Prayer is classically defined as lifting mind and heart to God. That’s a good definition, but it needs an important qualification.
There are two essential kinds of prayer: Something we call liturgical prayer, the public prayer of the church, and something we call private or devotional prayer. Unfortunately we often confuse the two.
For example, five hundred people might be sitting in meditation together in a church or praying the rosary together at a shrine and this is still private or devotional prayer. Conversely, someone might be praying the Office of the Church alone at home in an armchair or a priest might be celebrating the Eucharist alone at a kitchen table and this is public, liturgical prayer. The distinction, as we see from these examples, is not dependent upon the number of people participating, or whether the prayer is taking place in a church, or even whether the prayer is being prayed in a group or privately. The distinction is based upon something else. What?
Perhaps a change of names might help us understand the distinction: Liturgical, public prayer might more aptly be called priestly prayer, while private and devotional prayer might better be termed affective prayer.
What is priestly prayer? It is the prayer of Christ through the church for the world. Our Christian belief is that Christ is still gathering us together around his word and is still offering an eternal act of love for the world. As an extension of that we believe that whenever we meet together, in a church or elsewhere, to gather around the scriptures or to celebrate the Eucharist we are entering into that prayer and sacrifice of Christ. This is liturgical prayer; it’s Christ’s prayer, not ours. We pray liturgically whenever we gather to celebrate the scriptures, the sacraments, or when we pray, in community or privately, something that is called the Prayer of the Church or the Office of the Church (Lauds and Vespers).
And this kind of prayer is not restricted to the ordained clergy. We are all priests by virtue of our baptism and part of the implicit covenant we make with the community at our baptism is the commitment, when we reach adulthood, to pray habitually for the world through the liturgical prayer of the church.
What needs also to be highlighted here, since we easily miss this aspect, is that the church’s liturgical prayer is for the world, not for itself. The church, in this world, does not exist for its own sake, but as an instrument of salvation for the world. Its function is to save the world, not itself. In liturgical prayer we pray with Christ, through the church, but for the world.
Affective prayer has a different intent. Though it has many forms, meditation, centering prayer, praying the rosary, devotional prayers of all kinds, it has a single aim, to draw us and our loved ones into deeper intimacy with Christ. In the end, no matter its particular form, all non-liturgical prayer ultimately aims at personal intimacy with God and is, ultimately too, private, even when it is done publicly or in a large group. All private and devotional prayer can be defined in this way: It is prayer that tries, in myriad ways, to open us or our loved ones up in such a way that we can hear God say to us: “I love you!”
It is important to know this distinction when we go to pray: Which kind of prayer are we entering? To confuse the two is to risk doing both badly. For example, the person who feels frustrated because the liturgical ritual and interaction of a congregation inside a church service are felt as a hindrance and distraction to the private devotional prayers she would like to saying is confusing the two forms of prayer and is consequently doing both badly. The function of liturgical prayer is not first of all devotional.
Or sometimes the confusion leads someone to abandon one form of liturgical prayer altogether. I know a man who after years of praying the Office of the Church is substituting his own private prayer in its place because he doesn’t find the ritual prayers personally meaningful. His private meditations now might well be wonderful affective prayer, but he is no longer praying the priestly prayer of Christ when he is praying in this way. We see this sometimes too in well-intentioned, but badly planned, churches services where what is intended to be a liturgical service ends up being a guided private meditation, however well-done and powerful, which neither uses scripture nor prays for the world.
Churches themselves struggle with this. Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Episcopalians, and main-line Protestant churches have a strong liturgical tradition, sometimes to the detriment of affective prayer. Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, on the other hand, have a strong focus on affective prayer, sometimes to the point of neglecting almost entirely liturgical prayer.
We would probably all do ourselves a favor by having two prayer shawls, each embroidered separately: Priestly Prayer and Affective Prayer.