The Various Kinds of Prayer: A Short Treatise for Young People

Douglas P. McManaman
May 5th, 2019
Reproduced with Permission

Is prayer important? That is very much like asking whether or not breathing is important. A life without prayer is in many ways death, and I think it can be argued that the very purpose of this life is to learn how to pray -- for this life is a preparation for eternal life, which is eternal prayer. Life without communication is impossible, and prayer is communication, to say the very least. Prayer is communion with God, who is our origin and our end.

There are various kinds of prayer, and these types of prayer form a kind of hierarchy, from the lowest to the highest. To know something about these kinds of prayer and their order in relation to one another is to know something about the very structure of human and spiritual development. Let's begin with the lowest type of prayer.

The Prayer of Petition

The antiphon for today's Gospel Canticle of the evening prayer (for the Feast of Saints Philip and James) is the following: "If you live in me and my words live in you, all you ask for will be yours". This is the prayer of petition. The prayer of petition is simply the act of petitioning God for something or other. And God wants us to petition Him; there is nothing intrinsically self-centered about this type of prayer. We should, however, keep in mind that human knowing is profoundly limited; for we do not always know what is good for us -- in fact, we rarely do. So, the prayer of petition must be made in a spirit of trust. We should know in advance that we will not get what we petition for if what we ask for is not really good for us, that is, if it will in the long run destroy us. Indeed, we often petition for that which will not necessarily destroy us, but which is not necessarily consistent with the plan of providence for us -- it may be something that will steer us off course. To see that in the present moment is not possible; we only really come to know that in retrospect. And so we must pray in a spirit of trust, especially when we discover that we did not receive what we petitioned for.

But we can petition God to help us through a difficult course of study, or to help us find work, our daily bread, etc. But if we are to pray with persistence - -and we've been instructed to--, we have to be aware of the priority of divine providence. God provides, and God knows from eternity what we have prayed for in the past, what we currently pray for, and what we will pray for in the future - -that knowledge is possessed by God simultaneously and eternally. We move within the current of time, and if we watch with the eyes of faith, we gradually discover what He wants for us and what He does not want for us. But if He wants us to have it and we pray for it (i.e., we are open to it), it will be ours: "Is there anyone among you who would hand his son a stone when he asked for bread? Or would hand him a snake when he asked for a fish? If you, then evil as you are, know how to give your children what is good, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!" (Mt 7, 9-11).

The Prayer of Intercession

Another kind of prayer, somewhat higher than the prayer of petition, is the prayer of intercession. This is a higher type of prayer because its focus is away from the self and towards others. Christ tells us to take this as far as interceding for our enemies, let alone those we do not particularly like. This demands that we rise above our emotions to consider others through a sheer act of the will. In fact, as we ascend, through prayer, to the very presence of God, we discover our neighbour within the very heart of God, and so our ascent is followed by a descent back towards the earth, in the service of those we have found within the heart of God. This is how intercessory prayer arises; for there is a real unity between the love of God and the love of neighbour: "...whoever does not love the brother whom he can see cannot love God whom he has not seen" (1 Jn 4, 20). We have only to think of Abraham interceding on behalf of the innocent in Sodom: "It is presumptuous of me to speak to the Lord, I who am dust and ashes: Suppose the fifty upright were five short? Would you destroy the whole city because of five?" (Gn 18, 27-28). The heart of Abraham was awakened to the suffering of the innocent. Those inclined in the direction of the narcissist, on the other hand, have a soft spot for unrepentant criminals, but not the innocent. Their intercession looks like mercy, but it is fundamentally an anti-prayer; for it is rooted in an indifference to justice and the innocent victims of injustice. It is love for a kindred spirit, and nothing more, and the evidence for this is in its radical inconsistency.

The Prayer of Thanksgiving

The spirit of gratitude is the first step to the cultivation of a religious spirit -- it is a necessary condition for a spiritual awakening. Hence, the prayer of thanksgiving. This is a higher kind of prayer than the two previous. The spirit of gratitude is born when a person steps back in order to take in the larger picture. If you wish to change your mood, take a sheet of paper and on the top line write one thing you are grateful for. Then on the next line below write another thing that you are grateful for. Then continue on down the page writing anything that you are grateful for and put your pen down when you are done. Some people stop at five or six, others stop at thirty, and still others find it hard to stop at all. I submit that there is a positive correlation between the length of a person's list and the joy that he or she experiences on a daily basis.

Aristotle pointed out that "as a person is, so does he see". In other words, there is a relationship between a person's character and what it is he is able to know. A spirit of gratitude, which allows one to see all that has been given gratuitously (without having earned it), is only possible through a kind of self-transcendence. A person who will not step outside himself or who has difficulty doing so cannot readily see what he ought to be grateful for. The root of the word "ecstasy" means "beside oneself", which implies an exit of self. Joy correlates positively with this "exit of self", that is, with ecstasy, and gratitude requires a stepping outside oneself and a re-examination of oneself from outside, so to speak, as an object in relation to other things in the world. When this becomes a permanent disposition, a habit, we are inclined to spend time with God, within a space set apart specifically for Him, in the prayer of thanksgiving.

The Prayer of Praise

There is a higher level of prayer still. When we are struck by an artist's work, for example, we are moved to praise him or her. This is the case when a person achieves anything that is praiseworthy, whether that is an athletic or academic achievement of sorts, perhaps a literary achievement, or a profound insight or even a permanent disposition, such as an intellectual virtue, such as wisdom, etc. When we behold a genuine good, we are moved to acknowledge it. Some people, however, are not so moved, because they have a serious aversion to acknowledging their own finitude. The narcissistically inclined, for example, are not impressed with the achievements of others because recognizing those achievements requires that he (the egoist) acknowledge a good (i.e., skill, accomplishment, etc.) that he does not possess, and that implies a simultaneous recognition of his own limitations. The narcissist then, in his own eyes, becomes a part of a larger whole, not the whole itself, and this is what he finds very difficult to accept. Holiness works in the opposite direction.

When a person goes from the prayer of petition to the prayer of intercession, and then begins to discern the providential hand of God in daily life, and then is moved to the prayer of thanksgiving, which implies a greater awareness of divine providence, he or she grows in a knowledge of God, an awareness of His grandeur, that is, the love He has for each person individually. Such a person achieves a deeper self-transcendence, and "as a person is, so does he see". When a person begins to see the grandeur of God everywhere, he acquires a heart that is disposed to acknowledge that perceived glory, which is the prayer of praise. Such a person comes to know, indirectly and through a kind of connatural knowledge, the face of God, and when we become familiar with the heart of God, we are moved to praise Him. This is a much higher kind of prayer because it is more "ecstatic", involving a greater exit of self.

The Prayer of Adoration

One day I was called to the hospital to visit a senior parishioner who had a minor stroke. I approached the room slowly and peeked inside. She was awake and sitting up in bed, and her husband was with her sitting on a chair next to her. I stopped and continued to watch them for about a minute. They weren't saying anything to one another, and neither were they doing anything in particular -- neither one was reading or working on a crossword, for example. They were both just "being with" one another. It was actually a touching sight. They've been married and faithful to one another for so long that words were not necessary; just being in the presence of one another was enough.

When we pray, words are not always necessary because God is Word, He is Logos (Jn 1, 1). God's Word is an eternal utterance, and it is in silence that we are most disposed to hear it. Fasting prepares the soul to listen, disposing it to hearing this eternal Logos who speaks without words. This act of wordlessly dwelling in the presence of God is the highest and noblest kind of prayer, the prayer of adoration. At this level, there arises a profound desire to spend as much time as possible simply being in the presence of God in complete silence. This presence is joy, and it is through this space that we begin to see the mundane world differently; for we begin to recognize this presence behind the veil of physical reality, a veil that reveals this divine presence by covering it, much like the headscarf (hijab) conceals but at the same time reveals the beauty of modesty.

A person who has not begun to pray in life is a person who has not begun to live. Those who pray periodically, i.e., when times are difficult, are barely alive and will either begin to breath more regularly, or their spiritual life will deteriorate and eventually come to an end. There is no doubt in my mind that God permits suffering because for the vast majority of people, who are stubborn and "stiff necked", suffering and profound difficulties alone will awaken them to their own limitations and their radical need for God, and some people require far more suffering than others. When a person comes face to face with his own radical helplessness, he is more likely to call out for help; hence, the prayer of petition. But that is only the starting point. Hopefully, that is the beginning of an ascent, the start of a new life of never ending surprises, which is the life of prayer.