Worship & Prayer

When discussing theologically the terms “worship” and “prayer”, it is important to understand the etymological roots and historical meanings behind the words.  This is due, in large part, to the loaded connotations that these terms have taken on in modern English, especially in America.  When Christians hear the word “worship”, they typically think immediately of the honor and praise due only to God.  This has not been the case, however, throughout most of history.  The word “worship” comes from the Old English weorþscipe, which means the condition of being worthy of honor, respect, or dignity.  For many centuries this term simply meant showing the respect or reverence due to a person that was worthy of such honor.  For example, kings and royalty were often addressed as “Your Worship”, a title that British subjects still use to this day to refer to their magistrates.  Thus, there were several degrees in which worship could be understood:  if it was addressed directly to God, as in a superior, absolute, or supreme worship, it was referred to as “worship of adoration”.  This is more easily expressed in the romance languages, where the words for “worship” in reference to God take the form of “adoration” (Spanish= adoración, French= l’ adoration, Italian= le adorazione).

 The Second Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, in AD 787, referred to “adoration” given to God alone as latria (Greek= λατρεία, Latin= adoratio).  The Greek root word latria can be found in the original Greek version of Galatians 5:20 where St. Paul condemns idolatreia, or “idolatry,” literally meaning “idol-adoration.”  It is also found in Hebrews 9:6 referring to the ritual duties, or latreias.  Latria is distinct in that it is considered ‘true’ worship (veritable adoration) and is sacrificial in nature, being only offered to God alone.  It also carries an emphasis on the internal form of worship, rather than any external practices, such as bowing, kneeling, or kissing, which can sometimes be used in deference to earthly positions as well, such as royalty.

The term latria, then, was reserved for “adoration” given to God alone.  Scripture, however, is clear that honor should also be given to those who are due respect out of their extraordinary relationship to God (see Ex. 20:12, Rom.13:7, 1 Pet. 2:17, 1 Tim. 5:17).  We do not only honor people on earth, such as our parents, but also those who have died, such as fallen soldiers and saints.  The Church thus distinguished between the level of honor shown to a creature and the proper respect due to God alone.   The Council chose the word dulia (Latin veneratio, Greek δουλεία) to refer to “veneration”, or “respect”, given to saints and holy men and women whose life’s works displayed a high degree of sanctity or holiness.  The term dulia denotes servitude, and implies that their service to God is their entitlement to our veneration.  The early Church especially venerated martyrs of the faith, as can be seen in their treatment of the relics of martyrs (see the Martyrdom of Polycarp).  When worship is addressed only indirectly to God, that is, when its object is the veneration of martyrs, of angels, or of saints, it is a subordinate worship dependent on the first, and relative, in so far as it honors the creatures of God for their peculiar relations with Him.  This distinction was written about as early as Augustine of Hippo and St Jerome, but was detailed more explicitly by Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae, A.D. 1270: “Reverence is due to God on account of His Excellence, which is communicated to certain creatures not in equal measure, but according to a measure of proportion; and so the reverence which we pay to God, and which belongs to latria, differs from the reverence which we pay to certain excellent creatures; this belongs to dulia…” 

Catholicism, Anglicanism, Oriental Orthodoxy, and Eastern Orthodoxy all make use of the distinction between these two different concepts.  Catholic and Orthodox theologies also include the term hyperdulia for the type of veneration specifically paid to Mary, due to the fact that she had a unique role in salvation history as the Mother of Jesus, —God in the flesh. This term, hyperdulia (hyper + dulia = “beyond dulia”), indicates that the honor due to her as Christ’s Mother is more than the dulia given to other saints.  Hyperdulia is not the same as latria.  Because Mary is a creature (created by God) any latria given her would be idolatreia, (idolatry).  Thus hyperdulia should be and is understood to be inferior to latria.

It is important to point out another distinction between latria and dulia; that is the focus of latria on interior worship. Interior worship is not manifested by external acts, but consists in internal adoration; but when this inner sentiment is expressed by words or actions, prostration, genuflexion, the sign of the cross, or any other gesture, it becomes exterior worship. Worship of God should be interior, otherwise it would be mere hypocrisy, a purely pharisaical worship such as Christ condemned when He told His disciples that they should worship in spirit and in truth. But it should not be purely interior worship either, for man is not a pure spirit, but composed of body and soul, and he should adore God not only in his soul but also in his body. Worship in private is also not sufficient. Society should also render to God the honor due to Him, as the fact that Christ founded a Church, that is, a society of men professing the same faith, implies the existence of the same worship.

This distinction between interior and exterior worship is important in understanding the nature of prayer.  The word “prayer”, like “worship”, has become loaded with connotations in modern society that were not a part of its historical context. The Webster Dictionary defines prayer as:
1) To petition; to plead; or to ask, as for a favor
2) To address a Supreme Being, as in worship
With these two definitions, it is clear that, while prayer can be a form of worship when it is directed towards God, it can also simply mean “to ask”. Examples of this can be found in phrases like “pray tell” as used by Shakespeare or “pray proceed” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, or in the King James Bible when Bathsheba says, “I pray thee, sir, say me not nay” (1 Kings 2:20, KJV).  A similar situation arises with singing, which can be a form of worship during songs of praise to God. Few, however, would suggest that singing your favorite pop song constitutes worship.  The distinction lies not with the external practice, but the internal acknowledgment and intentions behind the act.  When the Council considered praying to saints, the fathers taught that this prayer should include the honor that is owed them in justice, but never adoration.  Hence, we have an entirely different kind of prayer offered to the saints than to God.  Prayer, in reference to the Saints, simply means asking them for their prayers and is no different than asking Church members here on earth for their prayers.  Our prayers are efficacious due to our direct participation within the Body of Christ, which does not end when we enter Heaven (see Intercession of Saints).

Part of the reason many Protestants object to the idea of prayer to the Saints is due to a flawed understanding of worship.  Worship, historically, has always been understood to be sacrifice.  The Old Testament is overtly clear on this.  However, it is not the animal, that God is interested in (some sacrifices were also crops), but rather our willingness to give something of great value in recognition of the greater value of our relationship with God.  The greatest sacrifice we could offer is that of ourselves.  This is what made Christ’s sacrifice on the cross sufficient for our salvation- it was not a penal sacrifice in order for God to feel vindicated, but rather was the gift of Jesus Himself in perfect love and obedience to the Father.  As the Son, Jesus’ sacrifice was in total obedience to the Father (Luke 22:42), as a man, his sacrifice was also an act of worship.  As both lamb and High Priest, He offers Himself eternally in Heaven.  Because the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross is the only sacrifice that achieves eternal redemption, our worship, then, must be linked with the sacrifice of Jesus.  The act of His death on the cross is over and finished, but His eternal offering of self is made available and present to us in the Eucharist (see Sacrifice of the Mass).  It is the sacrifice of the Mass that Christ is referring to when he tells the Samaritan woman that the time is coming when true worshipers will worship in spirit and truth.

To illustrate this, their conversation must be placed in context of the Jewish idea of worship.  While there were  synagogues in every town, there was only one temple, which was in Jerusalem. What’s the difference?  In the synagogue, there were scripture readings and prayer. The Greek word synagogue is translated from the Hebrew term bet tefila, meaning “house of prayer”.  The temple, on the other hand, is something more than a synagogue. It’s there, and only there, that the Jews could offer sacrificial worship. This is why we see priests in the temple and not in the synagogues, and why the Jewish priesthood stops operating when the temple is destroyed.  When the Samaritan woman says to Jesus; “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship” (John 4:20), she is talking about the worship that happens in the Temple, ie sacrifice!  Thus, the question wasn’t “Where can we pray?” but “Where can we worship?” in the sense of offering sacrifice.  Jesus responds by saying that “the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father,” and that “the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:21-24).  The question was in reference to sacrifice and so, in His answer, Jesus isn’t talking about where and how we’ll pray in the New Covenant but where and how we’ll offer sacrifice.  When the Protestant Reformation denied the sacrificial nature of the Mass and dispensed with the notion of sacrifice as a form of worship, prayer became, by default, the only form of worship.  Protestants, then, are left with only the tools of the synagogue; the Bible and hopefully someone to explain it.

See Treatise on Prayer in St. Catherine of Siena’s Dialogue.

Scripture &
the Church Fathers:

Bible Verses:

“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you” (Ex. 20:12).

“Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (Rom. 13:7).

“Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Pet. 2:17).

“Let the presbyters [priests] who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17).

The Gospel of Matthew 6:7-13

“And in praying do not heap up empty phrases (“vain repetitions” in KJV, but the Greek word βατταλογήσω or battalogeo is better translated as “idle words” or “empty phrases”) as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this: Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; And forgive us our debts, As we also have forgiven our debtors; And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

The Gospel of Mark 14:32-39 

And they went to a place which was called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I pray.” And the took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. And he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch.” And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you; remove this chalice from me; yet not what I will, but what you will.” And he came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, ”Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. And again, he came and found them sleeping… And he came a third time, and said to them, “Are you still sleeping…?”

The Gospel of Luke 18:1-14

And he told them a parable, to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor regarded man; and there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, “Vindicate me against my adversary.” For a while he refused; but afterward he said to himself, “Though I neither fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will vindicate her, or she will wear me out by her continual coming.” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God vindicate his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will vindicate them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?” He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.” But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Psalm 136: 1-26

“for his steadfast love endures for ever” is repeated 26 times

Isaiah 6:1-3

“In the year that King Uzzi’ah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’”

Revelation 4:8

“And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all round and within, and day and night they never cease to sing, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’”


Church Father Quotes:

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Non-Catholic Expert Opinions

Eduard Schweizer (1913–2006), Swiss biblical scholar

Schweizer does not feel battalogeo is a reference to repetition, but to nonsense. He argues that the Jews of that era felt that the pagans had forgotten the true name of God, and that their prayers were thus filled with long lists of meaningless words in an attempt to ensure the true name of God would at some point be mentioned.  Jesus himself repeats prayers, such as at Matthew 26:44, and in two verses he gives a prayer to be repeated. Rather this verse is read as a condemnation of rote prayer without understanding of why one is praying.  –Schweizer, Eduard. The Good News According to Matthew. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1975

R.T. France (1938–2012), British biblical scholar & Anglican cleric.

France notes that in this era Gentile prayer was portrayed as repeated incantations that had to be perfectly recited, but where the spirit and understanding of the prayer were secondary.  France, R.T. The Gospel According to Matthew: an Introduction and Commentary. Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1985.