A lot of us know that we should pray, and a lot of us do pray, but not all of us fully understand why we pray or what prayer does. And, we might wonder, if prayer has good effects, does not praying cause bad effects?
What is Prayer? Gift, Covenant and Communion
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. – St. Therese of Lisieux
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, prayer can be viewed (1) as a gift from God, (2) as a covenant with God, and (3) as communion with God.
In terms of gift, “Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God.” (CCC 2259). “Whether we realize it or not, prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst with ours. God thirsts that we may thirst for him.” (CCC 2260). “Prayer is the response of faith to the free promise of salvation and also a response of love to the thirst of the only Son of God.” (CCC 2260).
As covenant with God, it is understood that “Christian prayer is a covenant relationship between God and man in Christ. It is the action of God and of man, springing forth from both the Holy Spirit and ourselves, wholly directed to the Father, in union with the human will of the Son of God made man.” (CCC 2264). In praying to God, we offer ourselves as part of the covenant, furthering the personal relationship that we form with Him.
Prayer is communion with God, and “…the life of prayer is the habit of being in the presence of the thrice-holy God and in communion with him… Prayer is Christian insofar as it is communion with Christ and extends throughout the Church, which is his Body. Its dimensions are those of Christ’s love.” (CCC 2265).
The Five Types of Prayer
God wills that our desire should be exercised in prayer, that we may be able to receive what he is prepared to give. – St. Augustine
According to the Catechism, there are five primary types of prayer:
- Blessing and Adoration: “The prayer of blessing is man’s response to God’s gifts: because God blesses, the human heart can in return bless the One who is the source of every blessing.” (CCC 2626). “Adoration is the first attitude of man acknowledging that he is a creature before his Creator. It exalts the greatness of the Lord who made us and the almighty power of the Savior who sets us free from evil.” (CCC 2628).
- Petition: “In the risen Christ the Church’s petition is buoyed by hope, even if we still wait in a state of expectation and must be converted anew every day… ‘with sighs too deep for words’ the Holy Spirit ‘helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.'” (CCC 2630).
- In Intercession, “he who prays looks ‘not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others,’ even to the point of praying for those who do him harm.” (CCC 2635).
- Thanksgiving: “As in the prayer of petition, every event and need can become an offering of thanksgiving. The letters of St. Paul often begin and end with thanksgiving, and the Lord Jesus is always present in it: ‘Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you’; ‘Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.'” (CCC 2638).
- Praise: This form of prayer “…recognizes most immediately that God is God. It lauds God for his own sake and gives him glory, quite beyond what he does, but simply because HE IS. It shares in the blessed happiness of the pure of heart who love God in faith before seeing him in glory.” (CCC 2639).
“The Eucharist contains and expresses all forms of prayer: it is ‘the pure offering’ of the whole Body of Christ to the glory of God’s name and, according to the traditions of East and West, it is the ‘sacrifice of praise.'” (CCC 2640).
Is Prayer Effective?
He “prays without ceasing” who unites prayer to works and good works to prayer. Only in this way can we consider as realizable the principle of praying without ceasing. – Origen
In a word, YES, prayer is effective. Christian prayer is cooperation with the providence of God and His plan of love. (CCC 2738). Jesus is the model of Christian prayer, whose heart “…seeks only what pleases the Father…” Thus, the prayer of the children of God should be centered on the Giver, rather than the gifts. (CCC 2739).
According to the entry on prayer found in the Catholic Encyclopedia maintained at NewAdvent.org, God does not change His will or action in hearing our prayer, “…but simply puts into effect what He had eternally decreed in view of our prayer.” He can do this directly by imparting “…some supernatural gift, such as actual grace, or indirectly, when He bestows some natural gift.” God can and does also sometimes miraculously intervene, “…and without employing any of these causes, He can produce the effect prayed for.”
Seeing the effects of prayer require proper orientation. As the Catholic Encyclopedia states, in praying “…we should ask for nothing unless it be strictly in accordance with Divine Providence in our regard… We are to ask also for temporal things, our daily bread, and all that it implies, health, strength, and other worldly or temporal goods, not material or corporal only, but mental and moral, every accomplishment that may be a means of serving God and our fellow men. Finally, there are the evils which we should pray to escape, the penalty of our sins, the dangers of temptation, and every manner of physical or spiritual affliction, so far as these might impede us in God’s service.”
When we ask for things in prayer that fall outside of Divine Providence, then we are not well disposed to observe the effects of prayer, because we are looking for the wrong effects.
Regardless of whether God answers a prayer by delivering the particular gift that we request, prayer advantages us in many ways. Praying “…elevates our mind and heart to a knowledge and love of Divine things, greater confidence in God, and other precious sentiments.” Often what we actually receive is “…of far greater benefit than what we ask for. Nothing that we might obtain in answer to our prayer could exceed in value the familiar converse with God in which prayer consists.”
Does Failure to Pray Cause Bad Things to Happen?
We pray, not that we may change the divine decree, but that we may impetrate [beg for] that which God has decreed to be fulfilled by our prayers. – St. Thomas Aquinas
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, prayer is necessary for salvation, because “Without prayer we cannot resist temptation, nor obtain God’s grace, nor grow and persevere in it.” However, the “bad thing” that appears to occur does not come about because you fail to pray.
When we pray we are admitted to an opportunity to be a (not necessarily the) cause of an effect. St. Thomas Aquinas states that Divine Providence concerns not only “…what effects that shall take place, but also from what causes and in what order these effects shall proceed.” (Summa, Q. 83). And, the order of effects is key to our conception of prayer, because we live on a temporal plane, while God lives outside of time and space. Thus, we cannot always adequately see the fulfillment of God’s will in prayer, at least until we see God in Heaven.
Aquinas continues that “human acts [e.g., prayer] are the causes of certain effects….. it must be that men do certain actions, not that thereby they may change Divine disposition, but that by those actions they may achieve certain effects according to the order of the Divine disposition… For we pray not that we may change the Divine disposition, but that we may impetrate that which God has disposed to be fulfilled by our prayers, in other words, ‘that by asking, men may deserve to receive what Almighty God from eternity has disposed to give’…”
So, in reply, Aquinas would state that we need to pray to God, not to make known our needs and desires (because God already knows all of that), or even so that God’s will may be done (as though our praying is the condition precedent to His will being accomplished) but so that we may be reminded of the necessity of having recourse to God’s help. And, our motive in praying is not to change God’s will but that by praying “we may obtain what God has appointed.” (Id.).
When we pray, we are joined with God in communion, and He frequently builds up our faith by giving us a vision of ourselves as a cause of an effect. And we are all called to be united more fully with God in seeing that His will be done.