Ask Alice about Catholicism
What's the difference between saying "set" prayers and prayers in my own words?

"Pray unceasingly," Saint Paul urges his fledging communities throughout his letters. But Paul never spells out precisely how to do that. He does recommend prayers of petition (asking for what we need) and thanksgiving (giving credit where credit is due). He also models, at the start and finish of every letter, his own prayers of praise and blessing. In addition Paul often quotes hymns he either wrote himself or were circulating around the early church. He advocates that "psalms, hymns, and inspired songs" be sung regularly in a spirit of gratitude.

What we can gather from this varied advice is that both spontaneous and traditional prayers played a part in the lives of early church members. If we go back even further to the time of Jesus, we can see evidence of the same. Jesus often crept off by himself to pray in deserted places or on hilltops. But he also attended more formal synagogue services and even went up to the Temple for major feasts. The prayers of Jesus recorded in the Garden of Olives at the end of his life were quite personal and spontaneous--to say nothing about passionate.

But when his disciples asked him to teach them to pray, Jesus provided for their voiced need with a simple formula of prayer we know as the Our Father or the Lord's Prayer. It begins with praise ("hallowed be thy name"), invokes hope ("thy kingdom come"), and invites a series of petitions from the specific ("give us this day our daily bread") to the far-ranging ("deliver us from evil"). The prayer Jesus teaches also acknowledges personal responsibility for the relationship with God we are crafting by our every decision ("forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us").

Traditional Jewish prayer, particularly in the Book of Psalms, is rooted in the formulas Jesus and Paul espouse. There's room for prayers of asking and thanking, praising and hoping. There's even a prayer-style known as the lament, which is sort of like whining with a faithful conclusion.

What all this suggests is that if you have something to say to God, by all means say it. If you don't know how to begin, our tradition can supply many wonderful starting points for the conversation. But the most important thing, of course, is to engage that conversation-unceasingly!

Matthew 6:5-13; Luke 11:1-13; Ephesians 6:18-20; Philippians 4:6; Colossians 3:16; 4:2; 1 Thessalonians 5:17; see also the Book of Psalms

Online resources

Articles from VISION magazine on prayer: "Five steps to better prayer" by Sister Melannie Svoboda, S.N.D. "Point and click to pray" by Carol Schuck Scheiber. Online prayer resource: Prayer Support from the Redemptorists of the Baltimore Province

Beginning to Pray
by Archbishop Anthony Bloom (Paulist Press, 1988). Also available as an audiobook from St. Anthony Messenger Press.
Prayer by Joyce Rupp (Orbis Books, 2007)
Prayers from Around the World and Across the Ages by Victor M. Parachin (ACTA, 2004)

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Alice L. Camille
Alice Camille is a gem among contemporary writers on scripture and Catholic teaching. She has received numerous awards for her books, columns, and exegetical reflections. She received her Master of Divinity degree from the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, where she also served as adjunct faculty in ministry formation, preaching and proclamation. Alice is an author, religious educator, and parish retreat leader. Learn more at

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