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.