Two Boats on Winter Lake

     Prayer is the essential means to connect with the Divine. Over the centuries, two approaches have been recognized: verbal prayer and nonverbal prayer of the heart.  

     Verbal prayer falls into the category of cataphatic theology which attempts to describe the divine attributes and activities of God on the level of reason. (Nonetheless, there are also nonverbal aspects as seen in the use of religious art, music, and architecture to communicate God’s nature.) The understanding and visualization of the Divine as something to be rationally reflected upon, as in discursive meditation – without compromising the transcendence of God – is possible and has a role to play. For example, in the Incarnation, Jesus makes God known in a visible and even tangible manner (see Colossians 1:15). Also, the creation reflects the character of the divine Creator (see Romans 1:19-20). The sacraments, too, are important signs of God’s presence and grace. 

     Many forms of verbal or vocal prayer exist. These include petitions, intercessions, praise and thanksgiving, as well as formal prayers in worship services. The book of Psalms, representing Israel’s prayer and worship, includes hymns of praise and thanksgiving, individual and community laments, liturgical and wisdom psalms, as well as royal psalms. These different types of prayer all involve thoughts, words, feelings, and even actions. 

     Prayer of the heart falls into the category of apophatic theology wherein the limitations of human knowledge and concepts of God are emphasized. According to the apophatic tradition, the Divine – the indescribable and incomprehensible – is beyond concepts, thoughts, symbols, and words. Care is necessary to distinguish between images of God and the reality of God, since the Divine Other is totally different from everything in the visible world and therefore cannot be represented by anything. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), Italian theologian, concluded that the human mind can comprehend only that God is, not what God is. Apophaticism is rooted in Scripture (see for example Ecclesiastes 3:11, 11:5; Psalm 145:3; John 6:46; 1 Timothy 1:17, 6:15-16; 1 Corinthians 2:11; Colossians 1:15).    

     This website focuses on the prayer of the heart but recognizes that neither tradition is superior – the two complement each other. Both have a part in the search for and understanding of God. While there is value in the visualization of the Divine, its limitations must also be understood. All prayer – prayer of the heart (meditation), as well as vocal, scriptural, or liturgical aspects of prayer – leads the consciousness of the person praying from off the self toward the Divine Other.

 Photo credit: Intellimon Ltd.



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