Our relationship with God is based in a large part on prayer- communication with God. It’s important to understand what that relationship will look like.
TIPP: The Four Kinds of Prayer
The Catechism talks of four kinds of Prayer, which I remember through the acronym TIPP- Thanksgiving, intercession, petition and praise. In general I don’t really use the four kinds of prayer when talking about the spiritual life but I think it’s good to be acquainted with them.
Thanksgiving is basically what it sounds like- giving thanks. Prayers of Thanksgiving tell God how grateful we are for all the blessings in our life. When we offer prayers of thanksgiving it is good to make sure we are giving thanks for good things in our life. For instance, the Pharisee who thanked God he was not a sinner like the tax collector was not making a good prayer of thanksgiving. It’s good to give prayers of thanksgiving for material blessings; but to do so in a way that makes clear we are receiving a gift, not something that we earned. We may also give thanks for answered prayers, for personal growth. But it’s even good to give thanks for trials. JRR Tolkien once pointed out how even punishments are a gift from God.
Intercession is prayer we make on behalf of another. It’s inherently an unselfish prayer; but even then we could add a selfish element. For instance, we could pray for someone’s to live just because we want them with us. Or we might pray that someone might get a political office so our will could be done. These are examples of trying to back lead God. But intercessory prayer can be a powerful indication that we are one with God. When we find what we are interceding for is consistently granted then we it becomes clear our will has become aligned with Gods. There is a saying that great minds think alike, and when you find that you are thinking like God even in the smallest capacity that is a great thing! We are not called to passively accept whatever God gives to us, but rather to actively seek it, and intercessory prayer itself springs from the urgings of the Holy Spirit.
Petition is a prayer asking something for us. Petition is often a selfish prayer- “Lord give me this job.” Even sometimes a petition to deliver us from a sin can be selfish, if the purpose of freeing us from sin is for us to pursue a life away from God. Better to know we are in one sin and seek God’s help then to sin without knowing it! In every other respect it is the same as intercessory prayer. We should seek God’s will and ask for it.
Praise is a prayer telling God how great he is. The primary danger in praise is to praise God for things he is not! We can praise him for his greatness, for his love, for his power. We can praise for the goodness that he has done for us, or for the goodness he has done others, or the goodness of creation itself.
The Three Paradigms of Prayer
While the kinds of prayer are obviously of enough merit to be mentioned in the Catechism, I do not rely on them very much in understanding my prayer life. For one, I don’t really keep a running track of how much I praise God or petition him. I prefer something different, something I refer to as the paradigms of prayer. These are the three relationships found in Ephesians 5:21-6:9:
husband and wife,
parent and child,
master and slave
We can approach God through prayer from any of these positions, because all describe some aspect of our relationship with him, and we will find that there are times when a paradigm is particularly appropriate. However, it is the first- husband and wife, lover and beloved, that has pride of place. While we can approach God as a beloved child or a faithful servant, at our core we are the adopted brothers and sisters of Jesus, and so he calls to a relationship worthy of lovers- one of blessing, one of union with the Divine.
Blessing: The Fundamental Mode of Prayer (Friendship with God)
In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
I have never had a dance in which the woman told me the patterns that she wanted. Occasionally a woman might tell me that a pattern was a lot of fun, and I’ll repeat it (if I can remember what the pattern was!) or sometimes she’ll want a second try to get it right, but I’ve never had a time where she says “I want a left side pass, followed by an under arm turn, and then a cross body lead.” The fun for the woman is in the surprise of each and every lead. The man’s joy is to lead, hers is to follow, and in a sense they are in a conversation in which they say nice things to each other. Think about lovers- in the relationship between the lover and his beloved the lover says wonderful things to his beloved about her and the beloved shares that love back. When it comes to holding hands or kissing he’ll make the first move, but she does not passively receive- she grasps his hand or kisses back. Both their words and heir actions are only oriented to the exchange of blessing.
Prayer is meant to have this quality of dance- the two paths, continuous exchange of blessing, becausethe standard, fundamental mode of prayer is blessing- the sharing of our inherent goodness.
How much of my prayer do I spend asking God for things for me? How much of my prayer is praying for others? For friends? For enemies? For strangers? Do I pray for worldly benefits or that they may come to know God? How much of my prayer is complaining about his lead, or the music? How much of my prayer is asking for forgiveness? How much of my prayer is thanks and praise?
Now how much time do we let him know that we love him just for being God, and that we love being in his presence and following his lead. How often do we spend time “gazing” on God and radiating our joy? How much time do we spend listening to him lead us, and tell us how much he loves having us in his presence, and how much he looks forward to being with us fully in heaven. This is blessing people! This is contemplative prayer, a foretaste of heaven. This is what the majority of our prayer needs to consist of- following the lead of Christ and being filled with joy, and knowing God knows this joy. This is what Christ means in John 15 when he tells us our joy will be complete, that we are his friends if we keep his commands! It is only in following his lead that we truly find our joy.
The Three Expressions of Prayer
In addition to the kinds of prayers, the paradigms of prayer and the fundamental mode of prayer, there are the expressions of prayer, and these are very important! The expressions are something like levels, moving up in intensity and intimacy. These least intimate is vocal, the most is contemplative.
“Vocal prayer must be accompanied by reflection. A prayer in which a person is not aware of Whom he is speaking to; what he is asking; who it is who is asking and of Whom, I don’t call prayer – however much the lips may move.” – Saint Teresa of Avila, from The Interior Castle
Vocal prayer is a prayer we speak aloud. It can either be made up or a previously composed prayer, such as the Our Father, the rosary, hymns, chants and the Liturgy of the hours. I like to make my own prayers which I then use at certain points of the day. For example, I have wrote the Theology of Dance prayer to say before lessons, and I have made a prayer to say when I start my journey in the car. I have a prayer for getting out of bed. What they all have in common is the desire to let God lead me.
There are many times we vocalize something which talks about God, but a “vocal prayer” is not actually a prayer unless there is a certain internal disposition and focus which accompanies it. Mindlessly saying a prayer is not actually a prayer. This must be a connection between the spirit and the action. When done properly there is a complete and total though brief focus on the prayer.
I speak often of the need of the woman to put her heart into the man’s hand in the dance- an action that must be constantly applied. I find that vocal prayer does that very thing- of realigning my ethos and practice to the following of God. Many a dance teacher has told me of the importance of practicing my dance in my every day actions. That is, the way that I walk, keep my posture, open the door or sit down or even push the shopping cart should be such that is cultivates good dancing habits. This way I don’t have two kinds of motion- an ugly kind not meant for the dance floor and a good kind that is. Rather, I only have movement for the dance floor. Even though my main focus is on the task at hand, the task at hand then becomes a kind of preparation that improves my ability to dance. Vocal prayer makes the task at hand a training in following God, in doing his will.
Finding a time for vocal prayer can be easy if we are disciplined to pray prior or after a certain action. Vocal prayer also does not need to be done in the exact same words or same way each time; in fact I find it’s often good to vary the way I do vocal prayer a little. Such prayers then in a sense become stylings on the pattern through which God leads during the day.
Meditative involves an aspect of visualization or reflection. It is a quest to understand why and how we follow Christ. Mediation as practiced in the eastern sense means emptying your mind, but in the Christian sense meditative prayer is filling our mind with Christ in some way or form so that he might order our thoughts. It starts with an emptying but finishes with a filling. It uses thought, imagination, emotion, and desire. One common and effective form of meditative prayer is Lectio Divina, in which we read scripture, ponder on it, read it again and focus on some element that strikes us or calls to us, then read it one more time prior to reflecting on how it applies to our life. Meditative prayer also prepares us for contemplative prayer. In some sense it’s like imagining our upcoming date with our lover.
“Contemplative prayer is the prayer of the child of God, of the forgiven sinner who agrees to welcome the love by which he is loved and who wants to respond to it by loving even more. But he knows that the love he is returning is poured out by the Spirit in his heart, for everything is grace from God. Contemplative prayer is the poor and humble surrender to the loving will of the Father in ever deeper union with his beloved Son.
Contemplative prayer is It is a metaphysical experience. It’s a spiritual encounter with the divine. Contemplative prayer such a sublime experience that is difficult to put it into words, because it is quite literally out of this world. That is why John of the Cross wrote love poetry to get the feeling across. When a man and woman love each other, they can talk to each other, think about each other, or simply be with each other. It is not a job but a joy. Contemplative prayer is not an end to something- it is the very something. It’s really about two people, God and the saint, who have come to experience each other in an intimate way. I say the point of dance is for the person to contemplate their partner in the spirit of the music. Contemplation in prayer is to dance with Jesus in the music of the Holy Spirit.
“Contemplative prayer [oración mental] in my opinion is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us.
St Teresa of Avila
Moving between the Kinds of Prayers
There are times in our dance where we focus a lot on our connection to make it smoother, gentler, and cleaner, because it is through the connection that we exchange blessing. Vocal prayer and meditative prayer are both somewhat analogous to thinking about or working on your connection in dance, because the focus of the follower is more on how to connect. But we yearn and live not for the moments when we practice connection but when we just get to experience the connection. We have that same yearning for God in prayer. In contemplation the saint is a follower who has advanced far in skill and no longer needs to even think about the connection; she is free to share with and understand her partner, to think only of him and the music in much the same way that Christ thinks only of the Father and the Spirit.
Saints continually return to vocal and meditative prayer even after becoming capable of contemplative prayer, because our connection can always be improved and it’s in improving our connection with God that the blessings flow deeper and stronger in our contemplative prayer. In fact large amounts of vocal and meditative prayer are a requirement for contemplative prayer.