Servant of God Father John A. Hardon describes prayer as “sublime conversation we are mysteriously able to hold with the invisible world of God and of God’s angels and saints….It is conversation with the invisible world whose existence we can partially reason to and then only quite dimly, but whose reality and grandeur we can fully know only by faith….Faith is the condition for prayer. It is also the measure and the norm of the quality and quantity of our prayer….Those who pray now will pray in eternity, which is another name for heaven. No one else will get there. Prayer is the indispensable and infallible means of reaching our destiny.”
We are all very familiar with what is called vocal prayer, namely prayer making use of set formulas like the Our Father, Hail Mary, responses at Mass, etc. When said with attention and devotion, vocal prayer is a highly valuable and efficacious way to pray. However, in order to advance in the spiritual life, that is, to advance in union with God, ordinarily we must progress to the second stage of prayer which is called mental prayer or Christian meditation. Saint Teresa of Avila declares that mental prayer is the gateway to all the higher levels of prayer.
Most of us plateau and stagnate in the spiritual life, bringing the same sins to Confession over and over again because we do not fully understand the importance of mental prayer or because we have not committed to it daily. Saint Thomas Aquinas declares that without mental prayer it is impossible to triumph over venial sin. We may have never been taught that avoidance of deliberate venial sin is not only possible, but it is the ordinary calling of every Christian. Avoidance of mortal sin barely puts us on the map when it comes to progress in love of and union with God. It is the bare minimum state required to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but God calls us to much higher levels of purity and love.
Mental prayer is the most important and fundamental daily practice that all Catholics are called to. Without a foundation of daily prayer, we will be unable to receive the abundant grace and healing that God promises us in Holy Communion and Confession. The purpose and end of prayer is that we might amend our lives and grow in love of and union with God. We must not let a single day pass without spending at least 15 minutes in mental prayer. Our entire spiritual life and salvation depends on this. Beginning with 5 minutes a day, over the course of three to four weeks we can build up to this daily commitment of 15 minutes.
An often neglected but absolutely necessary step of prayer is making resolutions and carrying them out immediately and consistently. Saint Francis de Sales sums up the necessity of making and keeping these resolutions.
“It is of the greatest importance that after your meditation you keep in mind the resolutions and plans you have made in order to put them into practice carefully during that very day. This is the principal fruit of meditation. Without it, meditation is often not only useless but even harmful. In fact, to merely meditate on virtues and not practice them can sometimes make our minds and emotions swell with pride. Then we become convinced that we are what we have resolved and decided to be. This may in fact be true if our resolutions are earnest and determined. However, they are useless and dangerous if not put into practice.
Therefore, we must try in every way we can to practice our resolutions, looking out for opportunities, small or great. For example, I am firmly determined to change by my gentleness the attitude of those who insult me. I will try to meet them that very day in order to greet them in a friendly way. In case I do not come across them, I will at least speak well of them and pray to God for them.”
To feed our daily prayer life, spiritual reading is indispensable. This reading is not aimed at acquiring knowledge or indulging our curiosity but at growth in love of God. Spiritual reading provides us with subjects to meditate on in prayer, and it helps to form and clarify our intellect in the truths that God has revealed to us. We should aim to spend at least 10 minutes daily in spiritual reading, preferably directly before the period of mental prayer we have set aside for the day. Spiritual reading settles our minds and aids us in overcoming noise and distraction. During mental prayer, if we find ourselves experiencing dryness or distraction it can be helpful to turn to spiritual reading for a brief period in order to refocus and reignite the affections of our will.
It is important to remember that we must not limit God during our prayer by focusing too greatly on methodology or techniques. The dispositions of faith, love, openness to change, generosity, sacrifice, humility, and hope should be the bedrock of our prayer life. Without these dispositions, we will struggle with prayer. Initially, the methodology of mental prayer will be helpful, but we should be attentive to the movements of the Holy Spirit and His quiet whisperings, and we must not get bogged down by methods as we advance. Below are two methods of mental prayer that we might keep in mind early on in our journey as we approach the Divine Majesty in loving conversation.
The Basic Steps of Mental Prayer
- 1) Place yourself in the Divine Presence and ask the Holy Spirit to teach you how to pray and to guide you
- 2) Considerations – Reflect on a perfection of Jesus Christ, a teaching of the Church, a passage from Scripture, or a passage from the writings of a saint. Consider, imagine, and reason over the subject itself, examining it in different ways. Choose the subject you will be meditating about based on the sin or vice you are currently trying to work on. For example, if you are struggling with impatience, you might meditate on Jesus’ perfect patient endurance of His Passion and Crucifixion.
- 3) Examination – Ask yourself how this subject you’ve been thinking over in your mind applies to you personally. How are you being called to change your life?
Prayer Portion (the majority of your time should be spent here)
- 4) Form affections, petitions, and enter into conversation with God based on the subject you’ve just meditated on. Bring to God adoration, admiration, praise, love, joy, compassion, thanksgiving, petitions, etc. Speak freely to Him about your spiritual needs, worries, and thoughts. Ask Him especially to provide for your spiritual needs.
- 5) Make a specific resolution or renew a specific resolution that is aimed at combating a sin or vice that you’re struggling with. Keep this resolution the same each day until you’ve conquered this sin or vice.
- 6) Thank God for your time together, and ask Him for the strength to consistently carry out the resolution you made.
Lectio Divina Method of Mental Prayer
(Credit: The Benedictine Monks of Conception Abbey)
- Choose a text of the Scriptures that you wish to pray.
- Place yourself in a quiet environment. Calm your anxieties and thoughts, and acknowledge God’s presence.
- Offer a prayer to the Holy Spirit for inspiration and guidance: Come, Holy Spirit, enlighten my heart and mind to listen to your Word.
- Lectio: Read the text slowly and prayerfully out loud, constantly listening for that word that God has prepared for you. You may want to re-read the same text multiple times to help quiet yourself interiorly and focus on God’s voice. Listen and receive the Word that God speaks to you.
- Meditatio: When a word or phrase strikes you, stop and rest with it. Repeat the word or phrase to yourself. Allow it to speak to you in a personal way by pondering the word in your heart, reflecting on what it means to you. Memorize it and repeat it to yourself, allowing it to interact with your thoughts, hopes, memories, and desires.
- Oratio: Prayer is your response to God’s word. It begins your dialogue with God that comes from your heart. Formulate a prayer, as a response to God. What do you want to say to the Lord in response to the Word spoken to you? Enter into this loving conversation with God.
- Contemplatio: Rest in God’s presence and receive His transforming embrace. Sit still with God, realizing that in this deep and profound relationship, words are not necessary. Be content and at peace with a wordless, quiet rest in God, which brings joy to the heart. Remember that contemplation is not your action or doing, rather it is allowing God to act in you.
If you are interested in learning more about the stages of prayer and how to pray, Dom Lehodey’s book The Ways of Mental Prayer may be very helpful. In this book, we are provided with a synthesis of the teachings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. It is a true masterclass. The full text of this volume is available here: