This Sunday in the Scripture readings at Mass we hear about the importance and power of prayer. In our society, there’s a widespread curiosity in prayer. Even among unbelievers, people are interested in the hope and help that prayer can offer. With this in mind, it’s worth asking a few questions about prayer.

First and foremost, what is prayer?

We have a lot of different definitions of prayer floating around in our society. In a world dominated by a consumer spirit, it shouldn’t surprise us that many of our cultural definitions are born from a utilitarian perspective of “what we can get from prayer” or from a narcissistic perspective of “how prayer can help us to grow in self-actualization.”

With these different perspectives, is it possible for us to agree on a shared definition of prayer?

Before petitions and self-absorption, prayer is about relationship. Prayer is about God seeking us and initiating a friendship with us. God shows his desire for us by calling us to prayer. In seeing this divine desire for us, we are encouraged to accept the invitation and desire him in return.

In prayer, we turn to God and make a response of faith. We are given a forum to express our thirst for God. We encounter him and are given an opportunity to surrender our lives to him. Prayer is this approach to God. It’s the path of humility as we realize that God was the one who initiated the prayer, and he is the one who is making it a source of life, renewal, and hope for us.

And so, our life of prayer is the habit of being in the presence of the all-holy God and living in communion with him. We have the possibility of this communion because he loves us and calls us to himself.

As Pope Francis observed: “Here is the novelty of Christian prayer! It’s a dialogue between persons that love each other; a dialogue that is based on trust, supported by listening and open to commitment in solidarity.”

In this way, prayer becomes the means for us to better understand the workings of God. If we’re willing, God teaches us and gives us a worldview beyond utility and our own egos. Authentic prayer, therefore, can purify and edify us. It expands our minds and hearts and opens the way for greater insights into our world and into the providence of God.

Again, Pope Francis observes: “To enter into prayer is to enter with my heart into the heart of Jesus, to make a way inside the heart of Jesus, what Jesus feels, the feelings of compassion of Jesus, and also to make a journey inside my heart to change my heart in this relationship with the heart of Jesus.”

Having this relationship with God, we can then offer him our petitions and supplications. These requests have an important place in our prayer life. Rather than a random “wish list” to God, they show our trust and dependency on him.

In offering intercessions, however, we always pray that God’s will be done. Our prayer should not be seen as a means to change, manipulate, or bargain with God’s will. When we offer petitions, we make our request and we ask that it be in conformity with God’s will. If it is not, and things go differently than we had hoped, then we ask for the strength to understand and accept his will.

Prayer chain e-mails or peculiar novenas and devotions that assure us that if we only do this prayer or that task, then our prayer will be answered as we desire, are unsettling. They betray the trusting relationship that is the very foundation of prayer.

The truth of the matter is that our prayer doesn’t change God. Our prayer allows God to change us and to see his goodness in a better light.

Our prayer life is not about what can be bargained for or brought about by words and deeds. Our life of prayer is about God and our relationship with him. It’s about realizing that God knows us – better than we know ourselves – and then opening our hearts so that we can trust and love him more deeply.