Often we ask: “What does it mean to pray?” For most people, it seems to mean to tell God about things we need—to make announcements to God. I guess we assume that God needs to be told about things. Jesus actually warned us about this: “Why are you babbling on to God, even the pagans do this? Don’t you know that God already knows what you need?” (Matthew 6:7-9). We don’t really have to tell God what is happening, although I guess it helps us somehow.
“When you pray,” Jesus said, “go into your closet and shut the door.” He is speaking of going into a private space, or “inner room” as some translations call it (6:6). (Most unlikely, by the way, in the one room houses which most people would have had.) When Jesus went into the desert alone, he did not say Hail Marys and Our Fathers for forty days. In fact, remember when the apostles asked Him to give them their own prayer? (Luke 11:1). The disciples did not have their own public, spoken prayer like John the Baptist’s people did. Groups were identified by a prayer that was spoken formally together, just as AA has its Serenity Prayer today. That the disciples had to ask Jesus for a verbal prayer means that very likely they did not have one previously.
Perhaps Jesus understood prayer primarily as the prayer beyond words or the prayer without words. Prayer is a state of communion and inner unity before verbal prayer ever begins. Hence Paul could say in two different places, “Pray always,” anywhere, while doing anything, as it were. We are praying whenever we live in conscious union with God and when all of our self is present. That is primary prayer, and is probably much harder than merely reciting words.
Richard Rohr, adapted from the CAC Webcast, Contemplation AND Action, March 2009