As human beings we have a natural inclination toward the transcendent, and prayer is an expression of that inclination. The impulse to pray precedes theology and belief; 'wherever one finds humans, one finds humans at prayer'.* Thus, it is not a surprise that prayer,and prayerful contemplation or meditation, occupy an important place in all faith traditions.
What is prayer?
People use the terms prayer, contemplation and meditation in different ways. Some think of prayer as referring only to communication with God that we initiate - our talking to God or asking something of God, reserving the term 'contemplation' for listening to God. Some use the terms 'meditation' and 'contemplation' to refer to prayer that does not involve discursive thought. Others use the term 'meditation' to refer to the process of working with the mind with the object of gaining insight into the nature of reality, which can include deep inner reflection on Scriptures.
Richard Rohr, a Franciscan monk and writer on spirituality, uses the term 'prayer' in a broad sense as 'the umbrella word for any interior journeys or practices that allow you to experience faith, love and hope within yourself.' Here, I use the term equally broadly to refer to prayer simply as communication between humans and God (or whatever term the person gives to the Ultimate Reality that transcends human existence). A mutual communication that includes both speaking and listening, that sometimes uses words and that sometimes is wordless. It is a mutual process between God and humans that, in the Christian tradition, is at root dialogic, for Christian prayer involves more than the self. It is an activity in which God is involved not just the person. In its essence, it is not something we are doing to God but what God is doing to us when we open to this Ultimate Reality.
Why is prayer important if we are to grow spiritually?
Being a Christian, a follower of Christ, is not about giving intellectual assent to a checklist of beliefs about God. Rather, what Christ seeks from those that would call themselves his disciples is a fundamental transformation of heart and mind - a transformation that changes everything about who we are in the world - 'Be transformed by the renewing of your mind;' 'It is no longer I that live, but Christ that lives in me,' asserts St. Paul.
So, because at the heart of Christianity is this transformation, prayer is an essential component of the path, particularly affective experiences in prayer that touch our inner being.
Transformation is not ultimately an experience of the intellect but a conversion of the heart. It is a journey in knowing, to the core of our being, that God loves us unconditionally; a knowledge that can only be gained through actual religious experience that touches the heart of who we are when we open ourselves through prayer to receive this ineffable, all-transforming and beatifying love. It is a work of the Spirit within us.
Connected with this deep realisation of God's love for us is the living out of the command to love others - including those we may see as our enemies. This requires a fundamental change in our inner being that stems from a deep realisation of ourselves as beloved of God and our nature as interrelated with God and others. It requires a letting go of the false self, the ego that wants personal satisfaction, to choose the 'life' that God brings. To give ourselves seriously to prayer is to recognise those subtle forms of self-seeking within us and face up to the choice to cast aside our egoism and allow God's love to purify it more and more, whatever the cost. It is an act of self-offering.
Prayer takes place at the deepest level of our person, often at a level below consciousness. The heart of prayer is to remain vulnerable and open to this inflowing of divine love and to trust in the enfolding, nurturing, transforming Love of God which is the Reality; the Reality which is there whether we embrace it or not. To engage in prayer, from our side, is a deliberate decision to respond to this Reality in the fullest way that we can, allowing the inflowing of God into our secret depths. We abandon ourselves into God's loving presence and in so doing begin to discover our true being. We find that the layers of self-deception and delusion are peeled away and something more of our authentic being, as found in God, is disclosed to us.
There are many forms we can use as the vehicle for our prayer. You can find some more contemplative practices, drawn from ancient Christian monastic traditions, in my Prayer Life Series.
For a little more on the paradox of this transformation in Christ on our spiritual path, please also see my article 'Travelling...'
* Philip Zaleski & Carol Zaleski 'Prayer: A History'