What is prayer?

Prayer is communicating or talking with God. When we pray we seek God’s companionship as we journey through the ups and downs of our life’s journey. Prayer is a fundamental part of Christian faith. It is the means by which we live in relationship and trust with God. At the heart of this relationship is a sense that we are speaking to God as a friend and that God communicates with us.

Communication with God

Praying involves sharing our lives with God. When we pray we focus our attention on God, sharing our stories, the events of our lives, our concerns and our hopes. Praying helps us to recognise that God is active in our world, listening and interested in each one of us.

Trust in God

Pope Francis has described prayer as ‘opening the door to the Lord’. When we pray we are choosing to trust God – to believe that God wants the best for us. In bringing our hopes and fears before God in prayer we believe that God will care for us.

God communicates with us

We communicate in many ways with our friends but how does God ‘speak’ to us? God can communicate with us through prayer in a number of ways. Sometimes when we pray we feel a deep sense of peace, or connection with God and others. We might feel led, as result of prayer, to read a piece of scripture, act or make a resolution. Prayer may bring a sense of clarity or understanding about a situation, or an ability to cope with difficulties. Sometimes, when people are praying about difficult time, they speak of being ‘carried’ through prayer.

Think about

Consider the way you relate to friends or family members.

What are some of the things necessary for good communication and relationships? What are things that can make communication difficult?

Would any of these things help, or hinder, prayer?

Symbols of prayer

Signs and symbols

Have you ever seen candles burning in a church? Lighting a candle and placing it before a picture or statue as part of a prayer is an ancient Christian tradition. The lit candle represents the person’s faith in Jesus, who is called ‘the Light of Christ’ and recalls his words: ‘I am the light of the world’. The symbol of the candle is used as part of sacraments and liturgies, such as baptism, the Paschal candle at Easter, and in the Advent candle each year.

We use a number of other signs and symbols to witness our faith and as part of ourprayers, including the cross and the Crucifix, (a cross with an image of Jesus being crucified), pictures, water, oil, bread and incense.


The way we move our body can be used as part of prayer. For example, Catholics make the Sign of the Cross on the body as a prayer. It often accompanies other prayers, such as those for provision before or after meals known as ‘Grace’. Roman Catholics make the sign of the cross by using the right hand to touch the forehead, the middle of the breast, then the left shoulder and finally the right shoulder while praying.

Another example of a prayer gesture is genuflection – touching the right knee to the floor while bending the left knee and making the sign of the cross – as a sign of deep reverence in front of the Eucharist, usually reserved in the church in a metal container called a tabernacle.


The position of the body can indicate reverence, such as the practice of standing and kneeling during Mass or private prayer.

Lying prostrate, or face down, before the altar, can be a sign of deep respect and response during ceremonies, such as religious vows commitment and at the beginning of the Good Friday service.

Think about

Communication with others can involve far more than words.

Can you think of examples where body language, gestures or particular items convey meaning?


Consider a sacrament, such as Baptism or Marriage. Research the symbols, gestures and stance used and what each represents.

To whom do we pray?

When we pray we, as individuals, a community or the Church, can address our prayers to God – God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, or to the Trinity, the name for the three persons in God. Prayers are directed primarily to God the Father, ‘in the name of’ Jesus, who is ‘the way’ to God, through the Holy Spirit, who teaches us to pray.


  • God the Father
  • God the Son
  • God the Holy Spirit
  • Trinity


  • God the Father God the Son
  • God the Son
  • God the Holy Spirit
  • Trinity


  • God the Father God the Son
  • God the Son
  • God the Holy Spirit
  • Trinity

Think about

In Scripture, and in traditional prayers, God is often referred to by other names or titles.

Can you think of any? Which qualities do these names reflect?

How can we express prayer?

There are three main Christian prayer expressions:

Talking to God, communicating our needs and hopes and expressing praise, is a basic part of Christian life. Sometimes this is done in silence and other times aloud. There are many examples in the Bible of people articulating their prayers to God. Jesus verbally expressed his personal prayers and prayed aloud the liturgical prayers of the synagogue. He taught his followers to say the The Lord’s Prayer.


Vocally expressing prayer can involve: reading aloud from scripture, reciting traditional prayers or praying other forms of prayer. We can also express prayers through songs or chants.


Christian prayer can take the form of meditation, which is a type of deep reflection in which we seek to grow in awareness of the knowledge of the love of Jesus, and to be in union with him. Meditation engages ‘thought, imagination, emotion and desire’. We might meditate on words of Scripture, the life of Jesus, icons, liturgical texts of the day or season, writings of the spiritual fathers, works of spirituality or aspects of creation.


Contemplative prayer is like resting in God’s presence. It can take the form of silent, intense focus on God, perhaps like when we are captivated by something beautiful, such as a scene or artwork. Contemplative prayer can be described as ‘a gaze of faith fixed on Jesus, an attentiveness to the Word of God’. St Teresa of Ávila explained it as ‘nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us.’ Meditative prayer can lead to contemplative prayer. Some people incorporate contemplative prayer into their regular prayer life. Others, such as those who live in monasteries, feel called to make this prayer their way of life.

Think about

What comes to mind when you think of ‘prayer’ – words you read, or recite, a song, your own thoughts to God – or something else?

Why do you think some people devote their lives to contemplative prayer?


Prayer can be expressed in many ways, including icon writing, dance, sculpture and music.

Choose one form and research examples, or investigate the life of someone who has made prayer the focus of their life or creative expression.

How can we pray?


Communicating as an individual with God is an important part of Christian prayer life. There are many examples in the Bible of people praying alone. Jesus often withdrew from crowds and his disciples to pray. Many of us seek out a quiet place at home, in a church or somewhere we feel close to God to spend time alone in prayer. This way of praying can involve spontaneous expressions, reciting traditional prayers, meditation or liturgical prayers. Some pray their own prayers or the official prayer of the Church, the Liturgy of the Hours, as part of their daily routine.


The official prayer of the Church formally assembled is known as liturgical prayer. The prayers of the Mass are liturgical prayers; they are said in the same way at the same time in each Mass. One example is the Doxology of the Eucharistic Prayer.


Prayers can be offered collectively, such as when people come together to ask for God’s blessing and protection, to give thanks, or to mourn and to console. Prayers said by families, classes and at the start of the school year are also examples of communal prayers. Communal prayer unites individuals in the community with God and can be powerful in strengthening the faith of all who gather to pray.


Jesus taught his followers to say the ‘Our Father’, also known as ‘The Lord’s prayer’.

Compare the versions in Matthew’s Gospel, Mt 6:9-13 with Luke’s, Lk 11:2-4, and the Aboriginal Our Father, which was created for the meeting of Pope John Paul II and Aboriginal people in 1986. How are they the same? How do they differ?

Think about

St Ignatius of Loyola developed a  prayer  called  ‘the  Examen’,  a  meditative reflection on the day. Find out more about it here Link  to http://jesuits.org/spirituality?PAGE=DTN-20130520125910

Types of prayer

There are different reasons to pray and therefore different prayers:

Type of prayer Purpose  
Blessing This prayer recognises the close relationship between God and us. Blessing
Adoration This prayer expresses deep love for God. Adoration
Petition Asking God for help is one of the most common and heartfelt prayers. Petition
Intercession In  this  prayer  we  ask  for  something  on  behalf  of someone else. Intercession
Thanksgiving This prayer expresses gratitude to God. Thanksgiving
Praise This type of prayer recognises the power and majesty of God. Praise

Think about

Are some sorts of prayers more common than others? Why might this be?


  1. Write a prayer that could be used for a class at the end of a school day. What sort of prayer is it?

Marian prayer

Given Mary’s unique place in tradition and as a model of discipleship, Catholics honour Mary through prayers, including the Hail Mary, The Angelus and Hail Holy Queen (Salve Regina). The Hail Mary is a prayer through which we can pray with Mary, honouring and ‘magnifying’ Jesus for all that he has done and entrusting Mary with care for humanity.

The Rosary is a prayer made up of other prayers: the Hail Mary and others. The Rosary is usually prayed with the aid of Rosary beads, a circlet of beads with a crucifix.

Think about

Where do the words in the Hail Mary prayer come from? How is Mary described in this prayer?

Praying with Saints

Catholics believe that all in the Church are connected to each other – we can pray for and with others, petitioning God on their behalf, which is known as ‘interceding’. This includes those who are in heaven, including individuals who the Church as recognised as holy, or saints. St Therese of Lisieux wrote that she intended to spend her time in heaven ‘in doing good on earth’. The Church has designated some saints as patrons for particular causes and some seek a particular saint’s intercession for their concerns. One prayer seeking the prayers of the saints is the Litany of the Saints.

Think about

Some saints are referred to as ‘patron saints’, which means they are seen to be prayer advocates for particular causes, places or life situations. Can you think of any such saints?

Check this list at www.catholic.org.au/saints/patrons


The prayers of many saints have become widely known and some even put to music. The prayer of protection from St Patrick’s breastplate has been illustrated with slides and put to music here (resourcemelb.catholic.edu.au). Make your own prayer presentation using the words of this prayer or another saint.

Places of prayer

While we can pray at any time or place, Christians have, since the earliest days of the Church, created special places in their homes and communities for personal and communal prayer.


Churches are buildings dedicated to prayer and worship and where liturgical prayer for the parish community occurs. Cathedrals and basilicas are churches with particular significance and function. Although there are many variations in design, all Catholic churches have some elements in common. Each has significance and symbolism designed to lead people to prayer and worship.


  1. Visit a church or take a look at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne here. (Link to app)
    Note any aspects designed to support and encourage prayer,

Sacred spaces

Some areas in the home or community can serve as places for individual or communal prayer. Outdoor areas, like prayer gardens and grottos, can serve as places of Christian prayer. Design can play a big part in the significance of the space.


Design a prayer garden or prayer corner for your school or home. What are the important features and why?


Throughout Christian history members of the Church have journeyed to sites considered sacred or holy by their association with the life of Jesus, or his followers. The purposes of such journeys can include asking for God’s help, increasing faith or thanking God. While the destination is important, pilgrimages are considered significant times of prayer in their own right. Pilgrims of the past often made great sacrifices of time, resource and security.

Today, many people still make pilgrimages, walking routes such as the Way of St James, or Camino de Compestella, in France and Spain or St Cuthbert’s Way in Scotland and England, or travelling to take part in pilgrimage events such as World Youth Day. Such pilgrimages can require giving up everyday comforts as well as opportunities for


  1. A pilgrimage walk from Portland in Victoria to Penola in South Australia has recently been established to honour Australia’s first saint, St Mary MacKillop. Research the Aussie, World Youth Day or another pilgrimage site.

Why pray?

The gift of prayer

Praying enables us to develop a relationship with God, who is the source of goodness and love. Prayer can heal and change our lives and our responses to others, bring peace and clarity about decisions, generate purpose and courage. Through prayer we may be led to forgive, to break from habits that harm or hold us back and to move forward freely in our life journey. Prayer isn’t wish fulfillment; it doesn’t necessarily remove the obstacles and potholes in our path. There can be times when we pray but an answer does not seem to come. However, in the Bible Jesus assures us that if we ask anything according to God’s will – which is always directed to the good – then God does hears us and responds for the best. Sometimes we can be ‘carried’, through prayer, and it is only when we look back that we realize this.

People of prayer

Prayer can be a great support in times of trial, yet we are invited to ‘unwrap’ this gift further – to make personal prayer part of our daily lives and routines and to join in prayer with others. Jesus regularly spoke in prayer to his Father in Heaven, seeking help, strength and encouragement. He urged his followers to ‘pray constantly’ and taught The Lord’s Prayer.

Prayer is shown to be fundamental to the lives of other people in the Bible, such as Abraham, Jonah and Noah.

Those who recommend prayer as the source of life come from all walks of life, and often face incredible challenges:

Saint, educator, religious leader

St Mary MacKillop – ‘Believe in the whispering of God in your own heart.’ 1868


Pope John Paul II: ‘… it is through prayer that Jesus leads us to his Father. It is in prayer that the Holy Spirit transforms our lives. It is in prayer that we come to know God: to detect his presence in our souls, to hear his voice speaking through our consciences, and to treasure his gift to us of personal responsibility for our lives and for our world … Prayer transforms our individual lives and the life of the world…’

Concentration camp survivor

Corrie ten Boom: ‘What wings are to a bird, sails to a ship, so is prayer to the soul.’

Archbishop and saint

St John Chrysostom: ‘Prayer is the place of refuge for every worry, a foundation for cheerfulness, a source of constant happiness, a protection against sadness.’


Mark Wahlberg: ‘If I can start my day out by saying my prayers and getting myself focussed, then I know I’m doing the right thing. That 10 minutes helps me in every way throughout the day.’

Think about

Can you think of someone you know, or who is well-known, who prays? Ask them or research why they pray, or what they say about prayer.

What do you think might be some of the things that stop people from praying? What might be some of the reasons people start to pray and keep praying?