Catholic News Service
A woman prays in church.
Catholic News Service
A woman prays in church.
JOLIET — Every now and then, while driving around I'll spot a little sign, seemingly hand-lettered, along the roadside. The message is simple. "PRAY," it reads. There are lots of the signs. I don't know if this is just a local thing or not. Nevertheless, the goal is admirable.


Doesn't say about what. Or even to whom. Just pray.

That said, however, I offer a caveat: There is prayer. And there is prayer.

There's the premeal quickie before diving into the mashed potatoes. And there's the prayer you get when people of many faiths gather for a prayer breakfast. There's the dashed Hail Mary seeking some divine assistance for your favorite sports team. And there is whatever you mutter when the cop car with flashing lights slides in behind you on the highway.

Sometimes, prayer flows from a sense of desperation. Like the time when I was a fishing-crazy kid and my grandfather had entrusted me with his antique bamboo fly-fishing rod and reel. I was glowing with pride feeling like a real fisherman as I hiked out toward a small lake where, it was rumored, the really big ones lurked.

But there would be no fishing that day, not even any boasting about the ones that got away. As I was slogging through the woods toward that mystical pond, I stumbled over a log and broke both delicate rod tips. I was devastated, more for what my grandfather would say than for any lack of fish. My mumbled prayer, certainly, was for deliverance from his potential wrath.

Prayer surely can be serious business, though sometimes prayer brings a smile.

While my own childhood emphasized strict rote prayers, my wife and I sought to imbue our children with a freer sense of divine communication. We were amused, but hardly horrified, when one night our 11-year-old son offered grace before dinner like this: "God is rad, God is a dude; thank you God for our food."

Translation: "God is radical (a 1980s prepubescent word for awesome), God is a dude (a special kind of guy) ..." You get it, I hope. His was probably among the most heartfelt and least pretentious prayers I've ever heard.

You, however, might prefer pretentious. But before criticizing such a lighthearted approach to prayer, let's check out some of the more official understandings. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines prayer rather simply, calling it a "vital and personal relationship with the true and living God."

The key word is "relationship," meaning a connection, a communication that reflects mutual respect, a give and take, not simply a top-down direction. Friends have a relationship. I suspect that's what St. Augustine meant when he said, "True whole prayer is nothing but love."

But prayer sometimes gets a bad rap. It's more "gimme, gimme" than relationship.

Too often, much of what passes for prayer is a laundry list of wants. "Let us pray for _____________" (fill in the blank: a good day, cash at the racetrack, even -- God help us -- a winning set of Lotto numbers).

At Mass, prayer requests at least aim a little higher: world peace, good health, an end to abortion and more. Good things, certainly, but prayer isn't magic. Prayer is a connection; it's networking. It's building on that sense of relationship between God and humankind that permeates our being when we acknowledge it.

And like most people, I probably don't do enough of it.

Still, prayer does have a community aspect, even at those interfaith breakfasts where we should never ignore the evangelizing power of prayer. And, having been a participant in more than a few of those, I also recognize the need to pray before eating runny eggs.

The writer is a former editor of The Catholic New World, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago and a deacon ordained for the Diocese of Joliet, Ill.