The Lenten season provides an opportunity to enter more deeply into prayer. We all know that we are called to a life of prayer, but what does it mean to pray? Why is prayer important? What is it that motivates us to lift up our minds and hearts to God? There are four words used by contemporary spiritual writers that speak to these questions: desire, discontent, urgency and hunger.

What is desire? Within every human heart there is longing. We long for love, intimacy and communion. Misguided desire leads to unhappy self-seeking, and psychological and spiritual dead ends. However, with the proper disposition, desire can lead us on a holy journey to our heart’s destiny – a deep, abiding friendship with God. Prayer is opening the heart to the One who loves us beyond our imagining and seeks to transform us with his forgiveness and healing power. Prayer is the gateway to relationship with God, and that transforming relationship leads us into loving relationships with others, and inspires us to extend mercy to those most in need. Desire for God’s love moves us to pray.

Eugene McCaffrey, OCD, writes: “The one condition essential to prayer is desire: to want to pray is the beginning of prayer. Without it, we will never make a start: with it, we have already begun. Wanting to pray becomes much easier if we realize how much God wants it and invites us to do so.” (Eugene McCaffrey, Patterns of Prayer [New York: Paulist Press, 2003], viii-ix.)

Discontent is a feeling of dissatisfaction with the way things are. Within our hearts, we experience a sense of incompleteness and imperfection. Often in life, we think we know what we want, but once we obtain it, we find we don’t want it. Attempts at instant gratification do not cure our sense of discontent – we remain dissatisfied. On the positive side, the dissatisfaction that we experience in our hearts can motivate us to seek to satisfy our deepest aspirations.

As we reach out to the Lord in our discontent, we come to realize that God is our helper. He will give us the grace we need to heal and to grow in his love. Michael Casey, OCist, writes that our discontent inspires us to discover the generosity of God: “We begin to understand vaguely that our need and God’s willingness to supply are as much facts of life as the food we eat and the air we breathe.” (Michael Casey, Toward God: The Wisdom of Western Prayer [Liguori, Missouri: Triumph Books, 1996], 13.)

When we contemplate our place in the universe, we can get the feeling that we are very small. What is the purpose of our existence? Do our lives matter? Does someone out there love us and care for us? There is an urgency in our need to connect with the transcendent, to know that the One who created us has a plan for us, watches over us, guides us and heals us. There is an urgent need to call out to God, who brings meaning to our lives.

Emilie Griffin speaks of this sense of urgency as motivation to open ourselves to the transcendent: “Prayer begins as a deep urgency or longing for something beyond – something greater than ourselves – for God, even though we may not yet be able to name that longing and call it prayer.” (Emilie Griffin, Simple Ways to Pray: Spiritual Life in the Catholic Tradition [New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2006], 3.)

We have all had the experience of being hungry. After a long day of hard work, there is nothing like sitting down at a table to dine. The food we eat replenishes our energy and revives our spirits. We know that there are many impoverished people in this world who go without the necessities of life, who live their lives undernourished and whose hunger is never satisfied. We can also speak of spiritual poverty, and the hunger that it creates within us. At times in life, we experience an emptiness in our souls that cannot be satisfied with possessions or pleasures. We hunger for something more. We hunger for intimacy with God and his transforming love.

Martin Pable, OFM Cap, describes spiritual hunger in this way: “Beyond our basic need in times of trouble, there is another inner dynamic or energy that keeps us moving us toward prayer. It is what spiritual writers call ‘our hunger for God.’ A little reflection on our own experience will verify this. For no matter how many possessions we acquire, or successes we attain, or pleasures we taste, or friendships we cherish – we are never quite satisfied. There is always something more that we crave, something that will totally fill up that hole of emptiness we feel in the center of our very souls.” (Martin Pable, Prayer, A Practical Guide [Chicago: ACTA Publications, 2002], 7-8.)

The Lenten season gives us a chance to become more in touch with our longing for God’s love. Prayer is an essential element of our spiritual journey, the journey that leads to a deeper awareness of God’s abiding care, healing, mercy and forgiveness. It is God who satisfies our deepest longings and transforms us with his love.