What are the four types of prayer in Christian tradition?
Aug 6, 2015
Prayer. Every saint concurs that it is indispensable for holiness. The whole final section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is devoted to it. Yet what exactly is it, and how does one practice it?St. John Damascene provides a memorable and versatile definition: “Prayer is the raising of the mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God.
” This definition encompasses the four main kinds of prayer: adoration, contrition, thanksgiving and supplication.
Christ Himself provides us examples of all these forms of prayer — except contrition, since He never sinned. Perhaps Matthew himself witnessed and forever remembered the beauty of one particular colloquy between Christ and His Father that he records in his Gospel: “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth …” (Matt 10:25). Here, in the Son’s joy-filled glorification of the Father, we find the model for our adoration.
John, in his turn, must have been standing among the mourners gathered apprehensively before Lazarus’s tomb as Christ’s voice rang out, “Father, I thank you for hearing me. I know that you always hear me” (John 11:41-42). We can make this prayer of thanksgiving our own.
And finally, supplication; perhaps the most unforgettable instance is Christ’s agonized entreaty from the cross when, breathless and beleaguered, he expended the last ounces of His strength begging mercy for His executioners: “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34).
In addition to the four forms of prayer, Christian tradition distinguishes three ways of praying: vocal prayer, mental prayer or meditation, and contemplation. The first category comprises prayers that are learned and recited either silently or aloud, such as the rosary and novenas. In mental prayer, by contrast, we speak spontaneously with God about the mysteries of the faith, passages from the Bible, or events or persons close to us. Both vocal and mental prayer can lead to contemplation, which the Catechism describes as a silent communing with God in love. Unlike vocal and mental prayer, contemplation is a gift that cannot be summoned by our own efforts but must be received humbly from Him.
Vocal prayer, at first blush the lowliest form of prayer, takes on new significance when we realize that God Himself has given us words for it: the Psalms, which Christ prayed aloud with His fellow Jews; the Our Father, which the apostles recorded from Christ’s own lips. The key to vocal prayer is the devotion with which we enter into it. Surely the disjointed snatches of Our Fathers and Hail Marys, the only words summonable to the tortured minds of prisoners in Nazi concentration camps and Soviet gulags, were profoundly pleasing to God.
Perhaps the most startling aspect of prayer is our very ability to engage in it; unlike any other creature on earth, we are able to converse with God Himself. When we pray, we act according to our dignity as made in the image of a God who speaks eternally His Word.
Sr. Maria Veritas Marks is a member of the Ann Arbor-based Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.