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Is there such a thing as private prayer?

By Fr. Sean McDermott

Munch, Old Man Praying (1902) Woodcut on paper

Lately, I have been reading several things on the nature of prayer, both modern and ancient. While the commentators differ in geography and time, there is one consistent point they push: private prayer participates in corporate prayer. This one point is extremely important if we want to understand not only the nature of prayer, but also the idea of effective prayer.

St. Cyprian

Let’s start with the Bishop and martyr, St. Cyprian. Cyprian was a 3rd-century bishop of Carthage and led the church through multiple persecutions, doctrinal disputes, and power conflicts with Rome. Having given up his noble birth and large inheritance, St. Cyprian was a devoted follower of Christ and leader of the northern African church. He was also a wonderful teacher, showing theological and rhetorical brilliance. Reading his work on the Lord’s Prayer is a pleasure not only because of his language and phrasing, but also his wonderful biblical exegesis and theological insights. In the beginning of his work, he comments on the phrase “Our Father,” nothing that Jesus did not teach his disciples to address the Father as individuals. I want to add an extended quote, because it will give you a good sense of St. Cyprian’s approach (and hopefully encourage you to read more!):

Before all else, the teacher of peace and master of unity desires that we should not make our prayer individually and alone, as whoever prays by himself prays only for himself. We do not say “My father, who are in the heavens,” nor “Give me my bread this day.” Nor does anybody request that his debt be pardoned for himself alone, nor ask that he alone be not led into temptation and delivered from the evil one. Our prayer is common and collective, and when we pray we pray not for one but for all people, because we are all one people together. The God of peace and master of concord, who taught that we should be united, wanted one to pray in this manner for all, as he himself bore all in one.

St. Cyprian’s emphasis on our incorporation into Christ is essential. All of our prayer as individuals participates in corporate prayer. I do not mean that in some sort of democratic, “I love community,” two-are-better-than-one sense. An individual’s prayer, even if it is a short prayer offered up on a Thursday evening in a rural Appalachian farmhouse, is part of the one prayer of the universal Body of Christ, for we are all one in Him. And not only are our prayers corporate in the sense that we pray for one another in our prayers, but that our prayer is the corporate prayer of the Body, Jesus Christ to his Father.

Martin Thornton (11 November 1915–June 1986)

To explain this some more, let me turn to a modern writer, Fr. Martin Thornton. Fr. Thornton was born and died in the 20th century, and thus witnessed incredible social, global, and ecclesiastical changes. The epithet on his tombstone says a lot about him: “"The word of God his Rule / The Glory of God his Aim / And to God the Holy Trinity / was all his guiding." (Interestingly, the tombstone names him as “Farmer, Priest, Author” in that order, but I digress…) Thornton was a talented spiritual director who wrote several books on prayer and a rule of life. In his book Christian Proficiency, Thornton explains the relationship between private and corporate prayer:

The redemptive channel of grace flowing from Christ on to the world-or town or parish-is not the individual Christian but the Church. Really effective prayer is not so much that of the contemplative saint and the ‘sincerely devout’ Christian, but the total prayer of the integral Body. Two further very practical and very modern pastoral points follow: all the prayer we offer, every act of corporate worship and every ‘private prayer, is but a part of the total prayer of the Church. Neither the mystical heights of the contemplative saint nor the routine office of the dullest proficient have any great value in their own right, yet both have supreme value in that they add to the prayer of the Church; they are inter-dependent, the latter shares in the former, which in turn, depends on its support (14).

Fr. Thornton is correct--truly, there is no individual prayer per se. Both he and St. Cyprian write in this way because they understand the Christian life as incorporation into Christ. At our baptism, we are engrafted into the Body of Christ--our lives have completely changed. We are no longer just a son or daughter of John and Pam, but of God Almighty. This is far more profound than the way in which God as Creator sustains his entire creation: at baptism we become new creatures, related directly to God. We are His children. Christ’s life is our life, His sonship our sonship. We call God Father because we are united to His Son.

There are so many repercussions from this line of thought, but let me highlight a few. First, understanding the total prayer of the Church helps us understand the importance of religious communities. It is hard, sometimes, to see why the Church has encouraged the religious to separate from the world and just pray. However, it is the religious who routinely keep up the prayer of the Church--we join in that prayer which is offered up effectively and routinely.

Second, the idea of the total prayer of the Church helps us approach “effective” prayer in a new light. Prayer is effective, of course, when one prays what is the will of God, but frustration often ensues when one tries to figure out what that will is exactly. However, given the view of incorporation, we can be sure of what is effective prayer. We know, through the Lord’s Prayer, that God desires to respond to certain prayers and work in the world. Giving up an individualistic view of prayer might actually open one’s eyes to the constant, powerful, and ever present workings of God in the world. God, of course, does care about even the trivialities of our life, but our goal is not to use God like a genie to solve our trivialities. Our goal is to lift up the small worries, thanksgivings, and petitions to God throughout the day so that we start viewing our lives through God’s eyes, not the other way around. The more we lift our minds to God, our lives will be woven into the Body more fully, and we will begin to understand our life in light of Christ’s life.

Third, the idea of the total prayer of the Church invites us to share in the sufferings of the Body through prayer. I am united not only to those in my parish and the Christians living today, but also to St. Cyprian and Martin Thornton. I am united to the Body of Christ. And all of our prayers and all of our intercessions are united through Christ to God the Father. In a real way, we can then share in the prayers and intercessions of others, both living and dead. Thornton summarizes:

The practical point so often missed by modern individualism is that the most creative of all intercession for a personal friend is full participation in the rule of the Church; and only by such regular participation in adoration and the sacraments of grace can there by the remotest hope that our particular pleas are anywhere near the will of God (Christian Proficiency, 98).

Thank God that our prayers are not just individualistic. Thank God that our prayers are taken to Him through His Son. And thank God for listening to the prayers of His children.


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