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How long should we pray?

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Among the many questions contained in St. Thomas Aquinas’ “Summa Theologiae,” this is one of the most practical and helpful for the daily living of our Catholic faith. St. Thomas’ full answer can be found in article 14 of his treatment on prayer in the second part of the “Summa.” Here I will summarize and adapt his principal teachings on the matter.

One foundational biblical passage that can guide our approach to this question is St. Paul’s instruction in his first letter to the Thessalonians (5:17): “Pray without ceasing.” How is this possible for us? In order to answer, we need to make a distinction regarding two ways we can speak about prayer: First, we may consider it in itself, such as when we recite the Our Father; secondly, we may consider prayer in its proper cause or motivation, as it proceeds from the desire of charity.

Charity in this context is that good habit of the will infused by God (ordinarily at baptism) by which we are inclined to love him above all and love our neighbors as ourselves. As a habitual inclination, charity is a guiding principle that directs our wills and can, by extension, direct all our voluntary actions in a God-oriented fashion. Hence, all good human actions that proceed from the desire of charity are like offerings made to God out of love for him. As prayer is “the raising of one’s mind and heart to God” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2559), every action proceeding from charity’s direction can be considered as a prayer before him.

It is important to note that our actions can still be directed by charity even when we are not consciously thinking about that direction at every moment. To draw a familiar comparison, various forms of Catholic “morning offering” prayers express our intention to offer to God not only our vocal prayers, but also all our “works, joys and sufferings” throughout the day, even for the sake of particular petitions.

The idea here is that the original intention and offering will continue to influence and direct our actions even if (and especially when) we do not consciously advert to that intention while performing a good work or enduring some suffering. Having the theological virtue of charity in our wills is something like having the enduring influence of the morning offering, as by charity we habitually desire to direct all our actions toward the love of God, which is one way to “pray without ceasing.”

But if we consider the formal reciting of prayers and specific acts of devotion, prayer cannot be uninterrupted, since God expects us to do many other things besides, such as fulfilling our familial and occupational responsibilities. So apart from our prayers of obligation, such as attending Mass on Sundays, how long should our prayers last? St. Thomas writes: “ … the quantity of a thing should be commensurate with its purpose, for instance the quantity of the (medical) dose should be commensurate with health. And so it is becoming that prayer should last long enough to arouse the fervor of the interior desire: and when it exceeds this measure, so that it cannot be continued any longer without causing weariness, it should be discontinued.”

This passage contains a very important lesson, especially for those of us who might be inclined to impose upon ourselves (or others) certain lengthy prayers and devotions as if God himself required them. While the Lord is surely pleased with our desires to be devout, and of course it often is good to extend our prayer time, St. Thomas’ principle can be used to help us discern in concrete circumstances when God might be calling us to something else at the moment. In that case, we need not be concerned, since that other thing — so long as it is from the same desire of charity that should be motivating all our devotions in the first place — will also be accepted as a prayer by our loving Father in heaven.

Finally, St. Thomas also helps us to keep in mind that there are other ways, in addition to having the enduring desire of charity, to participate in continual prayer. For example, one may pray recurringly at certain fixed times, as with the Liturgy of the Hours. Also, similar to how the flames of votive candles continue to display our petitions after we have exited a church, certain effects of our prayers and good works may in their own ways continue the prayers for us. Accordingly, greater fervor in prayer may lead us to be more devout generally, and performing acts of charity, including encouraging others in their prayer life, may lead others to pray more for themselves, and for us as well. 

Arias is assistant professor at the Christendom Graduate School of Theology in Alexandria.






© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019