What is prayer?


We hear a lot about how important prayer is in the Christian life, and especially when discerning one’s vocation. It’s the essential way we connect with God. So it’s obvious that prayer is important — but maybe it’s less obvious what prayer actually is.

Understanding prayer is really important for discernment. If we don’t get this at least basically right, it is almost impossible to honestly and effectively determine God’s plan for our lives.

Prayer is commonly misunderstood to work like a computer program, where putting in the right input results in the desired output: if I say 1,000 Hail Marys and sleep on broken glass, then I will get what I want. Sure, this is an exaggeration to make the point, but it’s easy to get disappointed by what might be perceived as failed results if we don’t understand what prayer really is.

So here are some things that prayer is not:

  • Prayer is not some sort of magic formula to get what we want. Yes, we should ask for what we need in our prayer – this is actually encouraged by our Lord. But we must understand that God may or may not be willing to grant our desires based on what He knows is best for us. What we think we need isn’t always what we actually need. We should follow Jesus’ lead when he prayed, “not My will, but Your will be done” (Lk 22:42).
  • Prayer is not a search engine for answers. We can’t just say to God, “this is what I want to know”, and expect Him to provide the answers that we want. Yes, we may receive answers to our questions in prayer. But God may have reasons for not providing an answer in the way we would prefer.
  • Prayer does not adjust one’s character qualities like the roll of dice in a role-playing game. We do not gain virtue simply by asking for it – it takes hard work to build virtue, because virtue is a habit for doing the good. Like any other habit, it is developed by actually doing the good over time. If you expect to “level up” in virtue simply by praying a novena, think again!
  • Prayer is not a narcotic. It’s easy to think that God should give us good feelings and consolation whenever we pray. After all, He wants us to be happy, right? True, but real happiness does not lie in consolation. Sometimes God gives consolation in prayer, but we need to realize that consolation is not the purpose of prayer, and should never be expected.

A bit of irony: even though we should not expect the things mentioned above — particular desires, answers, virtue, and consolation — we may be given each of these things in our prayer, at God’s discretion.

What is prayer, then? It’s really simple: prayer is spending time with God in order to be united to Him! There are many different ways to pray; the Saints have recommended various methods and activities for prayer, all of which are good and beneficial. But the ultimate activity of prayer is being present with the God we love.

As with any friendship, our friendship with God is developed by just being with Him. Keep Him company – that’s really what He wants, for us to be close to Him. As St. Teresa of Jesus says, “Mental prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us.”

So, as you make your holy hour, pray your Rosary, read Scripture, et cetera, keep this in mind: the goal is to be closer to God. As you become more familiar with Him, you’ll find that all the answers, desires, virtues and consolations that you need are given in His company.