Dimensions of Christian Prayer
I talk a lot about silent prayer in this blog, which is understandable considering that my focus is on contemplative prayer, which the Catholic Catechism describes as “wordless prayer.” As important as silence is to contemplative and mystical forms of prayer, it’s only one of five essential dimensions of Christian prayer. In this post I look at all of these dimensions of prayer: what they are, why they matter, and how to cultivate all the essential ways of praying in your daily spiritual practice.
I recently started reading a delightful book by Alexander Ryrie, called Silent Waiting: The Biblical Roots of Contemplative Spirituality. I have a feeling it will show up in this blog again and again. For today, I want to reflect on an interesting quotation found in the book’s introduction. This was written by Christopher Bryan and first appears in a wonderful book from Oxford University Press, The Study of Spirituality:
Here it will be enough to say that prayer may be divided into expressive and contemplative prayer. In expressive prayer individuals voice their faith and desires either in their own words or in those of the liturgy or in prayers composed by others. The four main types of expressive prayer are adoration, confession, thanksgiving and petition. Contemplative prayer is a prayer in which the individual waits in an open and receptive attitude, looking to the Lord. It has been called a prayer of loving attention to God.
I had never run into this phrase “expressive prayer” before, and I love it. It’s a wonderful way of gathering together all the various types of “prayers using words” which are so important to the Christian walk with God. It also reminded me of an interesting interaction I once saw between my novice master and one of my fellow Lay Cistercian novices, the first year of my formation. The subject of centering prayer had come up, and this particular person was uncomfortable with it. She was worried that centering prayer was too much like eastern practices to be safe for Christians. Our instructor listened to her concerns, and also allowed those of us who practiced centering or similar forms of prayer to speak. Then he said, “centering prayer is a perfectly valid form of Christian prayer, but I think it should always be practiced in the context of praying the Daily Office, and lectio divina.” In other words, silent prayer needs expressive prayer — and I would add, and vice versa. Expressive prayer is rich in content: words and images that help to form us in the Christian life. But contemplative forms of prayer set the content aside to allow us to rest in deep silence, where the Holy Spirit forms us at a level too deep for words.
So, thinking about Dr. Bryan’s wonderful distinction, I’ve created a chart (which you can see at the bottom of this post) where I’ve taken those two divisions of prayer: expressive and contemplative, and tried to unpack them further. To begin, I felt contemplative was too narrow a category to equate with expressive, so I changed that basic division to expressive prayer and receptive prayer (of which contemplation is a part). In expressive prayer, we seek to express the character, desire, and needs of our lives to God. But in receptive prayer, we adopt a stance of listening, waiting, or reflecting, trusting God to take the lead in the shape and content of our prayer.
Then I divided both expressive and receptive forms of praying into three subcategories each. Five of these six categories, I believe, are essential dimensions of prayer: in other words, a Christian who is intentional and serious about cultivating a rich and intimate spirituality, centered on God and seeking life in God, will find each of these five types of Christian prayer important to a daily prayer practice. The sixth category, while also important, is something over which we have no control: it is always prayer of pure grace, given only as God wills. So that sixth category is best left aside — we have enough to do with cultivating the other five types of prayer.
Of course, this is only one way of thinking about the different dimensions of prayer. This is not meant to be the only or final word on the topic. My purpose in creating this chart is two-fold: first, to offer one way of thinking about the varieties of Christian prayer, and second (and most important) to encourage the practice of both expressive and receptive dimensions of prayer.
So, then, what are the essential dimensions of Christian prayer?
Expressive Prayer includes these forms of prayer:
- Liturgical Prayer is the prayer of the entire people of God. These are the prayers of the Holy Eucharist, the Mass; but also the daily prayers of the Divine Office, the Liturgy of the Hours. These prayers happen best in community — when the members of a church, monastery, or other faith community gather to pray. But the Office especially can be prayed in private. If praying the entire Daily Office is overwhelming for you, try praying elements of it, such as the Psalms or the Canticles like the Magnificat or the Te Deum.
- Devotional Prayer consists of prayers we memorize or find in a book. As simple as grace before meals, or bedtime prayers, these prayers also include famous prayers (like Thomas Merton’s renowned “I don’t know where I’m going” prayer), devotional exercises like Novenas or Chaplets, or even the daily examen as taught in Ignatian spirituality.
- Personal Prayer means the prayers of our own words. This is conversational prayer, where you and God have a little chat. Some people find this very difficult; it can feel self-conscious or awkward, but it can also be deeply intimate and a way of prayer that fosters trust in God. The classic categories of this kind of prayer include adoration (expressing love for God), confession of wrongdoing, petition (which includes praying for others as well), and thanksgiving for our many blessings.
Receptive Prayer moves the focus away from what we say to God, instead resting in how we listen or wait for God. It includes these forms of prayer:
- Meditative Prayer engages our capacity to reflect on God’s beauty, truth and goodness using the imagination. Perhaps the most famous type of this prayer is the Rosary, which combines repetitive use of devotional prayers (the Hail Mary, the Our Father) with reflection on mysteries from the lives of Christ and Mary. Similarly, Ignatian spirituality invites us to pray through imaginatively entering a scene from the Gospels, encountering the Lord through the mind’s eye. “Mental Prayer” may seem an old-fashioned word, but it implies this kind of imaginative reflection on God’s love and our response in a more general way. Finally, meditative prayer includes creative ways of expressing our longing for God through artistic endeavors such as painting, drawing, music, or even dance.
- Contemplative Prayer is a grace from God, so properly speaking, we do not engage in contemplation so much as we prepare for it, or dispose ourselves to it, and that’s what these types of prayer do. Centering prayer, inspired by The Cloud of Unknowing and emphasizing the use of a single “prayer word” to focus our unruly mind, is perhaps the best known of these types of prayer, but the Eastern Orthodox practice of reciting the Jesus Prayer is a closely related practice. Embodied forms of prayer, such as walking a labyrinth, paying attention to one’s breath, or even prayerful engagement with practices like Tai Chi or yoga, can also dispose us to contemplation. Such practices foster a wakeful openness to God’s action in one’s life. The key here is silence — any prayer form that ushers our awareness into the gentle, expansive presence of silence is a doorway to contemplation.
- Mystical Prayer is typically the fruit of a sustained and mature spiritual life, although by the grace of God such prayer could emerge in our lives at any time. Here God suspends the ordinary faculties of everyday awareness — the imagination, the intellect, and the will — thereby causing the praying soul to sink into infinity. Typically emerging out of other forms of prayer, mystical prayer can include transfigured states of consciousness, moments of ecstasy or rapture, a profound sense of inner purification or “dark night,” and the abiding sense of conscious union with, or the presence of, God. Mystical prayer is always a grace, never in our control. Many deeply holy, authentically contemplative Christians — people who deserve to be called mystics — go through their entire lives without ever having these kinds of extraordinary encounters with the Mystery, and those who do always caution us to remember that the goal of prayer is God — not an experience of God. Efforts to cultivate or engineer “mystical experiences” typically backfire, so it’s wisest to commit to practicing all the other dimensions of expressive or receptive prayer.
So what does a “balanced diet” of prayer look like? I imagine that’s a very personal question, and each of us will have a different prayer style, depending on our personality, our spiritual needs, whether we have access to spiritual direction or a praying community, and level of maturity. But setting aside mystical prayer which is always outside of our control, I would like to recommend that every serious seeker of Christ try to cultivate all five forms of prayer: liturgical, devotional, personal, meditative, and contemplative. The most efficient way to do this is by praying at least part of the Daily Office every day, and engaging in the practice of lectio divina, or sacred reading. The Daily Office allows us to participate in the liturgical (public) prayer of the entire Body of Christ, while lectio is a disciplined form of scripture reading and prayer that encompasses meditation, personal prayer, and contemplation. Many people love to incorporate the daily examen into Compline, the part of the Daily Office prayed at the end of the day. That would incorporate a devotional dimension into liturgical prayer.
Sorry for writing another long, long post! But I hope you’ll find this helpful, and I hope the chart below is useful for you as well. Blessings for your prayer!
N.B. Special thanks to Brother Elias Marechal OCSO, author of Tears of An Innocent God, and Kevin Johnson of The Inner Room, for helpful feedback in my definitions of contemplative and mystical prayer.
Have I left off any important forms of Christian prayer? Do you disagree with how I’ve charted the life of prayer here? Please share your thoughts, either in a comment on this post or via social media. Thanks for reading!