Forms of Prayer

Forms of Prayer

Sacra Conversazione by Fra Angelico
Sacra Conversazione by Fra Angelico

One of my Facebook friends is doing this lovely thing where every day she lists one thing she’s grateful for. It brightens my day to see her little notes. I’ve seen the same basic idea in various other forms too. Thankful Thursdays. 1000 gifts, all sorts of gratitude memes. So I’ve been pondering prayer and wondering why, though I am drawn to the idea of counting my blessings and have even pondered throwing up a blog post from time to time, I never do. I’m simultaneously attracted to the idea and somehow feeling that it’s not exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. And it’s been kind of niggling at me for some time now: What’s going on with the wanting to but not wanting to? but I’ve never really taken the time to think it through until last night I did, with the help of my awesome sister. (Text chatting late at night so I don’t wake up any of the babies.)

In the course of our wide ranging conversation we explored several different ideas. I’m not going to try to follow all the ins and outs of our late night textual tête-à-tête but here are the pertinent points:

Not a Virtue

The first was realizing we had our categories wrong. Gratitude is not a virtue as we’d first sort of assumed.

For the record, the virtues are:

cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude

theological virtues: faith, hope, charity

gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord

fruits of the Holy Spirit: charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, chastity

I wouldn’t have thought of adding the gifts and fruits on my own, but they are listed in the Catechism section on the virtues. That seems worth pondering.

Four Forms of Prayer

Gratitude (aka thanksgiving) is really one of the four forms of prayer:

Blessing and Adoration (praising God)
Prayer of Petition (asking for what we need, including forgiveness)
Prayer of Intercession (asking for what others need)
Prayer of Thanksgiving (for what God has given and done)

Having realized/remembered that gratitude is just one of four types of prayer, I realized that for me unmooring it from the context of the other forms makes it feel like a four legged stool that’s had three legs lopped off. Interestingly, our family already incorporates all four forms of prayer in our nightly bedtime prayers. We begin with praise: “O God, we love you, we praise you, we adore you.” Then we pray the Our Father (which contains praise and petition and intercession), the Hail Mary (praise and petition), and the Glory Be (also praise) and the Act of Contrition (petition but also praise). Then we pray a list of petitions and intercessions for friends, family, the world. And we end with Thanksgiving as each member of the family thanks God for the blessings of the day (this is always sweet and revelatory).

Prayer and Temperament

Lastly, we pondered prayer and temperamanet type. I remembered a book we’d both read a while back, Prayer and Temperament:. I no longer have a copy, but I found a website that has good summaries of four basic personality types (NT, NF, SJ, SP) matched with four prayer types (Thomistic, Augustinian, Ignatian, Franciscan). According to this site my prayer type (as an INTP) is Thomistic while my sister’s is Augustinian. This was especially funny because earlier in the conversation she’d suggested Augustine’s Confessions to me as a possible model for what I was seeking. I didn’t get what she meant, but obviously she was interpreting through her own type.

So again according to this site:

Thomistic prayer is mostly meditation and study mixed together. Because the NT personality tends to focus on study it is important for you to follow the steps of Lectio Divina closely. This will help ensure a real opportunity for prayer and not an exclusively intellectual exercise. It is important to Read, Meditate, Pray and Contemplate.

The emphasis will naturally fall to the Meditation time in Thomistic Prayer. In books on prayer, this is often referred to as “discursive meditation”.

Unless your discursive reflections during the prayer period result in a change of behavior, they would not be considered authentic Thomistic Prayer. “Metanoia” or conversion is an essential element of Thomistic Prayer. A logical step from the new insights into truth received during the meditation is to make the necessary changes in one’s life. This would be the practical fruit expected from each exercise of Thomistic Prayer and expressed through one or more resolutions adopted at the conclusion of the discursive meditation.

You consider a virtue, a fault, a theological truth and “walk around it”, studying it from every possible angle. To enable you to get the full grasp on the topic chosen for Thomistic Prayer, it is recommended that you use the seven auxiliary questions: What, Why, How, Who, Where, When, With what helps and apply each of them to the topic selected.

By way of example, you might take the virtue of faith as the subject of your meditation. You would then ask the following questions:

What do we mean by faith?

What is entailed in the practice of faith?

What are the reasons to justify the pursuit of faith?

Why should I have faith?

What is the value of it?

How might I practice faith?

When and where should it be practiced?

Who are some of the people in the Scriptures and in history who are examples of the practice of faith?

Finally, what aids can I use to help me practice faith?

The whole exercise should conclude with suitable resolutions of how you are going to practice the virtue of faith.

Doesn’t the example here match up perfectly with my musings on virtue? Yes, rather eerily perfect. So following along this line I’m thinking of attempting as an exercise a series of meditations on the various virtues. I may or may not publish them. They might be too personal to publish. Still, I’m rather tickled at how everything seemed to come together in this conversation.

Sacra Conversazione

Near the end of it as I was winding down I asked my sister,

So would it be wrong to think of some of these conversations with you as a form of prayer? They help me to discern God’s action in my life…

I think they are. They help me pray more. I often find conversing about God leads me to more formal prayer

I mean it’s not directly a conversation with God and yet he feels like a third party. Prompting, nudging. Listening. Present. We help each other to be in the Presence



“Generous distributors of God’s manifold graces” my new favorite verse.

Prayer is often referred to as “conversation with God” but we (or at least I) have a tendency to think of it as a solitary affair, a private conversation between me and God. Of course liturgy is communal prayer, but I still think of the conversation primarily as what happens inside my head during the liturgy. Here, though, my focus is on the other person and yet the course of our conversation leads us toward God, and he is present in the conversation.

I know there is a genre in religious art called the “sacra conversazione”, the Madonna and Child with an assortment of saints. The thing is they aren’t usually shown in actual conversation, so I don’t think of it as a real conversation.

Not sure where I’m going with that. It was just an interesting observation.

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  • I want you to know that the whole post was interesting and fruitful, but I kind of kept giggling through it after “I found a website that has good summaries of four basic personality types (NT, NF, SJ, SP) matched with four prayer types (Thomistic, Augustinian, Ignatian, Franciscan).”

    Because of course people practicing Ignatian spirituality are SJ (Society of Jesus).

  • Hi Melanie,
    Such an interesting reflection. Gratitude is really important to me because it’s a way of being really fully alive and in the moment- noticing and marvelling the softness of the skin on my children’s faces, the smell of their heads, clothes whipping in the wind on the line, the first crab apple blossom out, the sound of birds or crickets or sudden rain… To me it’s listening closely and developing the ability to see hints of God’s luminous presence under the surface of things. I guess you’re right, it’s prayer, practising the presence of God. It’s also an armour against depression and anxiety. Doggedly choosing wonder, seeking the ‘white light’… One of my favourite poems is Afterwards by Thomas Hardy. xx

    • Stephanie,

      I don’t think I’d ever read Afterwards before. How lovely.

      Yes, I think daily thanksgiving can help us to be more aware of God in the moment. I know even our rudimentary prayers with the kids at the end of the day often help me to be more aware.

      I’m not terribly familiar with Ignatian spirituality, but I believe that what you describe is very much in line with the Examen.

  • +JMJ+

    I can see why gratitude wouldn’t be a virtue, but am a little surprised to be reminded that it’s not a fruit or gift of the Holy Spirit as well. How should we think of it then?

    The idea that there are different prayer styles rings like a fun challenge to me! I’m an NT, too, but I’d love to spend a season (preferably Lent or Easter) trying the different styles with a prayer group of mixed types. We’d get to experience how others “tick” in a very profound way.

    • “How should we think of it then?”

      The Catechism says:

      2637 Thanksgiving characterizes the prayer of the Church which, in celebrating the Eucharist, reveals and becomes more fully what she is. Indeed, in the work of salvation, Christ sets creation free from sin and death to consecrate it anew and make it return to the Father, for his glory. The thanksgiving of the members of the Body participates in that of their Head.

      2638 As in the prayer of petition, every event and need can become an offering of thanksgiving. The letters of St. Paul often begin and end with thanksgiving, and the Lord Jesus is always present in it: “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you”; “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.”

      I think I prefer thanksgiving to gratitude because gratitude seems to be a feeling where thanksgiving is an action, a kind of prayer.

      Gratitude appears in the Catechism only in reference to the gratitude we owe our ancestors and elders under the discussion of the 4th commandment.