On Mental Prayer

             “We know the body has all it wants, when it can do its works without difficulty; and the interior man is sufficiently nourished by prayer, when he shows vigour in cultivating virtue, bearing trials, and making sacrifices. On the contrary, if he has lost his strength and his energy, it is food that he wants; he requires to pray more or to pray better.” [1] [2]

             Prayer is an essential part of the spiritual life. It is in fact necessary since it is by asking that we receive (Matthew 7:7), and it is only through grace that we can do anything. In the words of Our Lord, “without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). It is indeed a tragedy that Catholics have lost this deep sense of spirituality that all the Saints and our Fathers in the Faith shared in common, and are ignorant of the level of sanctity to which God wants us to aim. Ironically, one sees that many young people subscribe to some sort of Buddhism or pagan practice because they find meaning in that spiritual life. This spiritual life is, in fact, a perversion of that which is proper only in relationship to the One True God, the God of the Catholic Church and the one true Faith. Sadly, out of ignorance or suspicion, modern Catholics tend to limit themselves to vocal prayer and never really practice mental prayer. The pagan advocacy for secular meditation might be to blame, but it is through their disordered desires that we see what the heart of man truly seeks. If only we would read about the Saints who tell us that the means to start our spiritual journey towards Christian perfection is, indeed, mental prayer! St. Alphonsus goes so far as to say that mental prayer is morally necessary for salvation.[3] St. Teresa of Avila says that “those souls who give up mental prayer I really pity, they serve God at their own cost. It is not so with those who practice mental prayer. This adorable master pays all their expenses. In exchange for a little trouble He gives them consolations which enable them to bear all crosses… God grants such sublime graces, as He has given me, only to mental prayer.”[4] She also tells the story of how a demon tried to persuade her to stop practicing mental prayer because of her imperfections, and warns of the danger of this. “Where were my wits? What folly to fly the light, to stumble at every step in the dark! What a proud humility the demon knew how to suggest in order to induce me to abandon the practice of mental prayer… In my opinion, it is the greatest danger I incurred in my whole life.”[5] St. Alphonsus also says the following: “We see some who recite the rosary, the office of the Blessed Virgin, and give themselves to other exterior practices of piety, and nevertheless continue to live in sin; but when anyone constantly practices mental prayer it is impossible for him to continue to live in sin.”[6] These are just a few things these saints have said on the subject, and many others might be found in writings of many Saints and holy people. But this tells us just how important the practice of mental prayer is in the life of any Catholic.

             Mental prayer has as its end to glorify God; it will always aim at making us better. [7] According to Lehodey, for those beginning in the spiritual life, what they should aim at through the practice of mental prayer is the “extirpation of some sin or defect, above all of their predominant vice; the victory over some temptation, the correction of some bad inclination, the governing of such and such a passion. When one evil is corrected they should turn their prayer against another for as long as may be necessary in order triumph over it; and thus mental prayer well practiced will purify their souls.” [8]. For those who don’t know what their predominant fault is, they can establish a devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows and ask her (specifically under that title) to reveal to them the nature of their predominant fault. St. Simeon told Our Lady that a sword was going to pierce Her soul so that thoughts of many hearts may be revealed (Luke 2:35), and thus Our Lord reveals to Mary things known to no one else. Thus we can petition Her to reveal to us things pertaining to the spiritual life which She can make known to us by an ordinary actual grace. [9] Our Lady, then, can play an essential part in our spiritual warfare, especially because of the promises revealed to St. Bridget of Sweden to those who honor Her daily by saying seven Hail Mary’s and meditating on Her sorrows. Our Lady said: “I will defend them in their spiritual battles against the infernal enemy and I will protect them at every instant of their lives.” [10]

Practical Way of Making Mental Prayer

             Now we know how important mental prayer is, what its end must be, and a way to discern what faults we must try to conquer through it. In what, then, does mental prayer consist of? Mental prayer consists of three parts, these being:

            I.       The preparation

            II.     The body of the meditation

            III.    The conclusion

            Before starting the prayer, it is absolutely essential to be recollected and readily disposed to pray with attention and devotion, for St. Gregory says that “God listens not to him who while praying listens not to himself.” [11] The devil, indeed, loves when people pray without devotion; let us then make haste to pray well with God’s grace. The preparation will consist in three acts: “a) To place oneself in the presence of God; b) to confess that we are unworthy of being allowed to appear before Him; c) to ask for grace, without which we cannot pray well.” [12]

I. Preparation

a. Placing ourselves in the presence of God

            There are different ways in which we can place ourselves in the presence of God. These might be to consider that God’s presence is everywhere, to consider His presence in us, to consider Our Savior as if He were in His humanity truly looking down from heaven, or to imagine He was really there with us whether it be in the Crib, His infancy, His hidden or public life, His cross, in His glory, or in any other way. [13][14] Practical ways of doing this might be simple acts of Faith like saying, “Lord, I truly believe Thou art here present. I see not Thee, but I am more certain than I’ve ever been of Thy presence here with me. O Lord, speaketh, for Thy servant heareth.” This is just a simple example and it might be done in many other ways and different formulas.

b. Confessing our unworthiness before God

             The second step, to confess our unworthiness before God, might be done in the following way [15]:

“I believe, O Lord, that Thou art here really present, that I, dust and ashes, am going to speak to my Lord and my God, that Thine eyes are upon me and that Thou deignest to listen to me. Thou art my God, I humbly adore Thee; Thou art my Sovereign Master, I submit myself to Thy absolute authority. Deign to look upon me mercifully and to bear with me indulgently, for I am most unworthy to appear in Thy presence; unworthy, because Thou art infinitely great, and I am but nothingness; unworthy, especially, because Thou art holiness itself, and I, poor sinner, have so often offended Thy Divine Majesty, especially by such or such a fault; even still, I have such or such a defect which I have not corrected, such or such a bad inclination which puts me to shame. To appear in Thy presence I ought to be as pure as an angel. Oh, how far from it am I! But Thou knowest that I love not my fault and my spiritual miseries; I am ashamed of them before Thee, I beg Thy pardon for them, I will correct them with the aid of Thy Holy grace, and it is even for this purpose that I come to Thee, hoping that ‘Thou wilt not despise a contrite and humble heart;’ and, if I am not sufficiently penetrated with this salutary compunction, deign Thou to pour it into my soul and I shall have it. ‘Purify my heart and my lips, O Omnipotent God, who didst purify the lips of Isaias with a burning coal,’ and then I shall be less unworthy to converse with Thee.” [16]

            This again, is just an example and these types of acts may differ in length and form according to our inclinations, circumstances, or the guidance of the Holy Ghost. We may also say the Confiteor, make an act of contrition, or unite ourselves to God by invoking the merits of His Son. For instance, we can say to God:

            “O God, who didst send Thy only Son to be the Redeemer of the world, for the sake of His Passion, O God, have mercy on this poor sinner and listen to my prayer. Thy Son prayed for me whilst He was on earth, and He adored Thee even unto death. Thus, I shelter myself under His salutary merits, and dare to present myself before Thee with a firm confidence that Thou wilt hear me, not because of my worth, but for the sake of Thy Son Jesus Christ, Who died in obedience to Thy will and prayed for me, a sinner, that my sins may be cleansed by the power of His blood.”

            Of course, in all this we should try to be as devout, simple, and sincere as possible, not merely trying to please God with the lengthiness or ornamentation of our words, but with their sincerity instead; and with the guidance of the Holy Ghost conversing with God in a spirit of humility, recognizing our unworthiness before Him.

c. Ask for grace

             The third step is to ask for grace and guidance. Since without Christ and His grace we cannot do absolutely anything, then we are most certainly in need of His grace to pray well and derive good fruit from our time of prayer. Thus, we might invoke here the intercession of the Blessed Virgin or any other patrons we might have; or simply ask God to send the Holy Ghost to give us light and protection during the mental prayer. We might say, for instance: “O God, it is written that without Thee, I can do nothing. Thus, faith compels me to believe that Thou hast given me this grace and desire to pray. Thus, in Thy goodness, O Lord, send the Holy Ghost that He may guide and protect me during this time of prayer, that what Thou hast placed into my heart may come to pass. For I am weak, O lord, but ‘I can do all things in Him who strengthens me’” (Phil 4:13).

II. Body of the Meditation

            Now we get to the body of the meditation. It is of absolute importance before describing the conduct to be observed here to clarify what the immediate end of the meditation properly so called is. Its immediate end is to call forth affections, petitions, and resolutions. In other words, it basically serves as a means to set the will in motion. It is also worth noting that we ought not to spend our entire time on the meditation properly so called (also called “considerations”), but only as long as it is necessary to set the will in motion; for this is not prayer properly speaking, but “the agency which moves us to pray.” [17]

a) Meditation properly so called (Considerations)

            As a general rule, the preparation and meditation proper should take a little bit less than half the time of prayer, but this will vary from soul to soul. Those who are beginning to meditate may require more time to excite acts of the will, others may require even less time because they have made progress. Perhaps one day you are going through a period of dryness and might need more time than other days. Do this only as long as it’s necessary, for this is still not prayer proper, and your goal is to pray to grow in holiness. Also, the topic of meditation should be determined the night before so that your mind will be less burdened when it comes time to pray. You can choose to meditate on the Lord’s Passion (which is highly recommended by the Saints), the four last things [18], creation, our end, our sinful life, a virtue, the vanity of life, Our Lord’s burning charity, the Incarnation, the Eucharist, the Trinity, or any other topic from which you might derive good fruit. You can also make use of a spiritual book or Scripture and stop to meditate after reading some line or verse which strikes the mind. Anything that will excite the will to pray will be of profit. However, the topic on which to meditate should be that from which you will derive the most profit. For instance, if you are a beginner in the spiritual life, you might derive more profit from meditating on Hell and the fact that it takes only one unrepented mortal sin to go there than meditating on Heaven. It doesn’t matter if you have to repeat the same topics day after day as long as it is what drives us to pray.

            The practical manner of making these considerations (meditating) will vary depending on the subject. If it is a sensible mystery, like Our Lord’s passion, you can imagine it taking place before your eyes with all its circumstances. If it is something purely spiritual, then you will probably have to go through a series of logical reasonings to impress that truth or mystery upon your mind and excite affections, petitions, and resolutions. If you are examining your sinful life it will probably be like an examination of conscience, and you can consider how far you are from imitating Christ and use other ways of humbling yourself to move your will to pray. If you meditate on a virtue you might try to contemplate Our Lord exercising that virtue and/or consider its beauty, necessity, how lacking you are in that virtue, its nature, opportunities to practice it, etc. There are no strict rules in the meditation; there are many different ways of exciting your will to pray and you must stick to the method which is best for you. [19] In all this, you can (and probably should) make acts of faith while you meditate, and acts of charity, humility, hope, or adoration; you can also make petitions, ask forgiveness, or any other act which the Spirit might incline you to make. These are, as it were, colloquies with God. Do not resist your inclinations (as long as they are good) for they might be a burden to your prayer if you resist them. You might be half-way through your meditations and be inclined to start praying. Even though you are not finished meditating, you ought not to resist this and you will do a greater honor to God if you follow the Holy Ghost. St. Francis de Sales observes that “it may be that sometimes, immediately after the preparation, your affections will be wholly drawn to God, and then, my child, you must let go the reins, and not attempt to follow any given method; since… when the Holy Spirit gives you those affections at once, it is unnecessary to use the machinery that was intended to bring about the same result.” [20][21]

b) Affections

            Here is where prayer properly speaking begins and you begin to converse with God. Naturally, you will start with acts of affection that arise from the subject of meditation. Talk to God and ask for pardon and mercy, adore Him, or humiliate yourself; these acts will vary according to your natural inclinations relative to the subject you meditated on. But apart from these acts you can make acts of affection which are foreign to the subject. These are the following:

            You might do a spiritual confession [22], which are acts of true repentance. These might be to beg for a humble and contrite heart, confess and detest your sins, making acts of contrition, beg for the grace of pardon and amendment, or offer God some voluntary sacrifice. You can pick a few of these and do them well; or you can even do all of them (especially if you are going to Confession that day; or if you are inclined to it).

            You can make acts of humility, confidence, and thanksgiving. [23] In these, you would basically confess to God your wretchedness, unworthiness, sinfulness, weakness, and misery in relationship to Him, knowing that without Him you can do nothing and are only capable of evil. Nonetheless, you also tell Him that you trust in His mercy and His grace and that with His help you can conquer your faults and do all things, for “with God nothing will be impossible” (Luke 1:37).

            You can also do acts of affective love and effective love. [24]  Examples of acts of affective love would be to rejoice in God’s perfections, esteem Him above all things, consider His goodness, His burning charity, to be afflicted at His sufferings, etc. Examples of acts of effective love would be to renounce your vices, accept the Crosses and punishments God sends your way, hate sin, love virtue, to will whatever God wills, desire to grow in holiness, etc.

            However good all these acts may be, it is not profitable to make all of these acts [foreign to the subject] in the same prayer. Take just a few of them and do them well.

c) Petitions

            Since the end of our prayer should be the “extirpation of some sin or defect, above all of [our] predominant vice; the victory over some temptation, the correction of some bad inclination, the governing of such and such a passion,” our petitions should conform to our immediate end at the time. You can repeat these petitions a lot of times and in different ways. And although you are at this point asking God for what you need immediately, your acts do not necessarily have to be restricted to those related to your immediate end (or even exclusively to make petitions). You can also ask for graces like final perseverance, a holy death, and others, or have little colloquies with God. It is useful to remind Christ of His goodness and mercy, of His promises (“Ask, and you shall receive”), His liberality when giving graces, of how He desires your salvation, how He died for you on the Cross that you might be saved and sanctified through His merits; and this way, hiding yourself under His merits and invoking His love towards you, ask anything you need. He will keep His promises.

d) Resolutions

            After the petitions, you must make a resolution to fulfill your immediate end. It is profitable to make two resolutions: a general resolution, and a particular resolution. If, for instance, your problem is that you get angry every time your neighbor speaks to you, you can make a general resolution to avoid sin during the day, and a particular resolution to not become irritated at your neighbor’s words. General resolutions can be to love God with all your heart, to practice virtue, to do His will, etc. Particular resolutions are specific things you resolve to do, like not eating between meals, not giving in to distractions during work, practicing patience with your parents, to mortify the flesh by doing X, etc. They deal more with circumstances, the place, and the time. [25]

III. Conclusion

            At this point you must thank God for “the honor He has done… in granting [you] so long an audience, as well as for the lights, pious affections, and good resolutions He has given [you].” [26] Also, you can beg Him to pardon any faults you may have committed during the mental prayer. Additionally (and this is optional), you might offer yourself to Him, make a “spiritual nosegay,” [27] pray for particular intentions (e.g., the Church, souls in Purgatory, the conversion of sinners, etc.), and commend yourself to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

IV.  Additional remarks

            Ideally mental prayer should be done in the morning, “when your mind will be less burdened, and fresh after the night’s rest;” [28] and with your stomach empty. Some priests recommend starting with 15 minutes of mental prayer if you haven’t done it before or don’t have much time. This amount of time, with the grace of God, should ideally increase as you make spiritual progress.  

            If you are already recollected—if, for instance, you were already praying before starting the mental prayer—you need not go through the preparation and you can hop into the body of the meditation right away. Also, if affections or petitions seem to have become dry during your time of prayer, you can go back to make some considerations (meditation proper) or read some pious book to see if your will is moved to pray again.

            Don’t ever judge your prayer by how you feel. Christ said that you shall know them by their fruit (Matthew 7:16), so judge your prayer by its fruits. If you are going through a very rough period of dryness, do not give up. Keep praying, persevere, and make acts of humility, accepting the Cross Christ is sending you. If He gives you consolations and very pious thoughts that is very well; but if He humiliates you with dryness, then patiently bless His name, for it is for your own good and salvation that He sends you these Crosses. Fr. Faber observes that “bad” meditations “are generally the most fruitful… It is no little thing to endure ourselves and our own imperfections. On the contrary, it is a fine act of humility, and draws us on towards perfection.” [29] Our prayer is best, therefore, when we are most humble; and dryness in prayer makes us humble.

            Make your prayer very practical. If you are going through dryness, make acts relative to that dryness. You can say with the Psalmist “I am needy and poor; O God, help me” (Psalm 69:6).[30] If you feel very drawn to God and to love Him, make acts of charity; and so on.  If you get distracted, do not become anxious. Voluntary distractions are clearly sinful [31], but God might allow you to involuntarily get distracted for your purification and humility. Therefore, if you notice you are distracted, patiently turn your mind back to the object of prayer. Absolutely never do violence to your mind [32], but conduct yourself in a calm and patient manner during your entire meditation.

            When you are about to leave your mental prayer, take care not to leave your prayer too hastily. St. Francis de Sales [33] recommends trying to maintain your heart in an even balance, maintaining a silence (if possible) for a brief amount of time, and to “let your thoughts be transferred from devotion to business.” If you are bound to attend to someone or something, then do it; but give heed to your heart even in those situations, that you may derive better fruit from your prayer. And, finally, persevere in the practice of mental prayer, of which St. Francis de Sales says: “Believe me, my child, there is no way to God save through this door.” [34]

            May God, through the intercession of the Immaculate Virgin Mary, grant each of us the grace to persevere in the ways of mental prayer.

The author recommends reading the work The Ways of Mental Prayer by Dom Vitalis Lehodey.

[1] For the sake of brevity, I will reference the main work this article is taken from as “Ways, p. #” after its first citation.

[2] Rt. Rev. Dom Vitalis Lehodey, O.C.R., The Ways of Mental Prayer (TAN Books), Preface xxi.

[3] Some souls might be incapable of practicing mental prayer, or might derive better fruit from vocal prayers. God will provide them the graces they need by other means as He sees fit. St. Teresa knew some souls who were elevated to contemplation merely by vocal prayers. This is certainly extraordinary; we should all practice mental prayer unless we are one of these gifted souls. Vocal prayers are great and might keep our devotion strong. But according to St. Thomas, we must make use of vocal prayers “as far as they are useful to arouse the mind interiorly,” and if they should “end by distracting [the mind] and causing a hindrance, we must cease to make use of them” (ST II-II, q. 83, a. 12.), especially if God might be calling us to some other kind of practice and devotion. If not, we ought not to refuse the attraction to say our vocal prayers, especially if they are leading us on the path of perfection. Of course, vocal prayers of obligation must be observed.

[4] Ways, p. 27-28.

[5] Ways, p. 28.

[6] Ways, p. 30.

[7] Ways, p. 14-15.

[8] Ways, p.15.

[9] Fr. Chad Ripperger, Deliverance Prayers: For Use By The Laity (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform), p. 9-10.

[10] Taken from https://osmm.org/devotion/devotion-our-lady-sorrows. For a great conference on this devotion watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=tDSsFn-JaXY&feature=emb_logo.

[11] Ways, p. 9. For some comments on distractions read the “Additional Remarks” section.

[12] Ways. p. 106.

[13] “When we are making our meditation before the Blessed Sacrament, the most natural manner to place ourselves in God’s presence is to raise our eyes to the tabernacle.” Ways, p. 110.

[14] Only one of these methods suffices.

[15] “[…] kneeling, if circumstances permit, let us prostrate ourselves in spirit before Him in profound adoration, let us make ourselves quite small before such lofty majesty, contrite and humbled by the memory of our sins in presence of so pure a sanctity.” Ways, p. 112.

[16] Ways, p. 112-113.

[17] Ways, p. 121.

[18] Death, judgment, heaven, or hell.

[19] Do not try to fill in the time with as many considerations as possible. If you are drawn to one, stay there. If not, pass on to the next.

[20] St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life (Ignatius Press), p. 46.

[21] This is why it is important not to be scrupulous about doing things strictly in a specific order. It is good to have a general guideline of what to do, but this is not an absolute. In practice, you might be inclined to make different acts at different moments, and this is completely fine. Do not burden your mind with unnecessary rules. Let God guide you through your prayer.

[22] Ways, p. 137.

[23] Ways, p. 139.

[24] Ways, p. 143.

[25] Ways, p. 156.

[26] Ways, p. 161.

[27] St. Francis de Sales says that it is “well to pick out one or more thoughts that have specially called the attention” [during meditation] to think about them during the day; dwell on them for a moment before finishing up. Introduction to the Devout Life, p. 44.

[28] Introduction to the Devout Life, p. 38.

[29] Ways, p. 80.

[30] Douay-Rheims Bible. Some psalm numbers may be different in other translations.

[31] St. Thomas Aquinas, ST II-II, q. 83, a. 13, ad. 13.

[32] That is, do not make abrupt movements of the mind to regain focus if you got distracted. Try to keep your inner peace.

[33] Introduction to the Devout Life, p. 45.

[34] Introduction to the Devout Life, p. 37.

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