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What is Prayer?

Definition, History, and Prayers

bible rosaryBasically, prayer is communicating with God. Whether you say a formal prayer, or just spontaneously talk with God, many believers throughout the world spend a lot of time in prayer.

There are many types of prayer in the Christian tradition, including intercession (praying for others), petition (asking God for something), thanksgiving (giving thanks to God), and penitential prayer (expressing sorrow for your sins).

Another type is meditation, which has been described as simply "listening to God." Some prayer is more formal and public, such as the Catholic Mass, which is highly structured and involves participation by a lot of people, and other prayer is informal and private. St. Paul tells us to "pray without ceasing," which means our lives should be filled with prayer. Most Christians throughout history have probably prayed using a mix of types and styles. The saints have focused more on meditation and forms of prayerful silence.

The public prayer of the Catholic Church is often referred to as liturgy, which comes from the Greek word meaning "work of the people." It is called this because the people come to together to offer their sacrifices of thanksgiving and praise to God, together, in communion. Catholics are expected to gather every week for Mass, and on every holy day of obligation. In Liturgy everyone speaks as one united voice, and many of the prayers used are very ancient and have been revered for generations.

Some of the most popular types of prayer relate to the Church year. This is why there are many prayers related to the Church seasons, such as Christmas and Lent. Another popular prayer is the Our Father Prayer, also known as the Lord's Prayer. This is the prayer that Jesus himself gave us when his disciples asked him how to pray. The Lord's prayer has been the most popular prayer throughout history, since not only is it recited during Mass, but it is also used daily by many Christians.

One of the most popular Catholic prayers is the Hail Mary prayer, which is addressed to Mary. In reality it is a prayer that asks Mary to pray for us. Many Protestants misunderstand the purpose of praying to Mary and other saints, but it is essentially the same as asking a friend to pray for you, only the saints are in God's direct company. Finally, another valuable type of prayer is the Novena. It is a nine-day period of prayer, in which a person prays the same prayer for nine days straight. This symbolizes fervent and devoted prayer, and is based on the nine day period of time between the Ascension and Pentecost.

While the evidence is mixed, some scientific evidence suggests that prayer is effective at making people more relaxed and attentive. Meditation in particular seems to alter the brain in positive ways. Also, some studies even have shown that intercessory prayer (praying for others) has helped heart patients have better outcomes after surgery. Studies have also shown the benefits of meditative prayer as an aid to relaxation and greater self-awareness. While Christians do not need science to "prove" that prayer works, nonetheless, science is exploring what way, if any, prayer can be scientifically studied.

For individual prayers, check out our Online Prayer Book for more options.

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Last updated 05-09-2016