What is prayer? The Catechism (#2559) quotes Saint John Damascene who said, “Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God.” Many spiritual writers see prayer simply as having a conversation with God or communicating with the Lord.
Traditionally, Catholicism classifies four types of prayer: adoration, petition (supplication), contrition, and appreciation (thanksgiving). Bishop Thomas Welsh, retired bishop of Allentown, Pennsylvania, often talked about how he was educated by the nuns to learn the ACTS of prayer: Adoration, Contrition, Thanksgiving, and Supplication.
The first and foremost type of prayer is that of adoration or worship. This is nothing other than giving praise to God merely because He is God, the Supreme Being and Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier of the World. The virtue of religion requires out of justice that earthly, mortal creatures owe worship to divinity. Adoration has no strings attached. There are no deals, bargains, or promises: “If you give me this, I will…” is not a prayer of adoration. The angels give God the prayer of adoration constantly. Saint Thomas Aquinas (thirteenth century) taught that of the nine choirs of angels, the highest are the Seraphim whose only task is to worship God in perpetual adoration.
“Ask and you shall receive,” Jesus said in the Gospel (Matthew 7:7). Petition or supplication is prayer that asks for divine assistance. Not only are we encouraged to ask, but Jesus also told us to be patient and to persevere in asking. He never promised when or how our prayers will be answered, just that they will be answered.
Intercession is a form of petition where we ask God to help someone else. We are not seeking assistance for ourselves but on behalf of others. Praying for one another is a very Christian thing to do.
Contrition or sorrow is the prayer of repentance. When a sinner has had a conversion of heart (metanoia in Greek) and regrets committing sin, that is contrition. Perfect contrition is sorrow for sin merely because the person is sad for offending an all good and loving God. Imperfect contrition is sorrow motivated from the fear of punishment. While not the best reason, fear of hell is good enough to be forgiven, but it is a worthier goal to be sorry simply because you have offended God.
Thanksgiving or appreciation is a prayer of gratitude for the blessings God has given. It is a spiritual way of saying “thank you” to the Lord. Not just good manners, but justice demands that we do it. Giving thanks is perfectly expressed in the Mass.
The Greek word for thanksgiving is eucharistia, which is the word used by the Church to describe the consecrated host (the Holy Eucharist). Holy Thanksgiving is what the people and the Church express for being able to partake of the body and blood of Christ.
There are also three ways of praying: verbal (spontaneous or formal; private or liturgical), meditation (mental), and contemplation (mystical).
Any prayer which is spoken, either memorized or made up as you go along, is verbal prayer. It can be a soft whisper, a bold proclamation, or anything in between. It can be said or sung. It is formal if someone else composed it; spontaneous if you did. Private prayer is done alone, whereas liturgical prayer requires a congregation. Jesus said, “Where two or more are gathered in my name, there shall I be in their midst also” (Matthew 18:20). Liturgical prayer is the prayer of the church (the word liturgy comes from the Greek word (leitourgia) meaning public worship. The Mass is the highest and most solemn form of liturgical prayer.
Mental prayer, or meditation, is used to focus the mind on the truths of faith or to use the imagination and picture oneself present at some incident of salvation history—pretending you were at the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, or imagining you are on Calvary watching Jesus be crucified. Using memory and imagination helps a lot of people. Christian meditation is not produced by sitting still, humming, or chanting. It is not directed toward the self or to abstract concepts. It is communicating with God by placing our conscious selves in His presence and thinking about His attributes (merciful, loving, forgiving, patient, just, et al.).
Contemplation is the most sublime way of praying in that you allow God to do all the talking. He speaks to you, heart to heart, in contemplative prayer. It is a very mystical form of prayer which takes a lifetime to achieve by God’s grace. You cannot force or conjure contemplation. It is given as a gift of the Holy Spirit when and how He chooses.