees for primacy in consciousness..." This implies that the theological story of Christianity has no disjunction with reality, that the Christian contemplatives reveal that knowledge is rooted in that story. For example, "the finite not only can be, but as a matter of course is accommodated to the infinite without engendering any contradiction whatever." Christian mystical experience, then, borne in a life of prayer as described above (purgative - illuminative - unitive), has a mutually validating relationship to knowledge.

Last updated: 08-02-2005 00:57:00
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