I. Introduction — Why this topic?
As I begin this talk on Mental Prayer, it is necessary for me to do so with a bit of an apologia. There are some who may think that, in these times of crisis, when virile action is required on the part of the faithful, such a pie-in-the-sky pipe dream as daily mental prayer is a waste of our precious time.
The more I consider such sentiments, the more I realize why we are so far from success in our goals of restoring the Church to sound doctrine and converting our nation. It is a fundamentally anti-Christian notion which turns the life of the Catholic upside-down by placing the essence of holiness in external activity. This is the very opposite of the truth. I have addressed this question elsewhere, notably in my talk on Venerable Emmanuel d’Alzon at last year’s Saint Benedict Center Conference in Fitchburg, MA. Without dwelling on the subject, I will limit myself to the argument from authority and say that this exultation of active virtues over the interior life is none other than the heresy of Americanism condemned by Pope Leo XIII.
The active apostle needs the interior life if he is to be effective, and Mental Prayer is necessary for cultivating a fruitful interior life.
While it is not of strict necessity for salvation — which prayer in general is — the specific exercise of mental prayer is, to quote Adolphe Tanquerey, “the most effective means of assuring one’s salvation.” The same author goes on to state that the more one is involved in any active apostolate – no matter what one’s state in life – the more one is in need of this practice. Sad experience shows the fruits of the active apostolic worker who feeds himself a spiritual starvation diet. Dom Chautard, in his highly-recommended The Soul of the Apostolate, gives a devastating description of such an individual. His arguments, and more importantly, his appeal to experience, show that for the active apostolic worker, mental prayer is virtually indispensable. He is only reaffirming the doctrine of the saints. Saint Alphonsus goes so far as to say that mental prayer is morally necessary for salvation. Saint Theresa of Avila, who seems almost fanatical in her insistence on mental prayer, goes further: “He who neglects mental prayer needs not a devil to carry him to hell, but he brings himself there with his own hands.” Her fellow Carmelite, Saint John of the Cross, said, “Without the aid of mental prayer, the soul cannot triumph over the forces of the demon.”
About this necessity of mental prayer, I don’t want to cause anyone to become scrupulous or despairing. Saint John Damascene’s classical definition of prayer is “an elevation of the soul to God.” In this most basic form, prayer is necessary for salvation for all who have the use of reason. Because prayer in general — even vocal prayer — requires attention of the mind, we can say that mental prayer, i.e., prayer “of the mind” — is necessary for salvation. But this general sort of mental prayer is not the specific exercise that we are introducing here. Spiritual writers are careful to note that the acts of mental prayer that are necessary for salvation can be performed in spiritual exercises other than the sharply focused one commonly called mental prayer, so we are not speaking of something of the same necessity as Faith or Baptism.
However, Saint Alphonsus teaches that “It is morally impossible for him who neglects meditation to live without sin.” He even says that over and above the Rosary, the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin, and fasting, mental prayer is more effective because of its incompatibility with sin. The reason for this, he said, is that those in mortal sin can persevere in these other practices, but nobody can continue the practice of mental prayer in the state of mortal sin. He will either repent or quit the practice of mental prayer. These thoughts should not be taken lightly from the Church’s Doctor of Moral theology, especially since he was a very experienced physician of souls.
I don’t want to turn this into a florilegium of saints’ quotes on mental prayer, but this eulogy from Saint Peter of Alcantara should convince anyone: “In mental prayer, the soul is purified from its sins, nourished with charity, confirmed in faith, and strengthened in hope; the mind expands, the affections dilate, the heart is purified, truth becomes evident; temptation is conquered, sadness dispelled; the senses are renovated; drooping powers revive; tepidity ceases; the rust of vices disappears. Out of mental prayer issues forth, like living sparks, those desires of heaven which the soul conceives when inflamed with the fire of divine love. Sublime is the excellence of mental prayer, great are its privileges; to mental prayer heaven is opened; to mental prayer heavenly secrets are manifested and the ear of God [is] ever attentive.”
You may say that such statements, coming from men and women of so long ago, have no bearing on modern life. Again, the logic is upside-down: because of the more hostile surroundings of modern life, there is even more need today for the faithful to take up this practice. Unless you live in a cave, you are bombarded with the devil’s attacks via the mass media, in a way that the men of those days were not. And you have precious little Catholic culture to support you. There is nothing like mental prayer to keep one’s supernatural focus sharpened amid the dulling influences of daily life in the 21st century. As for modern apostles of the necessity of mental prayer, I recommend Dom Chautard, whose book I mentioned above, and the wonderful spiritual writer Father Mary Eugene Boylan, author of This Tremendous Lover .
One last point by way of general introduction is necessary. What I am speaking of here is not “a pious devotion” among other devotions. This is not like a devotion to a specific saint, mystery, or private revelation. It’s not a new novena, chaplet, or other such devotion. Rather, it is a discipline that will form the rock-solid foundation for a deep interior life. By the practice of mental prayer, your whole spiritual life will be powerfully animated: your attendance at Mass, Rosaries, spiritual reading, recitation of vocal prayers, pious ejaculations novenas, etc.
II. Necessary definitions.
Now I would like to give some necessary definitions:
Mental Prayer — “a silent elevation and application of our mind and heart to God in order to offer Him our homages and to promote His glory by our advancement in virtue.” (Adolphe Tanquerey) Saint Theresa’s definition from her Life: “Mental Prayer is nothing else than an intimate friendship, a frequent heart-to-heart with Him by whom we know ourselves to be loved.”
Meditation — the first part of mental prayer, the part which is dedicated to the consideration of a mystery or truth. The word is often used as a synonym for the whole exercise of mental prayer, but is best limited to this one aspect. Two synonyms for meditation in the sense we are using it are “consideration,” and “reflection.”
Discursive Prayer — “a prayer in which reflection or consideration of some mystery or of some truth of faith predominates. ‘Discourse’ was the old word used for the process of reasoning by which one came to the truth gradually, — step by step, as in one of Euclid’s demonstrations.” (Fr. M. Eugene Boylan)
Affections — “all those movements of the will towards God which generally manifest themselves in acts of the various virtues.” (Fr. M. Eugene Boylan)
Affective Prayer — the type of mental prayer in which affections predominate.
Spiritual Reading — “All reading that is conducive to prayer and closer union with God.” (Fr. Hardon)
These definitions are important for this talk, and they come in handy when reading books dealing with Mental Prayer.
III. Simple Outline
Mental prayer is a methodical, that is, it employs a set method. There are numerous methods in use, most of which are variations on the same general theme. Saint Ignatius proposes four distinct methods in his Spiritual Exercises. The elements seen in his outlines are contained in other methods as well, such as the Sulpician method, the Salesian method, the Ligorian method, and several others. There is a Carmelite method, too; and if Saint Ignatius’ methods are the most minutely detailed in their outlines, surely the Carmelite method is the simplest. The rule of thumb for which method to choose is very subjective: whatever works for you. “Whatever works for you” means whatever makes you love and serve Jesus Christ better, because good mental prayer makes for a better Catholic: one more virtuous, more patient, more charitable, more zealous, and more self-denying; in short, more conformed to Mind of the Blessed Trinity than he was yesterday.
The outline I’m about to propose is the very simple one given by Dom Vitalis Lehodey, in his wonderful book, The Ways of Mental Prayer . The body of the exercise consists in four things: considerations, affections, petitions, and resolutions. To this, we add some preparatory acts at the beginning of our prayer, and closing acts at the end. So, the list is now six items: preparation, considerations, affections, petitions, resolutions, and conclusion.
Even if you opt for a method other than this one I’m proposing, what I say about these various stages can be applied to any method, since these elements are, for the most part, contained in every method. Now, I will summarize these six points.
Preparation: The first is preparation. This consists in putting ourselves in the presence of God, contritely acknowledging our sinfulness, and asking for God’s help to pray well. These opening acts are important. They form what might be called the “ice-breaker” of our intimate conversation with Our Lord. Since praying is a supernatural act, something literally quite above us, it requires a special sort of attention and focusing of the mind on the supernatural. The act of strong faith in God’s presence gives our minds this attention to the divine that we constantly need to remind ourselves of, especially when setting out to pray. A humble admission of our sinfulness makes us more likely to be heard by God, who more than once revealed to us in the Scriptures that he “resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.” The third of the preparatory acts, petitioning God for his lights, calls down His blessings on our undertaking. We should remind ourselves that Our Lord said, “without me you can do nothing.” That applies to everything, but especially to the spiritual life. Taken together, these three preparatory acts of faith in God’s presence, contrition for sin, and petition for light put us in a proper posture in regard to God. We recognize our nothingness in His site and our total dependence on Him.
If, after a half hour of a good willed effort at mental prayer done with great difficulty and struggle, we end with nothing else than firm knowledge of our inadequacy before God, we have not wasted our time.
Considerations: Before discussing considerations, it would be helpful for us to recall that there are only two things that ontologically separate us from the dumb animals; these are the two spiritual faculties of intellect and will. Taken together, they comprise the mens, the Latin word for mind, from which we get the word “mental.” It is primarily these faculties — or powers — that are employed in mental prayer. I emphasize this because, while the lower faculties can come into play in prayer, they need not. Prayer is primarily an act of the soul’s highest powers: of the mind, of the intellect and will working together under the influence of divine grace. So, if we don’t have warm feelings or sensible consolations, we should not be a bit troubled. The intellect and will, illuminated and strengthened by the gifts of the Holy Ghost, can operate without them. In fact, in certain grades of prayer, God deliberately withdraws all such consolations so that the soul can ascend to contemplation. These are the dark nights that Saint John of the Cross wrote about.
With the considerations, we enter into the body of our mental prayer. As I have already said, the considerations can also be called the meditation proper, or reflections. In this part of mental prayer, we employ the memory by recalling to mind the subject of our meditation. I’ll list some subjects for mental prayer later, but for now, let’s say we are meditating on the Passion, particularly, the crowning with thorns. It will help if, the night before, we had reviewed the Gospel accounts of this humiliation of Our Lord. Now that we are in our time for mental prayer, we recall to our minds this tragic picture. We see the Roman soldiers, having just finished scourging him, crown his head with this gruesome mockery of his kingship. They put the reed into his hands and dress him in mock royal scarlet and purple. Then, they take the reed out of His hand, and with it, they drive the thorns into his Sacred Head shouting “Hail, King of the Jews!” With the picture before our eyes, we begin reflect on the incident. We may ask ourselves questions. Some authors recommend applying the so-called seven circumstances of scholastic philosophy during our considerations: quis, quid, ubi, quibus auxiliis, cur, quomodo, quando (who, what, where, with what assistance, why, how, and when).
During the considerations, we apply our reason to the subject in such a way as to draw important conclusions for our life. We should always be careful to turn the consideration of the subject to ourselves. “How does this apply to me?” We know that Our Lord did it for us and for our salvation. We know that He didn’t have to do it for us, but if He didn’t that we could not go to Heaven. We may consider who He is and what His dignity is, and that He has done this to pay the debt for the sins that we commit daily. These things should begin to well up within us and move us into the next part of our mental prayer, affections.
Before we discuss affections, however, I should say that there are many different ways of approaching the considerations. Not everyone’s spiritual makeup is such that the above described approach will work. What we need to accomplish in the considerations is to fix our gaze on some supernatural truth to lead us to the latter stages of the exercise, the affections, petitions, and resolutions, which form the heart of mental prayer, the conversation with Jesus. There are different ways of fixing our gaze. In the Carmelite school, for instance, one generally reads a book for a few moments in order to begin the considerations. A few moments with the Gospels or the Imitation of Christ can focus our intellects on these truths. What is of utmost importance is that the considerations bring us into a live contact with Jesus Christ and give us strong convictions. These convictions will form a foundation, or a focal point for our affections, petitions, and resolutions. This process of passing from considerations to the latter parts of mental prayer is based on man’s psychological makeup. Meditation is an act of the intellect; but affections, petitions, and resolutions are all acts of the will. Since the will is the “appetite of the intellect,” it only acts on something the intellect presents to it. To quote Saint Augustine, “I cannot love what I do not know.” The intellect knows and the will loves.
Another thing I should emphasize before touching upon affections is that many authors recommend that some self-examination be done in the considerations. This is not a minute examination of conscience, but a sort of specialized one based on the subject of our meditation. For instance, if we are meditating on the passion, we could examine ourselves on how grateful we really are to our Lord for enduring this for us. We may ask ourselves what return we give to Our Lord for goodness to us: “Do I, as I am supposed to, imitate Jesus Christ in this action? He was patient with His own creatures who hated Him and tortured Him. Am I patient with my fellow men? even my fellow brothers in Christ?”
Sometimes our considerations can be on a virtue. Humility is a good example. After considering Jesus’ humility in emptying himself to become man, or Our Lady’s humility in the Annunciation, or the Visitation, we can examine ourselves by way of a quick glance to see if we are even trying to practice this virtue. We picture our day and its challenges. We find the particular occasions that always make us trip up on that virtue. What are we doing? Collecting information that will come in later, when we make our other acts. If you profit from meditating on the virtues, a good thing to do is to continue on the same virtue for a while, maybe a month or more at a time, until you make more and more progress.
Affections: Now we come to the affections. Here begins the work of the will. Here we are speaking heart-to-heart with our divine Lover. To show the importance of the affections and other will-acts over the considerations, I’ll point out that in the higher grades of prayer, the opening acts and considerations virtually drop out completely and the soul begins its prayer with affections. Even for those who are not mystics, but who make gradual progress in mental prayer, the time dedicated to considerations generally diminishes, while the time given to affections and other acts of the will grows. All authors I have consulted point out that merely to meditate, that is, to stick only to the part we are calling considerations, is not actually praying, since we are not speaking to God. Also, we have the testimony of Saint Teresa who assures us that good mental prayer consists not in thinking much, but in loving much.
The word “affection” has a connotation in modern English that we don’t intend here. Recall our definition: Affections are “all those movements of the will towards God which generally manifest themselves in acts of the various virtues.” They are not primarily feelings, sentiments, or emotions; but movements of the will. They may happen with or without the sensible feelings which arise in our lower faculties. Included in the affections are acts of love, contrition, adoration, thanksgiving, resignation, conformity to the will of God, admiration of His greatness, fear of his anger, confidence in his promises, renunciation of self, desire for holiness, thirst for virtue, etc. These acts of the will can flow quite naturally from the considerations themselves, or they may be unrelated to the subject matter. Acts of love, for instance are always appropriate, even if your meditation has been on death and your particular judgment, which would more directly elicit salutary fear, humility, and contrition.
Let’s return to the crowning with thorns. After mentally ruminating the mystery, we began to be moved by our Lord’s love for us, we began to pity his condition and feel remorse for our part in his Passion. At this point, we may spontaneously pass from considerations to affections. We will make acts of sincere thanksgiving, contrition and desire to amend our lives and conform ourselves more and more to our thorn-crowned Savior. These acts are not prewritten memorized prayers, but our own conversation with Jesus. This is that heart-to-heart of which Saint Theresa wrote. When we say “act of faith” or “act of love” other such designations, they bring to mind those wonderful prayers we find in the catechism and in prayer books. But these acts are part of a conversation; not a litany of prayers from a book. We don’t despise those prayers; in fact, such formulas give us a valuable vocabulary for prayer. But when you speak to your lover, you don’t read one Hallmark card after another. You tell him, in your own clumsy way, that you love Him. And words aren’t always necessary. In fact, an effort to multiply words may only produce a headache. Lovers are often most intimate when they just look at each other.
Saint Teresa of Avila and other authors often refer to mental prayer as a conversation. It is important that we think of ourselves in a loving conversation with Our Lord.
An important aspect of the affections is that in them we render to God those homages that are his due. Call to mind the four ends of all prayer: adoration, thanksgiving, reparation, and petition. The first three acts are due to God. We owe them to Him. The last one, petition, is what we ask from His mercy. That fourth end of prayer is taken care of in the next and last part of the body of the meditation, the one we call petitions; but the other three are all included in affections. Now, in our mental prayer, we make these homages of adoration, thanksgiving and reparation just as we make other acts. They are part of our conversation, in our own words, or even merely in our own loving glances at the tabernacle or the crucifix. I should quickly add that not every “act,” or homage, must be included in every period of mental prayer. Because what we are striving for is an intimate conversation with Jesus Christ, we should avoid hopping disjointedly from act to act, although when we have moments of difficulty in prayer — dryness or distractions — we sometimes must work to elicit these acts one after another.
Before going on to discuss petitions, I should mention that some authors group affections with petitions, calling them collectively either “conversation,” as the Carmelite school is wont to do, or “affections,” which gets a little confusing. Father Simler, the author of the Catechism of Mental Prayer, groups them this way, giving petitions the name, “affections of supplication.”
Petitions: Making petitions is what makes mental prayer “prayer” which is, in its most generic sense, asking for something. If our considerations and affections have been fruitful, it is likely that certain petitions will flow quite naturally from the subject matter of our meditation. Let’s get back to humility. I’ve considered it, say, by meditating on the passage from Saint Paul to the Philippians, Chapter 2, where Saint Paul describes our Lord’s self-abasement. After fruitful considerations on Our Lord’s humbling himself, being obedient to death on the Cross, and after affections appropriate to that mystery, I would ask for the virtue of humility. Other closely related virtues, such as obedience, mortification of self-will, and abandonment to the divine Will could also flow with ease. When we ask for some virtue, Saint Francis de Sales and others recommend that we picture to ourselves opportunities for exercising it that very day, and ask for the grace to practice the virtue on those occasions. This connects our mental prayer to our daily life, which is essential if mental prayer is to make us better, which is one of its purposes. At a more basic level, making your prayer effect, your daily life also makes it honest. If I ask for humility at 6:30 in the morning and don’t do anything to curb my pride that regularly flares up at the same person every day at 2:30 in the afternoon, I’m not being honest when I ask God for that virtue. As Saint James said, “You ask and receive not: because you ask amiss.” Mental prayer must make us better.
Now besides actually procuring the thing asked for — something Our Lord promised when He said, “Ask and ye shall receive” — supplicating God for the virtues also has some secondary effects. One is the psychological effect of obliging us to practice them. This should lead us to make salutary resolutions. Another secondary effect of petitioning God for the virtues is that it keeps high ideals in our minds.
In addition to petitions related directly to the subject of the meditation, we may pray for graces we find ourselves in need of. These could be divine aid to overcome some fault, the infusion of a virtue, counsel to discern the will of God in some present crisis, fortitude to do what we know to be right, the conversion of a friend or family member. We should also have certain “stock” petitions, such as the good of the Universal Church, the Holy Father, our families, the welfare of our nation, and especially its conversion, for brethren in religion, priests, students, co-workers, etc. The petitions should be simple, in our own words, and sincere.
I’ll give Saint Alphonsus the final word on petitions. In his Way of Salvation and Perfection, he says, “There is no barrier at the door against any who desire to speak with Him; nay, God delights that you should treat with Him confidently. Treat with Him of your business, your plans, your griefs, your fears, — of all that concerns you… He would have us often speak with Him familiarly and without restraint.”
Resolutions: Now we come to the final part of the body of mental prayer: resolutions. In this part, we make concrete acts of the will to do some good thing or to avoid some evil thing. The resolution is the spiritual “putting your money where your mouth is.” Have you meditated on the virtue of charity? Have you considered say, the tremendous charity Our Lady showed in her Visitation to Saint Elizabeth? Then resolve to be charitable now, today, and quit being so uncharitable to that poor fellow (co-worker, brother-in-law, boss, father, spouse, etc.) whom you find so irritating. Resolve not in general to be charitable, but to do something charitable to a certain person you find difficult. Or, resolve to stop doing some habitual act contrary to charity, such as getting impatient with so-and-so when he does that little thing you find so very irritating. And if you think these things are trivial, recall that Saint Therese’s little way was full of such small renunciations. And her little way was the product of meditating on the Gospels.
It is good that, once you conclude what your predominant fault is, you strive to aim your resolutions at that fault. If, for instance, you frequently confess gluttony, start making resolutions contrary to that vice. Spending a long time on one virtue, maybe even months, is also recommended, until you make progress in it. Then pass on to another. Some authors recommend making two resolutions, one which is permanent, and the other which changes from time to time. Perhaps a permanent resolution every one in this room can make is to be apostolic in our daily life. We all want the conversion of America; keeping that ever in our prayers and resolving to act upon it will bring God’s blessing upon our holy desires.
As with the rest of our prayer, the resolutions should be honest and sincere. There should be a follow up examination of conscience later in the day to see if you’ve kept your promises.
Concluding acts: Finally, after the resolutions, we come to the concluding acts. These are very brief. You should thank God for the graces He has given you in your prayer; express sorrow for any faults or negligences you have committed during this holy exercise; ask him to bless your resolutions, your present day, your life and your death. Lastly, commend yourself to Our Lady. The Sulpician method, from which I have garnered these closing acts, concludes with the ancient prayer to our Lady, the Sub Tuum . Some of the saints recommend taking some thought that has impressed you strongly or a pious ejaculation related to the subject of your meditation and using it as a nosegay or spiritual bouquet to employ throughout the day. This recalls to your mind the pious thoughts and resolutions you have made. This is one concrete way of tying in your prayers with your every-day life.
That concludes the outline. Now, I would like to talk about difficulties in prayer. What I have said in the talk so far may seem to make mental prayer sound very inviting and easy. Well, it is inviting, considering its benefits; however, it is not always easy. The same saints who sing its praises also speak of difficulties associated with it. Saint Theresa said “He gave me courage to practice mental prayer, I say, courage, because I know nothing in the world that requires more of this.” Father Boylan wrote “When we decide to become men of prayer, we make a declaration of war, not only on our lower selves, but on the devil himself. Nothing but resolute courage and firm unshakable confidence in God can enable us to persist in that combat.” The subject of difficulties in mental prayer is one that spiritual writers address at great length. The two most common ones are distractions and aridity. They correspond to our intellect and will. Both of them can be voluntary or involuntary, culpable or inculpable.
Distractions assail our intellect. They are the mental wanderings that have us thinking about things other than our subject. As for involuntary distractions, they can come about by tiredness, illness, anxiety about our occupations, inculpable lack of preparation for mental prayer, or other such causes. Voluntary distractions can have the same causes, but are voluntary because we don’t discipline our minds and attempt to banish the distractions. Distractions can also be caused by bad mental habits, such as failure to control our thoughts in our every day life, or not giving proper attention to preparing our meditation the night before. I follow the opinion of the authors who recommend preparing the meditation the night before, by way of picking the subject and spending a few minutes thinking about what affections, petitions, or resolutions would be related to this subject. Especially for beginners, this seems indispensable. I also firmly believe something that most of the good books on meditation don’t mention on this point. They don’t mention it, because television wasn’t an issue when they wrote. If you are among those unfortunates who watch television — and I don’t mean the occasional clean movie on videotape, but regular broadcast television — then you are programming your mind to distraction. You are putting images and thoughts in your mind that don’t belong in the temple of Holy Ghost. You’re also numbing your mental faculties to any real thought. Television is one of the reasons our society is so dumb.
One way to deal with distractions is to attack them in their causes. This is easily done with a television. But when distractions creep up during meditation — and they will — we should try, without vexing ourselves, to return to our subject. I’ve already alluded to the fact that this struggle can be very meritorious.
After distraction, which corresponds to the intellect, the other main difficulty is aridity, or dryness, which corresponds to the will. Aridity is the inability of the will to make any affections with facility. It is a lack of enthusiasm for, or even a repulsion to divine conversation. It has three causes: God, the Devil, and ourselves.
When God causes it, He deliberately withdraws any sensible consolations in prayer. This is something he does in the process of purgation which leads us to the higher grades of prayer. When the Devil causes it, it is to discourage us from the path of holiness. But the normal causes of dryness for most of us lie in ourselves. And unless we have strong testimony otherwise — and the agreement of a competent spiritual director — we should assume that the causes of aridity are in us. The bad habits we don’t correct, our failure to live up to our previous resolutions, our negligence of the duties of our state in life, sensuality, lack of mortification of our lower appetites, attachment to venial sin: all these constitute causes of aridity and barriers to fruitful prayer. Father Boylan simplifies all this to say that goodness of life is essential to good prayer. Perhaps by being battered around a bit as we attempt mental prayer, only then will we learn how bad we are, how much we need to be converted, and how dependant we are on God’s grace. When we are utterly unable to do anything but repeat “my Jesus Mercy” or some other such ejaculation, we must do what Father Boylan counsels and imitate Saint Paul, who said, “Gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”
Now all this sounds discouraging, but it shouldn’t be. Holy Job tells us that “The life of man upon earth is a warfare.” When we take up the practice of mental prayer, we are going into the thick of the battle. While the fighting may be more intense there, we have less of a chance of becoming a deserter than the timid souls looking on from a distance. We will also get greater rewards from our King and a closer place to our Queen when the victory is achieved.
Recall, again, that the purpose of mental prayer is not to make us “feel good” but to render to God his due and to conform us to His Holy Will. Our God is a consuming fire. If we get a little burnt when we approach Him here on earth, so much the better of our eternity.
V. Alternatives to Methodical Approach
For those who try, but simply cannot get any fruit out of the methodical approach I outlined above, there are alternative methods. They include meditative recitation of vocal prayers and meditative reading. Both of these methods were employed by Saint Teresa of Avila. She herself tells us that she spent 14 years unable to meditate without the aid of a book.
Meditative recitation of vocal prayers is the practice of reciting a prayer like the Our Father phrase by phrase, carefully considering each phase, eliciting affections, and making petitions as you go. Saint Ignatius highly recommends this. Meditative reading is similar. Using Scripture, the Imitation of Christ, or a book of meditations such as Bishop Ottokar Prohaszka’s Meditations on the Gospels, we read a little bit at a time, pausing frequently to perform those same acts which constitute regular mental prayer.
Meditative reading is different than spiritual reading, which is completely, or almost completely, an act of the intellect. Meditative reading won’t get us very far in a book, but it will be accompanied by those acts of the will which form the most important part of mental prayer. And it’s not time to do a lot of speculating on difficulties in the text, so the book should be clear and familiar to us. For Saint Therese, it was the Gospels.
These methods are explored more deeply in Dom Lehodey’s book. There is also an appendix to Dom Chautard’s The Soul of the Apostolate, which has nine alternatives to methodical mental prayer, including these two.
VI. General Helps to Mental Prayer
Now, I would like to comment on some general helps to mental prayer. The first I’ve already mentioned: goodness of life. In the outline of the Sulpician method, the “remote preparation” for mental prayer is given: “a life of reflection and solid piety.” However you label it, sincere pursuit of virtue in our daily life is irreplaceable if we are to progress in prayer. Praying better helps us live better and living better helps us pray better. Virtue and prayer are like two wings which carry us to God. They are both complementary and mutually dependant. You can’t fly with just one wing.
Another help is daily spiritual reading of 15 minutes or so. There are many good books for this, such as Abbot Marmion’s works, Dom Guéranger’s Liturgical Year , or the writings of Saint Teresa of Avila. Those who have made the total consecration to Jesus through Mary would do well to read the works of Saint Louis Marie de Montfort, or Saint John Eudes. The writings of Saint Alphonsus de Ligouri and Saint Francis de Sales are also a goldmine for the spiritual life.
The practice of spiritual reading gives us a vocabulary with which to pray. It elevates our minds to the supernatural truths and how they should be lived daily. It also supplies us with subjects for meditation. One word of advice about spiritual reading: It’s not like reading a novel or a trade journal. Books such as I have recommended are meant to be digested bit by bit. Don’t get into a frenzy of reading as many as you can, or, worse, several at a time. Read a book by a recommended author slowly. If you profit from it, perhaps you should stick to that author until you’ve read all his titles. Or, you may even reread that book. Saint Thérèse had entire passages of the Imitation of Christ memorized. She obviously didn’t read it as one reads a newspaper.
The next general help is a spiritual director. Given the lack of good priests nowadays, it is difficult to find good spiritual direction. However, if you have access to a trustworthy priest who is willing to meet with you, say, once a month, then try to get spiritual direction. His job is to assist you with your interior life: helping you to find what resolutions you should work on, what faults to correct, and giving you counsel as needed to address the questions and problems that are bound to arise in your attempt at a more disciplined interior life.
The last general help I would like to offer is small list of helpful books to get you started on mental Prayer. Again, I don’t want to begin a reading frenzy; and I’m not just plugging these books for commercial reasons. In fact, I value the advice of Fr. Faber that to learn about mental prayer, it is not good, at first, to read everything you can on the subject. Find one book that’s good, and keep at it for a while. One good book is the Catechism of Mental Prayer , a very small book that sells for $3.00. Some others are The Ways of Mental Prayer , by Dom Vitalis Lehodey, Introduction to a Devout Life by Saint Francis de Sales, and Conversation with Christ , by Peter Thomas Rohrbach.
VII. Loose Ends
Before closing, there are some loose ends I should address. The first is: How long should one spend in this exercise? The common recommendation is 1/2 hour to an hour. Those who cannot possibly accommodate that into their schedule can cut it down even to 15 minutes. It can also be done more than once a day, which leads to the next question: When should it be done? Most authors recommend the morning time. Father Boylan, in This Tremendous Lover , faults this common teaching as virtually arbitrary. As with the earlier question of which method to choose, the rule of thumb, “whatever works for you” is a good guiding principle. For me, the morning is best. For you, night time may be.
Regarding how the time of the various parts of mental prayer should be divided, Dom Lehodey counsels that, for beginners, something short of half the total time of mental prayer should be devoted to the preparatory acts and considerations.
Earlier, I promised to give some subjects for mental prayer. These would include, the four last things, events from the life of Our Lord or the Blessed Virgin (such as the mysteries of the Rosary), some virtue we need to acquire (especially those we fail in and those most necessary for our state in life), some vice to be destroyed, or some dogma of our Faith (e.g., an article of the Creed or the doctrine of the Real Presence).
Exhaustive treatises on prayer usually address the higher grades of prayer, but this is beyond the scope of my talk. Dom Lehodey treats of them in The Ways of Mental Prayer .
VIII. Concluding Remarks
By way of conclusion, I would like to encourage everyone to take up the exercise of mental prayer and to persevere in it. I will finish with a request. It sometimes happens after conferences that speakers get laudatory letters from people who profited from their talks. If any of you take up the practice mental prayer as a result of this talk, don’t write me to thank me —not right away. Wait at least six months. If you have still persevered in it at that time, then you can thank me. Crank mail is welcome any time.