What is Prayer? Our Shield and our Sword

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The following is a graduate level essay by William Deatherage that received an A. Clarifying Catholicism enjoys publishing college essays, and we welcome submissions from students and professionals of all ages.

There is hardly a theological subject that is as seemingly simple yet so complex as prayer is. The depth of this practice is often lost because of its habitual nature. From our childhoods we are taught prayers as if they were nursery rhymes until they ironically drag us into a swamp of mundanity. As prayer is bogged down by the weight of our empty words, it becomes a chore. The only hope for a vibrant prayer life is a return to the source of all salvation, the Liturgy. It is through the Mass that we encounter God in His fullest capacity, not only in hearing His Word through scripture but by consuming It in the Eucharist. Without the Mass, we are isolated from the only chance of unity with God. But the state of grace granted by the sacraments is constantly threatened by our tendency to sin, and reception of Christ’s Body is not sufficient for gaining practical wisdom. Prayer, therefore, is the contemplative and reflective practice through which our relationship with God, which is fostered in the Eucharist, is sustained throughout our lives.

In his Soliloquies, St. Augustine recognizes God’s centrality to all that is true and good. He writes “You, I invoke, O God, the Truth, in whom and from whom and through whom all things are true which anywhere are true.” He also acknowledges this in his treatise On Christian Doctrine: “None of us, though, should claim our understanding of anything as our very own, except possibly of falsehood. Because everything that is true comes from the one who said “I am the Truth” (Jn 14:6).” Essentially, truth comes from God alone, and because of our original sin, acquired through the betrayal of God in the Garden of Eden, we are cut off from the source of truth. The events of Eden left us with no means of fostering union with our Creator. No temporal sacrifice could bridge the chasm between finite human beings and an infinitely powerful God whom we betrayed. All hope of communion with God was lost.

God did not abandon humanity, though. He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to sacrifice Himself for mankind, thereby providing us with a mechanism for salvation. His human nature allowed for His sacrifice to represent the human race, while His divine nature satisfied the requirement of a sacrifice equal to God’s infinite worth. This did not grant us automatic salvation, though, as we evidently still suffer from original sin. Instead, Christ provided us with an eternal sacrifice that we can participate in: the Eucharist. This is how, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, God acts as both the efficient and final cause of our salvation, sending His Word, which we can choose to accept or reject, for the purpose of bringing us back to Him. The Liturgy, which is founded on Christ’s command to eat His body and drink His blood, is the key to participating in His sacrifice. The Church’s primary role, therefore, is to preserve this perfect sacrifice that only comes through Christ, which Father Louis Bouyer, Christian historian, emphasizes: “Thus in the Church […] Christ continues to speak, and His Word, which remains His own in the very act of being spoken, retains on the lips of His ministers the creative power proper to the divine Word.” That said, those with impure hearts cannot encounter God authentically, which is precisely why Christ gives us teachings to live by. As theologian Father Piet Fransen, notes “Christ’s human word is at the same time the Word of the son.’” The gift of God’s Word serves the dual purpose of eternal sacrifice and instructor, both of which are preserved by the Liturgy. As Bouyer writes, “The Word of God is not, therefore, simply verbal expressions nor even ideas: it is always an act.” That said, participation in the Liturgy cannot guarantee a permanent state of salvation.

Obviously, daily activities limit our access to the lifegiving Eucharist, for the moment we leave the pews, we are susceptible to mortal sin, which threatens to nullify the perfect sacrifice we participated in. So, an additional safeguard is required to prevent us from falling out of favor with God. This protective practice is called prayer. Like the Liturgy, it serves the dual purpose of preserving the Eucharistic sacrifice and the teachings of Christ. As Bouyer writes “Prayer, thus understood, issues quite naturally in offering […] our self-giving in the obedience of faith to the will of God for us as revealed in the Word, the will which we have accepted in prayer.” Prayer, therefore, is an extension of the Liturgy insofar as it keeps us in a state of grace that only the Word, which we consume in the Eucharist and reflect on throughout our lives, can offer us.

Contrary to the popular practice of reciting mindless words at the dinner table, prayer’s central role in the daily life of a Christian necessitates great discipline. Christ taught his disciples how to pray, demonstrating that its effectiveness is not relative to individual experience. Because of original sin, the mind tends to corrupt what is sacred. Bouyer warns “We should, certainly, investigate rationally all the implications of divine truth, if only to safeguard ourselves from adultering it with all kinds of errors.” Two core aspects of a well-disciplined spiritual life that Bouyer writes about includes self-denial and authentic contemplation. The former, being more reactive, shutters the mind from its natural inclination to sin. Bouyer extensively analyzes Christian asceticism as a popular form of self-denial, or “an effort toward liberation, resulting directly from faith: liberation from this world for the sake of the world to come.” While not all are called to participate in the extreme acts of self-denial that Christian ascetics did, which included fasting and self-mortification, prayer ensures that our actions are in line with the ways of the Kingdom of God, not the kingdom of Earth. If self-denial is our best defense, then contemplation is its offensive counterpart. Contemplation involves frequent reflection on the Word of God, which is taught in the Liturgy, in relation to daily life. It has various styles, though Bouyer specifically praises the Divine Office, since its structure and contents retain a continuity with the Mass. Bouyer describes two levels of contemplation: an inferior one that “still knows God only through distinct ideas, however lofty and simplified these may be,” and a superior one that “rejects and goes beyond every idea as well as every imagining, including those related to the humanity of the Savior.” The first way of contemplation is healthy for spiritual beginners, but it can lead to idolatry if its practitioner refuses to recognize the insurmountable mysteries of God, stunting his or her own growth. Catholic existentialist Jean-Luc Marion warns, “The unthinkable determines God by the seal of his definitive indeterminateness for a created and finite thought. The unthinkable masks the gap, a fault ever open, between God and the idol, or better, between God and the pretension of all possible idolatry.” Authentic contemplation, therefore, does not limit itself to the individual’s perception of God but retains an openness to His mysterious nature. Failures to approach prayer with self-denial and authentic contemplation can corrupt the practice.

It is depressingly easy to make mistakes in one’s own prayer life. Chief among these includes the tendency to over-mechanize prayer or to substitute it for the sacraments themselves. Regarding the former, the mechanization of prayer turns a vibrant ritual into a magic trick that grants its performer their wishes. Just as a graduate student might bribe his professor with candy to grant his desire for a passing grade, the untrained prayer warrior might try to exchange a few Our Fathers for a raise at work. A mastery of prayer is not a mastery of God. It is, in fact, the opposite, as Pseudo-Dionysius writes “For the higher we soar, the more limited become our expressions of that which is purely intelligible.” Growth in prayer must be accompanied by a growth in humility, lest we fall into the idolatry Marion cautions against: performing meaningless rituals to static idols that conform to our desires. We must also recall that, as Fr. Frances notes, “Truth takes possession of us […] It does not take possession of us individually, for this truth is entrusted first of all to the Church.” This leads to the second great mistake of prayer: being so “open” to the mysteries of God that our prayers based in the Liturgy devolve into personal experience. New Testament scholar Sandra Schneiders criticizes those who over-personalize the spiritual life: “These texts tended to over-emphasize paranormal experience – something which all the great mystics greatly relativized and even cautioned contemplatives against – as a distinguishing feature of the final stage of the spiritual life.” The Eucharistic source of salvation is swapped out with a private devotion to some “paranormal” being that is likely a projection of the practitioner’s desires. Bouyer uses Buddhist asceticism as an example of a practice with “an abstention which becomes an end in itself.” Many varieties of Buddhism eliminate God’s role as the efficient cause of salvation by emphasizing a salvific act of the human will alone. It is perhaps ironic that the two extremes of over-mechanization and abandonment of structure both yield the same result: an idol that conforms to our wishes. These two great struggles of authentic spirituality can be resolved by a combination of a humility that recognizes the fundamental mysteriousness of God and a discipline to God’s self-communicated commandments.

Prayer is no simple task. Beyond the church’s walls, it is our only safeguard against corruption and death. It stokes the flame of our relationship with God that is only kindled in the life-giving Eucharist. This is precisely why prayer’s firm connection to the Liturgy is required. Without it, we risk descending into an idolatry of our own wills, not that of God’s. Christ’s sacrifice is the only means of salvation. Though it is not a cure for original sin, it offers us hope for reunion with God. Self-denial protects us from worship of worldly things, while contemplation gives us the opportunity to reflect on the Word of God in relation to our lives. As the temptations of mundanity swirl around us, prayer is our best shield and sword through its denial of worldly pleasures and its active contemplation of God’s Word.


Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. 1920.

Augustine. De Doctrina Christianity. Translated by Hill, Edmund O.P. for The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century. Hyde Park: New York City Press, 1990.

Augustine. Soliloquies. Translated by C.C. Starbuck from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 7, Edited by Philip Schaff. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888. Revised and Edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.

Bouyer, Louis. Introduction to the Spiritual Life. Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 2013, originally published in 1961.

Fransen, Piet. “The Authority of the Councils.” CrossCurrents 11, no. 4 (1961): 367. Accessed April 22, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/24456974

Marion, Jean-Luc. God Without Being. Translated by Thomas A. Carlson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012, originally published in 1991.

Pseudo-Dionysius. Celestial Hierarchy. In The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism. Ed. Bernard McGinn. New York: Modern Library, 2006.

Schneiders, Sarah M. “Approaches to the Study of Christian Spirituality.” In Holder, Arthur The Blackwell Companion to Christian Spirituality. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

Edited By: Ariel Hobbs

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