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Saying your prayers versus praying your prayers

August 12, 2012 by  
Filed under Dan Burke, Difficulties, Mental Prayer, Prayer, Vocal

In the spiritual life, the language we use intimately reflects our hearts. As an example, let’s look at prayer. Do we “say our prayers?” Or do prayers versus praying we pray in an intimate relationship with God? The former is like saying, “I said words to my wife.” The latter is closer to saying, “My wife and I had a wonderful dinner together.” Prayer, when spoken of in impersonal terms, can depict and encourage impersonal aspirations, which can then lead to impersonal attempts at prayer. And impersonal prayer is not prayer at all, because it only amounts to a person saying things, rather than any real encounter with God. Here’s what St. Teresa of Avila had to say about “saying” prayers:

I speak of mental as well as vocal: being prayer, it should be made with attention; for she who does not consider with whom she speaks, and what she asks, and who she is that asks, and of whom she asks, knows little of prayer, however much her lips may move. And though sometimes prayer is made when there is no actual advertence, yet this attention is requisite at other times. But whoever shall accustom himself to speak with the majesty of God, as he would talk with his slave, without considering whether he speaks properly or no, but who speaks only what comes first into his head, or what he may have learnt by heart by having repeated it at other times, – this I do not consider to be prayer.

I recently watched a YouTube video on the topic of prayer – specifically Lectio Divina – by a popular, but currently dissident, priest (I say “currently” because there is always hope). Whenever I hear anyone speak of Lectio Divina, in particular, but also other methods of prayer, I listen carefully to quickly ascertain whether or not I should eagerly lean in or instead find something better to do. What I listen for is simple: whether their discourse is a focus on the method or on the relationship assisted by the method. Are they merely emphasizing techniques and “steps” – or are they helping me to understand how to deepen my relationship with God? This priest in the video – with a heart that appears right now to be disconnected from the vine – spoke only in mechanical/technical terms rather than in a language that reflected any real intimacy with the Lord. It was clear that this was not the place to seek deeper insight into to true spirit of Lectio Divina, or any other form of prayer.

It’s a lesson for all of us. When we are speaking of prayer, if we ourselves are prone to impersonal expressions, might that indicate a challenge that we need to address in our own faith lives? Might it reflect that our relationship with the Lord is also impersonal and thus maybe less than a living relationship? Sure, we may know our method, “say” our prayers, and show up faithfully (these are good things). But we may have a long way to go to be living the prayer life of which the mystics speak. And we are certainly distant from Jesus’ message in John 14, where he says, “If you abide in me, if you abide in my love, I will abide in you … and I will manifest myself to you.”

Jesus is not simply an idea, an ethereal principle, a distant God for whom we must act in particular ways to please and appease. He’s not the God that requires a rain dance with a special kind of jig, clothing, and rhythm. He’s not the false god of Baal that requires fervency through empty acts of distorted piety – any manner of external action that is in essence only the performing of a task or a duty exercised in exchange for favors from God: “I just said these words. Here’s my magic formula. Now, please do what I ask.” This is not prayer.

In stark contrast, prayer in the minds and hearts of the mystics is spoken of as analagous to spousal intimacy – the engaging of another on a level that is only reflected effectively or as completely as it can be in the analogy of spousal love. Of course I’m not speaking here of the mere act of sex, but of what Blessed John Paul II called the highest expression of self. In that conjugal act, in that communion, that oneness, that mutual self giving, we find a vulnerability and intimacy, a joy that rivals any other analogy that we can use to understand really what it means to have and live out a relationship with God.

I pray that you do “say” your prayers, but that they become far more than simply thoughts you put into words. I pray that, through your prayer life, you would come to really know the Lord, not as someone you merely speak to, but as someone you love … and who loves you, specifically, personally, truly, always.

PS: To gain more insight on your own spiritual growth, you might enjoy Dan's book, Navigating the Interior Life – Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God. To learn more, click here.



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About Dan Burke

Dan is the President of the Avila Foundation, the parent organization of, the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, Divine Intimacy Radio and Divine Intimacy Radio - Resources Edition, Into the Deep Parish Programs, the Apostoli Viae (Apostles of the Way) Community, and the FireLight Student Leadership Formation Program, author of the award-winning book, Navigating the Interior Life - Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God, Finding God Through Meditation-St. Peter of Alcantara, 30 Days with Teresa of Avila, Into the Deep, Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux, and his newest book The Contemplative Rosary with St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Avila. Beyond his "contagious" love for Jesus and His Church, he is a grateful husband and father of four, the Executive Director of and writer for EWTN's National Catholic Register, a regular co-host on Register Radio, a writer and speaker who provides online spiritual formation and travels to share his conversion story and the great riches that the Church provides us through authentic Catholic spirituality. Dan has been featured on EWTN's Journey Home program and numerous radio programs.

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  • LizEst

    Hey Dan, thanks for the prayers!

    I used to pray everything at home silently (no kids, husband not religious…neither was I for a good while–but that’s another story). I used to go to another room to pray for that quiet time. One day, my hubby invited me to stay in our room. So, I did but was still praying silently. After a while, the idea came to me (from Holy Spirit no doubt!) that I should pray out loud because I never knew if I would have to articulate that prayer in some capacity. “Would it bother you if I prayed out loud. I was thinking that it’s possible I might have to do this…blah, blah, blah…?” “No, that’s fine,” came the answer. Now, the Hours, the Rosary (the formal prayers) …are all out loud (not the prayer of quiet, and such, of course). God has blessed the verbalization of those prayers many times over. Where I thought it might become mechanical and routine, it has been anything but and has led to a deeper relationship with the Lord. Who would have thought? So many blessings! “Give thanks to the Lord for He is good, for his love endures forever.” (Psalm 118:1)

  • Debbie

    When I used to teach CCD, this has always been a topic
    close to my heart. We would go line by line through the prayer to understand
    what it meant so that the children could grasp a full understanding of the
    meaning and to place the foundation in which they can pray the payer rather than just reciting it. We also did this for the Mass so they knew what everything

    On a personal level, we were given a new priest six years
    ago and Mass was not the ‘same’ for me. I thought it was because I had worked for the
    former priest and I missed him. This post just made me realize what it is. The
    current priest says the Mass but only recites it. I do not see the passion for the Lord that I have seen with so many priests, especially with the religious order I used to work for. It made the Mass mundane and unbearable at times (jokes, sometimes inappropriate, would be told during the homily). I have just changed parishes and found that the Lord is held at the highest reverence and words cannot express the gratitude I have for finding a new parish.

    • LizEst

      It’s wonderful you explained these prayers to the children you taught…and that you did the same for the Mass so that they knew what everything meant.

      So sorry to hear about your “new” priest. They struggle, too, and yet have to be leaders/shepherds to us. At the very least, we owe them our prayerful support, even when, or particularly when, they are not the “bella persona” they are expected to be–priestly paragons of wisdom, virtue and service. I hope you will be praying for him in the community where you worship now.

      • Debbie

        Yes, pray for him (and all priests) every day. I hope this did not sound ungrateful for his services because there are people who enjoy his Masses and I am grateful he can be of service to them and has made the decision to become a priest to serve a flock.

        • LizEst

          Yes, Debbie, prayers for all clergy, religious, consecrated, and also lay ministers every day! We had a vicar who used to take his dog to the local dog park. He said there was a whole ministry there at the dog park (to folks who never went to church)! Who knew? God uses all kinds of circumstances and priests to reach the different sheep of his flock. You are right that this priest can be of service to those who enjoy the Masses he presides at. God bless you Debbie!

    • michelle schermann

      What a great idea about explaining the prayers line by line. I teach 1st grade RE and we have 9 prayers that the students learn in the year. I will have to give this a try. Many of them only see these prayers for the first time in my class so anything that I can do to help them is appreciated. Thanks. God bless.

      • LizEst

        …and they are so eager for God at that age. You are blessed michelle!

  • Becky Ward

    Nice Post Dan!
    I loved Fr. John’s description (in the webinar) of prayer as a ‘relationship’. You’ve described the same thing. I was familiar with St. Teresa’s idea of it being like conversing with an old friend, but ‘relationship’ is so much more than this. Relationships include much non-verbal communication, a wink, a laugh, a hug, a caress, an understanding nod, thinking of the ‘other’ with love and devotion, being concerned and considerate of their needs and desires, planning little surprises for them, eagerly awaiting the time you have together, putting the other first, sitting quietly next to one another….head on a shoulder, simply enjoying the time spent in one another’s presence.
    Much more than words repeated at the speed of light!
    And God wants this ‘relationship’ with each and every one of us!

    • Exactly!

    • LizEst

      Beautiful! And yet, how difficult it is for someone being led in an apophatic way (via negativa), or who is in the dark night of the soul as Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta was for so long, who has faith and a prayer relationship with the Lord, but does not receive the sensitive consolations that are given to so many!

      • Becky Ward

        God grants us the grace we need to carry the cross Has has designed specifically for each one of us. And only our cross.- It is not good to compare!
        I would not want to walk the path that Blessed Mother Teresa did – and thankfully God is not calling to me that. But despite the darkness and all the things she suffered, her ‘relationship’ with God was as strong as ever…He was simply carrying her.
        (As in the “Footprints In The Sand” poem.)
        But I digress….this post is about prayer, not consolations or lack of them.

        • LizEst

          Many prayers for you!

    • michelle schermann

      Thank you so much Becky. I love this analogy of the relationship. I have a friend who just moved and this is the stuff that I miss. This helps me so much in how to view my relationship with God. Such a new and great level for me. Thank you !!

      • Becky Ward

        Happy to have been helpful! 🙂 Just passing on what others have shared with me………
        God is good!

  • Now I wonder why this post looks strangely familiar? :))
    Awesome article thanks!

    • :-0 – Do you read the Register as well?

      • Yep! I’m subscribed to them on my email and FB.

      • LizEst

        ; ) ) )

  • Stephen Mc Elligott

    I think though that the ability to properly pray ones prayers is a grace of God. I think many of us seem to pray this way e.g yawning, non interested, just ”saying” the prayers without any thought. And we do that at the beginning and even sometimes during our life time of prayer but once God sees us trying, its just a waiting game then before he responds with grace.

    • LizEst

      Stephen – Yes, it is a grace to pray properly. And, yes, one has to put in the effort. Even rote prayers are efficacious because God needs only the tiniest of openings to reach us. If it were not so, the prayers of those in aridity, and those in the dark night of the soul, would be of no avail and there would be no sense in keeping them up, or trying to keep them up. He prizes and generously rewards our loyalty, as any friend would. He knows our hearts and blesses those efforts, that intent to pray, with His grace. Our job is to correspond to that grace.

  • bltpm

    I try to convey this idea to my kids when I tell them to “pray with your hearts using your lips”.

    Thank you so much for this post! How much I desire intimacy with God! As a busy mom I don’t have hours that I can dedicate to silent mental prayer. Even though I feel I pray all day with little aspirations, offerings, concerns, praise, thanksgiving etc.. I still desire greater intimacy with God. Which will come only with more time attentively with Him.

    This leads me to wonder. What is the best use of the little time I have for alone silent prayer? Should I be praying the Liturgy of the Hours or should I spend my hour in mental prayer? or perhaps I should pray the rosary or the chaplet of Divine Mercy?

  • Therese

    I have learned to picture Jesus and Mary and Joseph sitting across from me at the kitchen table as I Pray my morning prayers and the daily mass readings.
    I also lean heavily on prayers composed by others because the wording teaches me so much about Jesus.

    • LizEst

      That’s a beautiful image Therese! God bless you!

    • Becky Ward

      Yes, Great idea!

  • Cecilia

    Dan, years ago as I struggled w/praying from the heart using formal prayers a priest told me to pray in tongues (pray in the spirit) that it was really “noisy contemplation” My understanding is that mental prayer goes thru the mind then the heart. Whereas, when one prays in the spirit w/words unknown, the Spirit prays thru the heart. I do realize everyone will not choose this route but for me, even my mental prayers now bring me into a deeper relationship and communion w/Our Lord.

  • Jack Kaczmarczyk

    I struggle with informal/formal as related to impersonal/personal. But then again, whenever I use exalted language in speaking personally with my wife, she enjoys its content exponentially.

  • Camelia Murphy

    I love this explanation of what true prayer is. I direct a women’s prayer apostolate–Little Handmaids of Our Sorrowful Mother–and I am always looking for ways to communicate to the little handmaids that it is not the number of Hail Mary’s, but the heart to Heart connection that is important. Thanks be to God for the wisdom He has shared with us through your article. I am going to share it with the little handmaids. God bless.

    • LizEst

      Thank you for introducing me to this apostolate. I had never heard of it before and found it on the internet:
      God bless you and the little handmaids, Camelia!

      • Funny – I just heard about this apostolate this Saturday. A trusted friend indicated that it is fantastic.

  • hazcompat

    Blessed Pope John Paul II, the Great

    In prayer, then, the true
    protagonist is God. The protagonist is Christ, who constantly frees
    creation from slavery to corruption and leads it toward liberty, for the
    glory of the children of God. The protagonist is the Holy Spirit, who
    “comes to the aid of our weakness.” We begin to pray, believing that it
    is our own initiative that compels us to do so. Instead, we learn that
    it is always God’s initiative within us, just as Saint Paul has written.
    This initiative restores in us our true humanity; it restores in us our
    unique dignity. Yes, we are brought into the higher dignity of the
    children of God,the children of God who are the hope of all creation.

    • Thank you, hazcompat. Saint Paul does write somewhere  words to this effect : “when we do not know how to pray, the Holy Spirit prays for us with sighs and groans……”.  

      Yes without the help of God, none  of us can pray as we should.  He anticipates us and His Grace is always at hand to assist us and “comes to the aid of our weakness.” , distractions, fatigue, worries, anxieties, wandering minds and all. 
      + Laudetur Iesus Christus + 

  • How, oh how, in the name of Little Baby Jesus, did I miss this earth-moving Post?????? Thank you, Dan. I was searching frantically through my Laptop which Post I have missed in my Inbox only to find it is very, very important Post which I sorely need. Curse you, satan, if you are the one who made me miss this one, may you be thrown to the deepest, hottest hole in hell. by Archangel Michael.

    • LizEst

      Remind me never to get on your bad side, Mary! Ha! ; ) Still praying for you. God bless!

      • I love you, LizEst….and you can see your Prayers are being heard and answered.  I know that is how I found this precious post which I had missed…..what with the frantic preparations for the Feast of Saint Faustina!!!!!! I got so behind with my Posts… you see, your Prayers worked!!!!!!be blessed.

        • LizEst

          Thanks Mary! I love you, too! The glory for the answered prayers always goes to the Lord.

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