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Prayer: Why, What, and How [P1]

Updated: 11 minutes ago


Based on my experience, this seems to be the number one lacking part of most Christians’ life in Singapore. Too many times have I heard from earnest Christians who desire to grow in their faith that they can’t find the time to pray, or that they do their prayers at night and fall asleep while doing them.


You might have the phrase, “Preach always, when necessary use words” (most of the time attributed to St. Francis though it seems it was never part of any of his writings), I have had someone once say, “Pray always, when necessary use words”. Is this conception of prayer true and helpful?


One thing universally recognised is that prayer is part of any good disciple’s faith journey and not just incidental but core to who he is as a child of God and a beloved disciple. So, getting this component correct is key to going any further in your discipleship journey.


As we welcome the Year of Prayer in 2025 as proclaimed by Pope Francis, let us ponder what the Bible [1], the Church and the Saints teach us about this crucial topic.


Play on Spotify to listen to the full podcast:



Opening Prayer – Prayer before Meditation


My Lord and my God, I firmly believe that you are here; that you see me, that you hear me. I adore you with profound reverence; I beg your pardon for my sins, and the grace to make this time of prayer fruitful. My Immaculate Mother, Saint Joseph my father and lord, my guardian angel, intercede for me. Amen.


1. What is Prayer, and Why Pray? Love Relationship and Communion


The Catechism cites St. Therese of Lisieux’s writing:


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 [2].”


In addition, St. Teresa of Avila defines prayer as “an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us [3].


"The Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane" by Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506). Kneeling in prayer, Christ is portrayed with only a short distance separating him from a group of Roman soldiers coming his way.

Relationship and Response

Prayer is the relationship that we have with our God, and it is both a gift of grace and our personal response to him.


When we look at the Catechism, it is divided into four parts. In the first part, the Catechism shows us the mystery of God and what he has revealed himself to us so that we can come to know him [4], and then, in the second part, it shows us the sacramental economy that God has set up to give us the graces to help us grow in relationship with him [5]. In the third part, God tells us how we can be more like him by living a moral life [6].


Unlike the first three parts where God does all he can so that we can be with him in Heaven, in the fourth and final part (which is on “Christian Prayer”), God invites us to respond to him [7]. Prayer is our action of responding to God for all that he has done. The fourth part is the smallest of all the parts, and it reveals that God asks very little from us in exchange for all that he has done because of his love for us, all God asks is for us to pray which is to build that relationship with him.


Prayer is a relationship with God. A relationship is more than an acquaintance. It is more than we know that a person exists. It is when we are friends or family or even lovers. In these relationships, we talk, share our lives, give gifts, make sacrifices, correct mistakes, get hurt and forgive, and open ourselves.


Jesus did that for us, he came down to us, shared his life with us, taught us the truth, gave us food and healing, and he got hurt, sacrificed himself and forgave us. Jesus is our friend, brother, and lover.


God calls us into that kind of relationship with him. He wants us to love him! Most of us have been in love. Our lives become so focused on that person that everything in the world reminds us of that person; we recall their favourite flower, song, what they like to eat, etc. That is being in a relationship of love.


For God, do we look at the world and see it remind us of him? Do we look at the sky and be reminded that God did that for us? Do we look at our neighbour and see God in him, that he is a gift from God? That is the kind of prayer life we should have.


Prayer should be setting aside dedicated time to pray but also cultivating our relationship with God in every aspect of our life. If you see prayer as only about spending 1 hour in adoration, 30 minutes on the rosary, or doing lectio divina then your prayer life will fall short. All those prayers are good and important, but prayer must truly lead us into a love relationship with our God.


Indeed, the Catechism beautifully reminds us that “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 [8].” Thus, “the life of prayer is the habit of being in the presence of the thrice-holy God and in communion with him [9].” In short, without the life and habit of prayer, there can be no relationship or communion with the Lord.


Gift of Grace and Determined Response


For this reason, the Catechism at 2725 also reminds us of the critical importance of the battle of prayer (a battle against ourselves and against the devil who tries everything to turn us away from union with God), where God’s grace and our response are held in harmony:


“Prayer is both a gift of grace and a determined response on our part. It always presupposes effort. The great figures of prayer of the Old Covenant before Christ, as well as the Mother of God, the saints, and he himself, all teach us this: prayer is a battle. Against whom? Against ourselves and against the wiles of the tempter who does all he can to turn man away from prayer, away from union with God. We pray as we live, because we live as we pray. If we do not want to act habitually according to the Spirit of Christ, neither can we pray habitually in his name. The "spiritual battle" of the Christian's new life is inseparable from the battle of prayer [10].”


As a battle against ourselves, the foremost temptation is to skip our dedicated prayer time because of other priorities or emergencies. In reality, this is often not due to any “planned” decision to not pray! On the contrary, we postpone prayer due to feeling of lethargy, of “not being in the mood to pray”, and before we realize it, our “packed schedule” further pushes the time to pray until it is already bed time! So indeed, although prayer cannot be reduced to just a 15-minute or 1-hour session a day, but being creatures of habit that we are, it is very critical to regard as sacrosanct the time we dedicate to prayer.


As this priest asks rhetorically and powerfully, “When was the last time you heard of someone die of starvation because they didn’t have enough time to eat?”, and by analogy, “if we do not nourish our immortal soul with prayer, then the end result will be that we will spiritually die.” As such, it is not that we have no time to pray, but rather, that prayer isn’t a priority for us.


The second temptation is to stop praying because we no longer believe that God is going to grant our particular petition. This is often not due to a discernment that what we ask is not God’s will, but due to our lack of insistence, due to our lack of faith. “So and so will never convert”; “I will never conquer this particular sin…”. In these times, we need to remember our Lord’s words: “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7).


Painted by an anonymous artist in the late 16th century, the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 marked a pivotal moment that led to the establishment of the feast day of Our Lady of the Rosary. Following the Ottoman Empire's unprovoked invasion of Cyprus, the Christian states found themselves confronting the formidable Turkish fleet. Faced with the imminent threat to Christendom, Pope Pius V called upon all Christians in Europe to unite in prayer, invoking the power of the Rosary. In a remarkable turn of events, the Christian forces emerged victorious in the Battle of Lepanto,

The third temptation is to stop praying because we have committed a very grave sin and feel we are being hypocritical if we continue praying. This is often accompanied with a feeling of unworthiness, not realizing that there is nothing good that we can present God with that does not come from him. This is the moment where we must boldly declare, “Begone, Satan!”, and proceed to sit down before our crucifix or our prayer corner, and continue to pray regardless. St. Teresa of Avila’s sagely advice on this point is spot on:


… in spite of any wrong they who practice prayer do, they must not abandon prayer since it is the means by which they can remedy the situation; and to remedy it without prayer would be much more difficult. May the devil not tempt them, the way he did me, to give up prayer out of humility [11]”.


O Christian disciple – fight it when it is hard to pray! For the love of Christ, his Church and his people. This new year, by God’s grace, let us all firmly and finally renounce all feeble “excuses” against a life and habit of prayer.


2. How to approach Prayer?


One view of the Genesis creation narrative is that the Cosmos is a Temple built for the worship of God [12]. The seven days mirror the building of the temple in which the Garden of Eden was the center, the “Holy of Holies” of Creation, and Adam is the first priest called to offer worship and sacrifice. Just as how when we go to Church, we know it is a place of prayer and worship. Creation is the “Church” that God has built around us to remind that prayer is not situated in just one place but it is called for in every day, every place and every time. It is God who calls us to pray because we receive the best thing in the world when we pray, we receive God who responds to our prayer with grace.


The Catechism gives us models of prayer [13], who modelled for us trust, humility, listening, adoration, thanksgiving and the fulfilment of God’s will.


Abraham whose heart was submissive to God to leave his homeland and venture out into the wilderness because God told him to. Along the way, he built altars to worship God. He was also tested and remained faithful. Does this sound like our discipleship journey? Unfortunately, many treat prayer like a vending machine. We pray because we want something from God and when we do not get it, we get upset at God and some people lose faith. Abraham is a reminder that prayer is not about that, prayer is about trusting God even when he calls us to give up the dearest thing to us without knowing what the future will hold. As disciples, we should trust God completely especially when the going gets tough and all might seem lost.


What is your burning bush moment? When was your encounter with the Lord? Moses met a God he did not know and was called to do something which he did not want. He made excuses, tried to push the responsibility to others but eventually did what God asked. He learnt to pray and soon God spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend [14]. A beautiful reminder of prayer being a relationship, a relationship that we desire, a relationship which will fill that hole in our hearts. We are given a hint on a key quality of prayer through Moses - humility. Adam and Eve lost their relationship with God because of their pride to be like God, Moses built his relationship because of his humility before God. Being humble before God is the foundation of prayer.

Humility is shown by not treating prayer as only petition and asking God for things but it is also about listening to God. Samuel was taught by his Eli to respond to God with, “Speak, Lord, for your servant hears [15].” This single sentence of prayer made Samuel the greatest Judge of Israel - because he listened to God rather than desired to do his own will.


When you pray, do not start with a long list of things to ask God for, start with adoring and listening, then a long list of things to praise and thank God for. Show our humility and fidelity before God to first recognise that he wants to speak to us and that he has done so much good in our lives which is only possible because of him. When that has happened, ask God for his blessings and graces on others first, then last for yourself. Let’s put God first, then others, then ourselves last. Let’s live the words of John the Baptist, “He must increase, but I must decrease [16].


The culmination of prayer is Jesus. He is both the God we pray to and the perfect model of prayer. Jesus calls us to humility when he asks us to seek reconciliation with each other, to love our enemies and persecutors, to pray in secret and not saying empty phrases. We must be faithful and listen to God the Father like Jesus who prayed “Nevertheless not my will, but yours, be done [17].” Jesus did his Father’s will all the way to the cross. He did it for God and for us, he gave up everything to do the Father’s will and to love us.


3. How to Pray?


There are many devotions and kinds of prayer you will encounter. The Church boils it down to three major expressions of prayer: Vocal Prayer, Meditation and Contemplative Prayer [18].


Vocal Prayer is when we engage God with words. This is not just spoken prayer but it incorporates prayer when spoken quietly in our hearts and minds. Jesus taught us a vocal prayer, the “Our Father”. We engage in vocal prayer when we say the “Hail Mary” or sing a hymn. Vocal prayer involves the senses of our human nature [19].


The Angelus (1857-1859), by Jean-François Millet. The Angelus is a vocal prayer traditionally prayed at 6 am, 12 pm, and 6 pm. Prayers that punctuate our time help bring a 'liturgical rhythm' to our daily life.

Meditation (also known as Mental Prayer) moves away from mere vocal words. We use our thoughts, imagination, emotion, and desire to pray. This is necessary in order to deepen our convictions of faith, prompt conversion of our heart, and strengthen our will to follow Christ.


Have you ever looked out at creation and felt loved by God because you saw all he made for you? Or have you seen a holy picture and felt touched by what it communicated? Or have you read the Gospels and put yourself in the scene and felt moved by what was happening? All these are ways to meditate. By meditation using Sacred Scriptures (above all, the mysteries of Christ), writings of spiritual masters, holy pictures and creation, you encounter God and internalise your faith more. We pass from thoughts to reality, and we act truthfully in order to come into the light: “Lord, what do you want me to do [20]?”


The Church exhorts us, “Christians owe it to themselves to develop the desire to meditate regularly, lest they come to resemble the three first kinds of soil in the parable of the sower [21].” Two doctors of the Church put it even more strongly:


  • St. Teresa of Avila used to say that “[To abandon prayer] was no more [...] than putting myself right in hell without the need of devils to urge me on [22].”

  • St. Alphonsus Liguori warns thatwithout mental prayer the soul is without light”, and that “without meditation there is not strength to resist the temptations of our enemies, and to practice the virtues of the Gospel”.


Our Christian heritage offers numerous aids and structures for meditation. One very helpful model comes from Fr. John Bartunek, who draws from the long-lasting and fruitful traditions of Ignatian and Carmelite spirituality, and proposes a 4-step structure in meditation, namely: (1) Concentrate; (2) Consider; (3) Converse; and (4) Commit [23].


Contemplative Prayer is sitting with God and opening up yourself to be loved by him. In contemplation, we make ourselves the recipients of God’s love. We do not need to speak; we do not need to imagine; we are just present to the Almighty, ever-loving God. Contemplative Prayer is the simplest expression of prayer because we do not need to do anything but that makes it also difficult because we usually approach God for something [24].


The Church again reminds us, “One does not undertake contemplative prayer only when one has the time: one makes time for the Lord, with the firm determination not to give up, no matter what trials and dryness one may encounter [25].”


Because there are so many devotions, we will introduce two here which have been through the test of time and have shown themselves to be powerful because they engage all expressions of prayer.


The Rosary has been lauded by saints throughout the ages. It has helped so many become saints themselves. In our modern times, it has been downplayed because of clashes with our Protestant brothers and sisters on the role of Mary and also because of its repetitiveness (again sometimes because our Protestant brothers and sisters claim it is “vain repetition”). But the Rosary is truly a weapon in our battle of prayer.


The Rosary engages two expressions. Through the saying of the prayers, we participate in vocal prayer and engage our senses in prayer. Because of the repetition, it allows us to free our minds to meditate on the mysteries of the life of Christ. We can put ourselves into the scene and encounter God, and reflect and internalise what God is saying to us in that mystery. A rosary done well would bring our whole being in prayer and bring us through the whole life of Christ, recall all that God has done for us and all that he calls us to.


Though not precisely having contemplation intrinsic to it, the Rosary will then lead and help us to have a time of contemplation before God where we can sit quietly and feel the love of God because we have prayed and meditated on his love for us.


Lectio Divina (“Divine Reading”) is an ancient monastic practice. It is divided into four steps, Lectio (Reading), Meditatio (Meditation), Oratio (Prayer) and Contemplatio (Contemplation). Immediately you can see the three expressions of prayer engaged.


  • Lectio (Reading): We start Lectio Divina by reading and listening intently to the Word of God. We let God’s word penetrate our hearts so that they can be transformed and conformed to him.

  • Meditatio (Meditation): Then we meditate by thinking about what was read and reflecting upon them. What is God’s word saying to you? How is it connecting to your life now? St. Ignatius called this “savouring” the text. Take time to savour the text.

  • Oratio (Prayer): This naturally leads to prayer, where we respond to God’s word. Share with him what struck you and your cares and concerns with God. Listen to what else God is saying to you in this time of prayer.

  • Contemplatio (Contemplation): After speaking to God in prayer, go into contemplation, sit and be silent before God and let him love you. Rest in his love and rejoice in knowing God is with you.


Do not be scared by the four steps and worry about the length. Lectio Divina can be short or long, you can fit it into your schedule.


Ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ” – St. Jerome


Let us not be ignorant of Christ. If we truly love him, we will want to come to know him through Sacred Scripture. Lectio Divina is a good way to start diving into Scripture and to developing a holistic prayer life.


4. Spiritual Maturity – Prayer as the Doorway to the Interior Life


Finally, it is good just to be aware that we can progress in spiritual maturity, in phases predominantly classified as “purgative”, “illuminative” and “unitive”. Spiritual writers employ another set of terms that signify the spiritual maturity of a person at each phase: “childhood”, “adolescence” and “adulthood” respectively [26].


St. Teresa of Avila, in her great classic work The Interior Castle, describes the soul as a Castle with seven primary rooms, each reflecting a different level or manifestations of prayer, virtue and on the path to union with God [26]. She explains that:


this castle has [...] many dwelling places: some up above, others down below, others to the sides; and in the center and middle is the main dwelling place where the very secret exchanges between God and the soul take place [27].


Importantly, St. Teresa explains how to enter into this beautiful castle, “As far as I can understand, the gate by which to enter this castle is prayer and meditation [28].”


The path to spiritual maturity and union with God is undoubtedly prayer. May the Lord grant us the grace to desire, develop and grow our life of prayer.


Closing Prayer – Prayer after Meditation


I thank you, my God, for the good resolutions, affections and inspirations that you have communicated to me in this meditation. I beg your help in putting them into effect. My Immaculate Mother, Saint Joseph my father and lord, my guardian angel, intercede for me. Amen.


* Is there anything in this session which struck you or any thoughts, experiences or ideas which come to your mind? Please leave a comment below. We would love to hear from you.


** Thank you for joining us on the A-Z of DiscipleSHIP. We look forward to having you with us again next month, as we study the letter “Q”, for our Queen of Heaven, Mary.


Recommended Closing Song


Matt Maher, “Lord I Need You” (World Youth Day, Rio 2013, Adoration Vigil) (this song beautifully captures the essence of the harmony between the unmerited grace of God and our personal determined response to—and utter dependence on—him, which lies at the heart of a life of prayer).



Phil Wickham, “Battle Belongs” (this powerful faith-driven anthem cries out to God, and exhorts us to fight the good fight of faith, with our knees in prayer and our hands raised to God in praise – and God himself will fight our battles for us).




Recommended Reading / Resources


  1. St. Alphonsus Liguori, Prayer: The Great Means of Salvation and Perfection, excerpts on “Mental Prayer”.

  2. Fr. John Bartunek, L.C., The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer (2011) (see the section titled “The 4-Step Structure of Your Meditation” where Fr. Bartunek draws from the long-lasting and fruitful traditions of Ignatian and Carmelite spirituality, and proposes a 4-step structure in meditation, namely: (a) Concentrate; (b) Consider; (c) Converse; and (d) Commit). This is highly recommended in order to develop a life and habit (and the skill) of mental prayer (the rest of this book also provide rich material for meditation on the four Gospels). See also the section on “Types of Prayer” where Fr. Bartunek explains the practical distinctions (and overlaps) between vocal, meditative and contemplative prayer.

  3. St. Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, Chapter I, “The First Mansions”.

  4. Lectio Divina video course, “Lectio: Prayer: Finding Intimacy with God with Dr. Tim Gray” (6 episodes of 30 minutes each): https://watch.formed.org/lectio-prayer-with-dr-tim-gray

  5. Lectio Divina book: Tim Gray, Praying Scripture for a Change: An Introduction to Lectio Divina.

  6. Daniel Burke (with Fr. John Bartunek, LC, STL), Navigating the Interior Life: Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God, chapter on “The Three Ways of the Spiritual Life”.

  7. The Complete Rosary with background music (Robert Kochis) (on Spotify).

  8. Here are several excellent Catholic apps to aid in the development and growth of your Catholic faith and your life of prayer (in no particular order): (a) Amen app; (b) Hallow app; (c) Ascension app.


Reflection and Sharing Questions


This month’s podcast considers the why, what and how of prayer, which may summarized as follows:


  1. Prayer is a love relationship with and a communion with the Holy Trinity. It is both a gift of grace and our personal determined response to God. Prayer is a battle, against ourselves and the devil who does everything he can to turn us away from union with God.

  2. The Church gives us several models of prayer, with Jesus as our perfect model of prayer, who modelled for us trust, humility, listening, adoration, thanksgiving and the fulfilment of God’s will.

  3. There are three major expressions of prayer – Vocal Prayer, Meditation and Contemplative Prayer. The Rosary and Lectio Divina engages these expressions.

  4. We can progress in spiritual maturity, in phases predominantly classified as “purgative”, “illuminative” and “unitive”, and prayer is the doorway to enter into this “interior castle” of our soul.


  • “Excuses”: Examine and share your usual “excuses” for the lack of a sustained prayer life. Help each other to demolish such “excuses”, and to firmly and finally renounce them by the grace of God.


  • Dispositions: In the context of a prayer life, what tangible step(s) will you take to grow in the dispositions of trust, humility, listening, adoration, thanksgiving and/or the fulfilment of God’s will?


  • Sustained Prayer Life: What tangible steps will you take to develop and maintain a sustained prayer life (vocal, meditative and/or contemplative)? Write down this “life of prayer” and help keep each other accountable to it.


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© Presented by the Catholic Theology Network (writers / contributors / sound): Keenan Tan (M.A., Theology, Augustine Institute), Dominic Chan (M.A., Theology, Augustine Institute), Nick Chui (MTS, JPII Institute for Marriage and Family, AU), Debra Dass (Diploma in Theology, CTIS), Marcia Vanderstraaten (Diploma in Theology, CTIS); publicity & design: Chandra Nugraha (Certificate in Catholic Theology, Augustine Institute).


Footnotes


1. Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture references are taken from the RSV 2nd CE.


2. CCC 2558. See the translation of St. Therese’s aforesaid quote by the Institute of Carmelite Studies (“ICS”), “For me, prayer is an aspiration of the heart, it is a simple glance directed to heaven, it is a cry of gratitude and love in the midst of trial as well as joy” (St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Story of a Soul, Ms C, 25r).


3. The Book of Her Life, 8:5 (ICS translation).


4. Part One of the Catechism is on “The Profession of Faith”. See the Table of Contents for the Catechism here.


5. Part Two of the Catechism is on “The Celebration of the Christian Mystery”, expounding on the sacramental economy and the seven sacraments of the Church. See the Table of Contents for the Catechism here.


6. Part Three of the Catechism is on “Life in Christ”. See the Table of Contents for the Catechism here.


7. Part Four of the Catechism is on “Christian Prayer”. See the Table of Contents for the Catechism here.


8CCC 2565. Emphasis in italics added.


9CCC 2565. Emphasis in italics added.


10. Emphasis in bold added.


11. The Book of Her Life, 8:5 (ICS translation).


12. Scott Hahn, ed., Catholic Bible Dictionary (New York; London; Toronto; Sydney; Auckland: Doubleday, 2009), 177.



14. Exodus 33:11


15. 1 Samuel 3:9


16. John 3:30


17. Luke 22:42



19. See generally, CCC 2700 to 2704. See also CCC 2722, “Vocal prayer, founded on the union of body and soul in human nature, associates the body with the interior prayer of the heart, following Christ's example of praying to his Father and teaching the Our Father to his disciples.”


20. See generally, CCC 2705 to 2708. See also CCC 2723, “Meditation is a prayerful quest engaging thought, imagination, emotion, and desire. Its goal is to make our own in faith the subject considered, by confronting it with the reality of our own life.”


21. CCC 2707. Emphasis in italics added.


22. The fuller quote from St. Teresa of Avila reads as: “I say that no one who has begun to practice prayer should become discouraged by saying: ‘If I return to evil, matters will become worse should I continue the practice of prayer.’ I believe matters become worse if one abandons prayer and doesn't amend one's evil ways. But if people don't abandon it, they may believe that prayer will bring them to the harbor of light. The devil carried out a great assault upon me in this matter. Since I was wretched, I spent so long a time in thinking it was a lack of humility to practice prayer that, as I have already said, I abandoned it for a year and a half -- at least for a year; I don't remember well about the half. And doing this was no more, nor could it have been, than putting myself right in hell without the need of devils to urge me on.” (The Book of Her Life, 19:4) (ICS translation).


23. See the section titled “The 4-Step Structure of Your Meditation” in Fr. John Bartunek, L.C., The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer (2011).


24. See generally, CCC 2709 to 2719. See also CCC 2724, “Contemplative prayer is the simple expression of the mystery of prayer. It is a gaze of faith fixed on Jesus, an attentiveness to the Word of God, a silent love. It achieves real union with the prayer of Christ to the extent that it makes us share in his mystery.”


25. CCC 2710. Emphasis in italics added.


26. See Daniel Burke (with Fr. John Bartunek, LC, STL), Navigating the Interior Life: Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God, chapter on “The Three Ways of the Spiritual Life”.


27. Interior Castle, I:1:3 (ICS translation). See also the CCEL translation of The Interior Castle, Chapter I, “The First Mansions” at 4, which reads as “in the centre, in the very midst of them all, is the principal chamber in which God and the soul hold their most secret intercourse”.


28. See The Interior Castle, Chapter I, “The First Mansions” at 9 (CCEL translation). See also Interior Castle, I:1:7 (ICS translation).

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