Growing up, I had been accustomed to vocal prayer as it gave a feeling of substance to my calling upon the Lord and His response. For example, I would pray aloud during Mass and would hear God’s Word being proclaimed back to me. Of course, if I was not actively paying attention to that Word or if my mind or heart were absent, my prayers would be for naught and be reduced to mere words: “Whether or not our prayer is heard depends not on the number of words, but on the fervor of our souls” (St. John Chrysostom, see CCC 2700). The trouble I sometimes had with my private prayer was that I would be speaking to God without really listening for His reply.
When I arrived at The Catholic University of America as a freshman I was immediately exposed to new expressions of the Faith. One of my favorite forms of prayer turned out to be radically different from everything I had encountered beforehand. At the first Praise and Worship Adoration of the year I was thrilled to be seated in the packed St. Paul’s chapel at 9 PM on a Wednesday. Even more so, I had never before experienced so much energy and emotion by a congregation (especially one consisting mainly of young people) poured into song. Immediately after the homily’s conclusion, however, the lights were turned off and everyone fell to their knees. In the darkness the only thing visible before us on the altar was the monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament. The next ten or fifteen minutes served to introduce me to contemplative prayer, in which I was able to connect with our Lord in a new and incredibly intimate way.
As St. John Vianney described the experience, “I look at him and he looks at me.” By focusing on His true and beautiful Presence before me, I forget about all the distractions in my life: the voices in my head scattering my thoughts, my desires, my worries, my exhaustion, etc. I simply place myself before Him and gaze at Him in the stillness. Scripturally, I’m reminded of Mary’s tender gazing at her Son as she held Him in her arms, both at His birth (cf. Matthew 2:11) and His death (cf. John 19:37), as well as Mary of Bethany’s gazing upon the Lord when He ministered to her household (see Luke 10:39). This silent but ineffable expression of love is not passive but an obedience— and test— of faith, especially as my senses cannot comprehend the Real Presence (see CCC 2715-2717).
No matter what form of prayer one prefers, all prayer must be based in humility (see Matthew 23:12, CCC 2559-2560). It is God’s gift to us, especially since “we do not know how to pray as we ought” (Romans 8:26). As prayer is from the heart, “if our heart is far from God, the words of prayer are in vain” (CCC 2562; cf. CCC 2563). Finally, no matter what we pray for, we must never underestimate the power of our words. Pope Francis has stressed that “prayer, in the face of a problem, a difficult situation, a calamity… is opening the door to the Lord, so that He can do something. If we close the door, God can do nothing!” Like the Psalmist David sings, we can always find comfort and assurance in God’s presence:
O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name (Psalm 63:1-4).
Thomas Wong is an undergraduate at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.