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Prayer and the First Commandment

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The most generic and fundamental definition of prayer: the conscious adoration of God. We might say it is expressed adoration. Adoration manifest. It is the communication of our minds and wills with God with whom we adore. Prayer is conversation with our adorable God. And my favorite definition, prayer is the voluntary response to the awareness of Gods’ adorable presence. We are still on our introduction. In the present meditation we plan to again ask ourselves the three basic questions: what, why, and how. What are the principle forms of prayer? Why must we pray? And then, this being a retreat, how can we improve our practice of prayer?

What are the Principle Forms of Prayer?

First then the main forms or kinds of prayer. The Church’s tradition distinguishes not just four but five principle forms of prayer. The adoration of submission, the prayer of adoration of love, the prayer of thanksgiving, the prayer of petition and the prayer of expiation. I found in teaching the theology of prayer it helps immediately and immensely to be clear about what we mean whatever words we use. Behind this classification is the unspoken assumption that all prayer is essential adoration as we’ve been saying. Yet we can address God in five different ways depending on the five different ways we can and should approach God.

Prayer of submissive adoration. Thus, there’s only one God. But we can approach Him, first, as our creator and Lord. And then our prayer is submissive adoration. Submissive adoration of, or shall I say to, the divine majesty. It is the humble adoration of acceptance of, and resignation to the divine will. And that is why the heart of prayer is in the will. We need to use our minds when we pray. But when we pray we are praying wit our wills. When then, our will submits to the divine will and does so consciously and willingly, we are then exercising the prayer of adoration indeed but of adoration in submitting our finite wills to the infinite will of God.

Prayer of loving adoration. We go on. We can approach God as our final destiny and then our prayer is loving adoration or the adoration of love. There is some value in distinguishing between praying to God by adoring Him and praying to God by loving Him. True whenever we adore God we are in some form or another also loving Him. But the single generic form of prayer of adoration has as we say two species. In other words, I can adore God by surrendering my will to His and I can adore God by expressing my deep love for Him and my desire to be with him.

Prayer of thanksgiving. Finally, we can approach God as our generous benefactor from whom we received and continue receiving everything we are and we possess. And then our prayer is grateful thanksgiving, or more familiarly the prayer of gratitude. I’d like to distinguish what we commonly call gratitude or the prayer of gratitude on different levels. Our prayer of gratitude begins first with what I call thanks-thinking. We must first be aware of God’s goodness to us, otherwise there cannot be gratitude. Then to be authentic gratitude our prayer should be thanks-saying to be somehow expressed in verbal form or its equivalent. Something must go out from us towards God. Then to ascend one step higher, our gratitude should be thanks-willing. We are truly grateful when we want to do something for the one who has been good to us. God being who He is, He cannot in anyway benefit. God, give him what he needs, but we had better give Him what He wants. And what does He want? He wants our will. And as we’ve been saying that’s why our will is free. We must want to give whatever He wants even though we know He doesn’t need anything. We go on. There is prayer of gratitude means thanksgiving. Not just thanks-willing. Oh, I can burst with gratitude inside of me. Oh Lord, whatever you want, I will give you. We have the opportunity of giving Him something. What happens? We freeze. Thanksgiving. And He will provide us, believe me, with plenty of opportunity for thanksgiving. You think I’m finished. Not yet. The highest form of gratitude of the prayer of gratitude for our purpose is thanks. Giving up. Letting go. Surrendering. You’ll see this at some length when we reflect on sacrifice as the highest obligation of the first commandment of the Decalogue.

Prayer of petition. We go on. The fourth formal prayer recognized by the Church where we approach God as our almighty hope form whom we expect to receive, provided we ask him, with an open heart, provided we ask him for what we need, and then our prayer is the prayer of petition. It cannot be too strongly emphasized that the prayer of petition is only one of five basic forms of prayer. Even though I dare say for most people, only God really knows, but I believe for most people most of the time, most of their prayer is Lord give me. Now what do you want?

Prayer of expiation. Finally, We can approach and should approach God as our offended Lord from whom we have sinned, either personally or collectively then ours is the prayer of expiation. We beg for God’s mercy on ourselves and others. We plead to have restored the grace we have lost through sin, and we plead to please spare the penalty of suffering which we have justly deserved. Let’s be clear. As much and as deeply as we need to pray for God’s mercy, what are we praying for? We are praying for the grace we have lost having sinned and we pray to be spared more or less of the suffering, the pain we’ve deserved for having stubbornly resisted the will of God.

Why Must We Pray?

Submissive adoration. Over the years, it almost sounds like a cliche but it envelops our whole faith in the meaning and necessity of prayer. We must pray because God is God and we are we. Why then must we pray? Either there are five basic forms of prayer recognized by the Church so there are five basic grounds why we must pray. God wants us to adore Him by telling Him He is the only true God. God wants us to adore Him by telling Him that He is our creator and every time we hear the word creator we should always think of the correlative, nothing. The essence of creation is producing something out of nothing. The great master of the spiritual life on this prayer of adoration is St. John of the Cross. Therefore we acknowledge God and tell Him. We know that except for Him we would be what we were before we became who we are. And mind you, this is not only originally when we were conceived in our mother’s womb, but from the moment from conception into the endless centuries of eternity. No adverb in human language, what we really mean except for God we would be absolutely nothing, capable of nothing. Not even able obviously to know that there is a God. Except for God, as our dare I say, continuing Creator, we would lapse into the nothingness from which we came. And He wants us to tell Him we know it, and we appreciate it.

Loving adoration. Why must we pray? Because God wants us to tell Him we love Him. The deepest desire of the human heart is to be loved. Over the forty-five years of my priesthood, I have met and counseled some very agonizing souls. In every case what the people want, because they desperately need, is to know that someone, someone loves them. Why has God put this deep hunger in our hearts? The hunger for love. To teach us that our Lord God being infinite does not need our love, He wants it. And that is why He became man, that is why it is not centuries that our Church’s spiritual wisdom has told us, that is why on the cross Christ cried out, I thirst, (Latin) God became man so that as man he could verbalize, express and manifest His deep thirst for our love. But listen. That thirst for our love is not for His benefit but for ours. He wants us to tell Him how great He is, how good He is, how merciful He is, and He allows some people to sin, and sin deeply, why? To wake them up to the realization of the goodness of God that they might finally fall to their knees and humbly tell Him, my God, how good you are, I love you. We go on.

Thanksgiving. Why must we pray? We must pray because God wants us to thank Him for all that He has given us and all that He promises to give us into the eternal future. How spontaneously without a second thought we thank somebody for passing something at table, or keeping the door open, or smiling, and then of course, what we should do, pardon me, is smile in return. Somebody smiles, we don’t frown or stare at them. Obviously we could spend eight days on prayer alone but remember we are human beings of soul and body. In other words if our present purpose God wants us to thank Him. Well, he wants us to express our thanks and we express our gratitude to God when He puts people in to our lives that try our patience, oh, how grateful we should be. I don’t tell people thanks for offending me. You don’t say it. But you live it.

Petition. We go on. Why must we pray? We must pray because God wants us to ask him for whatever we need. In Christ’s own words we are to knock, seek, beg, plead, in a word, acknowledge our need of him. I was going to say rational mind, better, our irrational mind, tempts us to say why should I ask God, He knows what I need. Sure He does. But He wants us to acknowledge our need of Him as the one who fundamentally and finally is the answer to our needs. And faith tells us God will always give us what we need provided and He knows what we are asking for is really for our both temporal and with emphasis eternal welfare. That’s why God sends us what we call troubles. How we have problems. You know there are no problems in life. You know that. They are all acts of divine providence. God wants us to acknowledge that we are in need and then mind you, this is the infinite Lord of heaven and earth who brought the universe out of nothing into existence. Does He know what we need? He sure does. Does He want to fulfill our needs? Of course He does. Well then I don’t get it. You mean God knows what we need, wants to give us what we need, so what’s, what’s keeping God from giving us what we need? Ah, what’s keeping Him from giving us what we need our acknowledgment before Him that we need, not need it, but need Him.

Expiation. Finally, God wants us to beg for His mercy. However, let’s be clear. God become man in the person of Jesus Christ, makes this a condition for showing His mercy, let me be a little more clear. There are two ways that we can beg for mercy. What we’re calling the prayer of expiation. First in our hearts we acknowledge having offended Him and tell Him we are sorry. He wants that and we need it. But that is not the only and dare I say not the most difficult form of the prayer of expiation. He wants us to beg for His mercy by our own practice of mercy towards those who offend us. Ah, what a retreat this could be. Eight days, at least four meditations each day on the prayer of expiation and our practice of mercy towards those whom God puts into our lives for that specific purpose. That by forgiving them in our hearts He then might be merciful to us. Let me go further. There’s prayer of expiation. We beg for God’s mercy. He is not only mercy as we’ve said for ourselves individually. We are asking for God’s mercy collectively. In other words the prayer of expiation is not only to ask God to have mercy on us, restore the grace we have lost through sin, or spare us the pain we have coming because of our sins. No. There’s prayer of expiation believing as we do in the solidarity of the human race and the supernatural solidarity of the mystical body of Christ. Our prayer of expiation is begging for God’s mercy for others. And how this prayer of expiation, how desperately it is needed today. Because unless someone pleads with the infinite God. I’d like to quote my Jesuit confrere St. Francis Xavier. Writing back from India to his confreres in Europe. “I see souls falling into hell like snowflakes falling on the winter ground. And there are so few”, said Xavier, “so few who are willing to do whatever they can to spare these souls from divine vindictive justice. Somebody had better live an expiatory life otherwise only God fully knows what Christ meant when He said that the road that leads to eternal life is narrow and few there are that walk it. There’s a road that leads to everlasting damnation is broad and many there are that walk that broad, shall I say, expressway. Why must we pray? On this fifth and final level we must pray because our own and other people’s salvation depends on our prayer and with thunderous emphasis on our prayer of expiation.

How Can We Improve Our Practice of Prayer?

Finally how. How can we improve our practice of prayer? Centuries of Christian wisdom has written a library of the practice of prayer. There is no single subject in Christian history of which more has been written, more has been said than on the subject of prayer. Prayer of purpose. I will mention only three recommendations that can be expressed in three words: humility, sincerity, and intimacy.

Humility. What do we mean when we say that humility is not only recommended but indispensable if we’re going to become prayerful followers of Christ? To grow in our life of prayer we must cultivate the habit of interior humility. Accept the humiliations that enter your life. I use the stronger verb. Welcome, welcome the humiliations, they are the normal road to humility. Then avoid even a moments self-gratification and self-complacent thoughts. It must be thirty years ago that I read, recommend St. Vincent Ferer, he did not write much, but he wrote very down to earth. Do not allow for a moment, self-admiring thought to rest on your mind, self-satisfying thoughts, self-adulating thoughts, and dare I say it, self-adoring thoughts? The moment a thought comes to our mind in which we would like to rest and admire, oh, what a wonderful person he or she, that’s me, bad grammar, but very good theology, some people don’t even realize, never enters their minds their supposed to master their thoughts.

Secondly sincerity. If you want to improve our life of prayer be open with God, be absolutely honest with God. Strange language but it has to be used, keep no secrets from God. But you say we cannot keep any secrets from God. Well, no we cannot not, what pretense, what make believe, only God knows our hearts and I speak first for myself. Be frank with God, share with Him the deepest and I use the strongest superlative in my vocabulary, the profoundest secrets of your life with God. Share them. And the deeper the anguish, the deeper the problem, the stronger the desire, open your heart to God. Of course, of course, there is a need for formal prayers. The Divine Office. The sacrifice of the Mass. The Rosary. But most of our day, most of our twenty four hours, what a safe statement are not spent in formal prayer. What are we doing the rest of the time? Guess who we are in close conversation with? Of course, ourselves. Sincerity with God, openness. There are some things I sincerely believe, having dealt over my priestly life with so many souls, there are some things that people just don’t open up to God.

Finally intimacy. Concretely what does this mean? It means that what is always a fact objectively, is sadly, so little subjectively in our minds and in our hearts, the awareness of God’s presence. We talked about adoration being founded on not merely recognition but realization of who God is. We can change that statement by saying realization is understanding, being aware of where God is and how God is. There is God everywhere. It’s not a cliche. God is in every thought in my mind but as I sometimes ask people, have any of you ever had a bad thought. Some are not quite sure what to say. Say it. Have any of you ever had a bad thought? Let me ask the rest of you, you mean that bad thought is from God. Sure. Say that again. You mean that bad thought is from God. Sure. If He did not want me to have the bad thought well, I wouldn’t have it. A very simple way, He could just wipe me out of existence. But He wants me to respond to react to the thought in my mind. To the desires in my heart. My body is in pain. What a difference. What a world of difference between being in pain and realizing that God is behind that pain. For some people the last thing they think of when they’re in pain is God. How stupid we mortals can be. I’ve a pleasant experience. Well, God is behind within, beneath, around, that joy. The great master of divine intimacy and seeing God in everything there are others but one of the great masters is Francis if Assisi. Here the secret is that we’ve got to work at this, it’s a lifetime task. Develop the habit of being aware of God’s presence in everything, in everyone, that even momentarily touches your life. And then, let me assure you, then, one wonderful thing will happen. You will begin to realize as you would never realize before what the real presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist is all about. Because faith tells us that God as God was in the world from the moment He brought the world out of nothing into being. But faith also tells us that God became man in order that He might as man die on the cross. But that’s not the only reason that God became man. To die for us. No. God became man to live with us and among us as man. And one of the special graces of the Holy Eucharist is to increase what we’re talking about is awareness of God in everything as Christ told us. Not a hair falls from our head, not a leaf falls from the tree except by the will of God. And God became man in order to dwell among us as man so that He might through His real bodily presence here on earth deepen our intimacy with God every moment of not only during our day, but even our night.


Lord Jesus, there is nothing that you told your followers more insistently than the need we have to pray. But dear Lord, we are so constantly and habitually preoccupied with ourselves, we beg you to open the eyes of our mind to see you in everything which exists, only because you dwell in all our creatures to remind us of yourself so that praying to you here on earth in faith, we might continue praying for all eternity, but seeing you face to face. Amen.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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