What are the different forms of prayer?

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Prayer is a spiritual art, so prayer forms differ according to the artist. The Encyclopedia of Catholicism lists three general categories: vocal, mental, and passive. Vocal prayer is anything that uses words—spoken, recited, or sung. It can utilize composed or spontaneous prayers. The psalms and the liturgy of the Mass are two examples of vocal prayers. Mental prayer, by contrast, is silent prayer involving the imagination. The guided-imagery method of Saint Ignatius of Loyola and the prayerful reading of scripture (lectio divina) are samples of mental prayer. Passive prayer is also known as contemplation. You don’t control or generate it; you relinquish all to it. In return the mystical encounter awaits as a pure gift of God. Passive prayer can be ecstatic, as Saint Teresa of Avila experienced it. It can also relate to suffering, as it did for Teresa’s friend Saint John of the Cross.

Another way to envision prayer-forms are two categories Franciscan friar Richard Rohr suggests: mental prayer and body prayer. The vocal and mental forms outlined above fit into Rohr’s idea of mental prayer. Body prayer by contrast means “to pray from the clay”—the vessel of the self formed from clay and divine Breath. That includes spiritual activities as diverse as walking a labyrinth or the Stations of the Cross, making a pilgrimage, praying with rosary beads, tai chi, or yoga. Depending on your level of participation in passive prayer mentioned above, these could be mental prayer or a full-body experience.

The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia gets more explicit, listing 16 prayer forms. The first bunch are communal: public (shared prayer), Eucharist (the source and summit of the faith), scripture (where God speaks), and the Divine Office (psalm-led prayer on behalf of humankind). Tre Ore, the least familiar on this roll call, is a Trinity prayer in which one hour is given to silent adoration, one to reflection and writing, and a third to group-sharing.

The MCE list includes the familiar: personal prayer, spiritual reading, silent listening, recitation (e.g., rosaries, litanies), mental prayer, contemplation, and examination of conscience. It also explores the idea of recollection (bringing God to mind throughout the day); meditation (guiding the intellect and reason); affective prayer (involving emotions); and journaling as an interactive mapping of the spiritual journey.

These prayer-forms are by no means a complete list. Consider them a place to begin.

Numbers 6:24-26; the Psalms; Matthew 6:9-13; Luke 1:46-55, 68-79: 2:29-32

A downloadable “User’s guide on the ways to pray” by Linus Mundy
Find Your Spirituality Type” quiz by Roger O'Brien
What's the difference between saying ‘set’ prayers and prayers in my own words?” by Alice Camille
How is the Mass ‘prayer’”? by Alice Camille

Prayer and Temperament: Different Prayer Forms for Different Personality Types by Chester P. Michael and Marie C. Norrisey (Open Door, 1984)
The Breath of the Soul: Reflections on Prayer by Joan Chittister (Twenty-Third Publications, 2009)

Reprinted with permission from PrepareTheWord.com. ©TrueQuest Communications.

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