Ask ten different people; get ten different answers. Actually, it wouldn't even require that. All I would need is to dip into ten different points in my own history. I could easily find moments where I found prayer to be boring, emotional, introspection, rote, liturgical, charismatic, frightening, healing, painful, anger-inducing, and on and on. And then there are all of those formal definitions, like prayer is raising the mind to God, or ACTS (adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, supplication), or claiming God's promises, or meditating on Scripture. The intellectual mind likes a nice default definition so that it feels like it knows something.
But what is prayer about? Prayer is basically the Carmelite charism. Pope Benedict XVI put it very simply: "Carmel teaches the Church how to pray." It sure has been teaching me. The Lord has been gently correcting me on what prayer isn't about.
Maybe, faithful Christian, you've had this kind of experience: You pray earnestly for something and you actually have felt the Holy Spirit nudging you to pray in a certain way or for a certain concern. Maybe that nudge has been long and even strong. So you pray. You pray, and pray some more.
Now, what do you really want as a result?
You want to see your prayers answered. You want to see God come through and deal with it. Right?
Here's one thing I've learned: That isn't necessarily what God wants.
Oh, but the prayer of a righteous man availeth much, and we are agreeing with God's will to be done, and no man can stand against what God has ordained, and ...
And God actually wants your heart.
He's not really into you getting a happy little sense of control by your prayers, like you are the lynch-pin that makes things happen. Like without you, He can't do a thing. And why are you wringing your hands as if you can explain to God why it is so important that He do what you are asking? Do you think He only started caring about it since you prayed?
It is true: we are called to partnership with God, and He does ask us to ask that His will be done. But His will is primarily that He is Lord, fully and completely. More than anything, He wants us, in our totality. Surrendered, available, desiring nothing else but Him. Not His blessings, not proof of His power or ours, not answers, only our Ultimate Good.
God wants our union with Him, and then He will orchestrate our lives and circumstances so that His kingdom is extended through us. He wants each of His children to become the answer to the prayers of the humble who cry out to Him in their need.
And part of our transformation comes via constantly sharing our heart with Him, emptying out before Him all of our thoughts, loves, concerns, problems, and feelings, worries for others. We pour it all out, and we behold Him who poured out everything for us. Do we want Him who fills us? Or does it take something else?
And when we come to that moment where we simply love God, our hearts overflow over all the needs and loves and people, and God's mercy that is enveloping us embraces all these, and we extend that fountain of mercy to the whole world. Not by might, and not by power (or willing it, or getting the right prayer formula, or length of time or number of words), but by the power of the Holy Spirit operating through us. So it is Jesus, really, praying through us, loving through us, ministering through us, extending His life, His love, His kingdom, His healing to the world.