The MOST Theological Collection: Our Father's Plan: God's Arrangements and Our Response

"Chapter 21: Mental Prayer"


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Prayer in general seeks direct contact or union with God in mind and will. We have already considered liturgical prayer, in chapter 11, and have stressed the essential part of it, the interior participation, while also saying that exterior participation is objectively very good, even though without the interior it is worthless. The importance and value of liturgical prayer comes from the fact that it is the prayer of Christ, or, the whole Christ, Head and members.1

But we must not think that since liturgical prayer has this excellence, we could neglect other prayer, especially mental prayer. As we pointed out in other connections, if someone would eat only the one food element that is the best, he would incur deficiency diseases. So too, to limit oneself to liturgical prayer would result in a great loss.

Further, any kind of prayer without the support of mortification and humility would be almost if not entirely devoid of value. St. Jane de Chantal points out that there is even danger of delusion: "A person to whom God gives [special or high ] graces at prayer, should give good heed to accompany them with true mortification and humility . . .: if they do not, the graces will not last, or are nothing but illusions."2 This sound advice is especially needed today, when some are trying to reach advanced stages of prayer almost solely by means of special techniques, without the needed accompanying spiritual development-often because they follow that false spirituality, already discussed, which denies any value in self-imposed mortification; or else they are taken in by the false "angel of light" (cf. 2 Cor 11:14) who deludes them with a false concept of love of neighbor.

So we intend in this chapter to first review the chief time-tested means of mental prayer, and then to consider also some more recent proposals.

To set the stage for any mental prayer, it is highly desirable to first try to recall the fact that we are, even though we are not always aware of it, in the presence of God our Father. If we could live in the constant realization of that presence, what a difference it would make in our lives! This leads logically to the thought of who we are and who He is-let us recall our earlier considerations on His Infinite Majesty. The great St. Teresa of Avila, even after receiving so many extraordinary favors, still liked to refer to Him as "His Majesty". This attitude is really adoration, and is most basic. If we find our thoughts and hearts occupied well with this adoration, there is really no need to move on to any further stages of mental prayer-for this is in itself enormously valuable spiritually and pleasing to our Father. This same thought naturally leads us to pray for light and help to pray well (if we do not mind using that word "help", which, as we saw in chapter 18, is really too weak an expression: it tends to imply we are the chief doers, with God only as a sort of side-line assistant! This is the opposite of the real situation).

Then, realizing our own weakness and insufficiency, we also ask for the help of our Blessed Mother. We ask her to come with her perfect adoration, to supplement our deficient dispositions.

There are many ways to go forward after this point-for there are great individual differences in our response to grace.

Formal method is a rather new thing in the history of the Church. This does not mean there was no meditation in earlier times. There definitely was, but it was not so formal, and often would come in connection with thoughtful reading of the Scriptures privately.

Some will be attracted to very methodical procedure; others will not. The important thing is to try for union of our minds (including imagination) and wills (including even feelings, with the qualifications we saw in chapter 17) with God. Whatever method helps a given person at given time will be good for that person.

One way is what is called discursive meditation. Most people will find a good spiritual book almost necessary at this point. They will read until they find some thought that impresses them. Then they pause either to soak it in, as it were, or to develop it, almost as if they are reasoning with themselves, somewhat as one might do in giving a sermon to another. Further, it is very good to intersperse-or put at the end of the period-attempts at free conversational prayer with our Father, with Jesus, or with Mary, or even with other Saints. This conversation may be purely mental, or even vocalized. In general, people at an early stage find this less easy than the mental part of the prayer. but there are great individual differences here, as elsewhere. Some too like to compare themselves with an ideal they have seen in their reading, in a sort of self-examination-which readily leads into a prayer of regret for not doing too well, and a petition for help to do better in the future.

When one spot in the reading has been exhausted, some will reread it, and try to use it all over again. Others will go on to find another passage that helps them, and so on, for the full period they have chosen for meditation. At each such point, of course, the various supplementary things we have mentioned above will still apply.

As their book, some will use Holy Scripture, especially the Gospels. Those who have a stronger imagination might like to pass the entire scene through their minds. Some can even picture themselves taking part in the episode, even making remarks to the principal actors in it. It is good too to simply gaze at Our Lord in the scene we have pictured to ourselves-watching out that this gaze does not degenerate into mere vagueness or blankness.

Still others may prefer to use some vocal prayer, especially the Our Father, and to go through it a bit at a time, dwelling on one phrase or line after another. This too is a good method, suitable even for more advanced stages of meditation.

Some find it helpful to have pen and paper at hand. They may first write out some opening line, without much idea of what to write next. For some psychological reason this will often, in some people, lead on to a good development of an idea, in a process which is basically meditative.

At the end of the meditation, it is very desirable to add a prayer for help to do better on the matters we have just considered, and even to form a rather specific resolution to improve in the matters we have considered.

In this first type of meditation, with which most persons will begin their experience of meditation, the work of the mind or imagination takes up most of the time and effort; the use of the will and feelings in collloquy, free conversational prayer, is apt to be much less. But there may come-again, souls are different-a period in which these proportions shift, so that now free conversation takes up much or most of the meditation period. This is often called affective meditation.

After these first two stages, discursive and affective, there may come what is sometimes called the prayer of simplicity (unfortunately not all authors use this term in the same way, so care is needed in reading to see what the author has in mind). It comes only in perspns who are working generously toward making progess in the love of God, especially by detachment, mortification, humility. With these must go much habitual recollection, that is, frequent awareness of the presence of God. The person too should be working for purity of motive-cf. our remarks on submarine motives-in all actions. Of course, we do not mean a person must be perfect, but it does mean solid sustained effort at spiritual growth. If these preconditions are not present, what might appear to be the prayer of simplicity is more likely to be an illusion-we think again of the prudent remark of St. Jane de Chantal which we saw earlier in this chapter.

The term prayer of simplicity is a very good description. In affective prayer, the work of the mind and/or imagination is simplified, i.e., just one thought may serve as a basis for the whole meditation period. But now in the prayer of simplicity, the work of the will and feelings and conversational prayer is also simplified. We mean that a person may take just one suitable thought, along with a matching attitude of heart, and use it repeatedly over the entire period, renewing it each time it sinks down into mere vagueness or reverie, which it does naturally.

For example, one might picture Jesus sitting crowned with thorns, with spittle on His face, being mocked by the soldiers. The attitude of heart is simply expressed: It is because of me-it is for me-I am sorry-any one of these serves. Or again, one might think of the words of Psalm 8: "O Lord, our Lord, how marvelous is your name in the whole earth!" Along with this goes an attitude of adoration, or admiration.

As we said, this prayer begins when the person takes up one such thought, with mataching attitude of heart or will. How long will this be sustained? Only a rather short time, perhaps even two minutes. Then it begins to dissolve into vagueness. As soon as the person notices this fact, he deliberately recalls the opening thought and attitude, and can then re-use it for another stretch, until that too begins to dissolve. So there is a sort of wave pattern, up and down, for the whole period of meditation. Yet that one thought and one response serves over and over for the entire period.3

When the prayer of simplicity first appears, the thought used may be anything at all in the sphere of religious things. But as time goes on, there will be a tendency-if the person continues to grow spiritually in general-to move towards an almost abstract and general thought of the Divinity. We do not mean that one wants to leave aside the Sacred Humanity of Jesus. Not at all, but the soul is still in the process of development. A stage comes when the thought of that Humanity cannot be handled simultaneously with the next emerging stage. Later it will return, most fruitfully. We will see more of this in the next chapter.

During this phase bits of infused light are apt to appear-on which we will say more later. Such light may strike abruptly at any time, even outside the time of formal prayer. It often consists in a deep realization-not just a feeling-of the nothingness of creatures as compared to the things of eternity. In this light St. Paul told the Philippians (3:8) that compared to Christ, everything in this world seemed like so much "dung." St. Teresa of Avila said things of this life seem like mere toys.4

It is obvious that good spiritual reading outside the time of meditation provides nourishment for meditation.

The importance of meditation is very great. In fact, Pope Pius XI wrote: "We must say without reservation that no other means has the unique efficacy of meditation and that, as a result, nothing can substitute for it."5

Is meditation only for religous and priests? Not at all. As Pius XI said, nothing else can replace it. No one who wishes to grow spiritually can afford to neglect it.

What if one does not have time for it? Long periods are good, but not essential. If only one could take time out for even five minutes per day, there would be much fruit. Many people who are busy find that just a slight nap, only enough to just drift off briefly, refreshes them greatly to go ahead with their work. Similarly, even a short meditation can work wonders.

Today there are many proposals of techniques that are unfamiliar to most people, and are at least in that sense new. Some of these claim to be revivals of ancient traditions; others are more clearly new. What are we to think of them? First, it is good, as usual, to make distinctions.

Especially well known is Transcendental Meditation. But it is neither transcendental, nor meditation. Some practitioners attach many Hindu trappings to it, giving each person a mantra, which is supposed to be secret, designed for just that person. It is often a Hindu word. But this seems to be just mystification. Dr. Herbert Benson, of Harvard University Medical School, found a group of teachers of TM who were anxious to cooperate. He checked them carefully, and reported first of all, that if one leaves off the Hindu trimmings, it is a purely natural process, which he described, in his book, called The Relaxation Response.6 Dr. Benson says it is very valuable for relaxation, producing measurable effects on mental and even, indirectly, physical health.

The method, as he describes it, is very simple. One should sit in a comfortable chair, but not slouching. If need be, one might relax or let go the tension in one limb after another. But that is only preliminary. One begins the "meditation" itself by closing the eyes. Then the meditator begins to say interiorly, without vocalizing, the word one. (Dr. Benson picked this word merely to show that no mystic mantra is needed.) It is best to say this word with each exhalation of the breath. All attention is focused on that one word. If distractions come, as of course they do, they are brushed aside gently. It often takes about 10 minutes to get into the state, and it is recommended to stay in it for another 10 minutes. Best effects come with two such periods per day. (One may look at a clock just a few times to check on how long the period is running.)

It is obvious that this is not prayer, but a natural relaxation technique. Can it be of any use for prayer? Perhaps it might help develop concentration as a preliminary to meditation, not as meditation itself, for it essentially focuses just on an empty word.

At this point we naturally think of what is called Centering Prayer, especially as promoted by Basil Pennington.7 It too calls for two 20 minute periods per day. It opens with taking a minute or two to quiet down-for this, the practice of TM could be useful. Then the person thinks of God dwelling in his depths, using just a single simple word, perhaps the word Jesus. This word is repeated, or refocused as needed. If distraction come, one brushes them gently aside-as in TM-and then returns to the single word. At the end one should come out of the relaxed state, by mentally praying the Our Father or some other prayer.

What should we think of this? Two chief comments are in order. First, if one really does focus on the thought of God dwelling within the soul, there is a spiritual content-unlike TM. But one needs to watch out for mere vagueness, almost blankness, which could come in place of the thought of God, especially since the repetition of one word can tend to have a mild hypnotic effect. Secondly, if all these things are done well, we would have something similar to the Prayer of Simplicity which we just described above. But: the repetitions in this proposed prayer are much closer together than those in the true Prayer of Simplicity, and further, that Prayer of Simplicity is not something that just any person can take to at once. No, there is need of a spiritual deepening, by much mortification, humility, some degree of habitual recollection and other things. St. Jane de Chantal's comment which we quoted at the start of this chapter applies well here.

In other words, one cannot use mere technique8 to substitute for spiritual growth, and get "instant contemplation," as it were. It is apt to be just an illusion-even though the one who practices it may praise it and say it brings deep peace. A feeling of calm, yes, but it is apt to be the calm of a blankness that approaches that of TM. As such it can bring no spiritual growth.

A step farther than what we have just described is proposed by A. De Mello, in his book Sadhana.9 He asserts:

Many mystics tell us that, in addition to the mind and heart . . . we are, all of us, endowed with a mystical mind and mystical heart, a faculty which makes it possible for us to know God directly and intuit him in his very being, though in a dark manner, apart from all thoughts and concepts and images. . . . What do I gaze into when I gaze silently at God? . . . a blank.

Is there such a faculty? Definitely not-though there is, as we shall see in chapter 22, a lack of image in infused contemplation that has some small resemblance. But there is no blankness in infused contemplation, and it is not something we induce in ourselves, but is given by God when and as He wills. It lasts normally but a few minutes. For certain, it is not the act of a third power of the soul, which can be brought on at will.

Pope John Paul II spoke against such proposals of blankness, in a homily given at Avila, for the Fourth Centenary of the death of the great mystic St. Teresa of Avila. He said that St. Teresa opposed books of her day which presented contemplation as a vague assimilation into divinity or thinking about nothing. The Pope added that her reaction ". . . applies also in our days against some methods of prayer which . . . practically tend to prescind from Christ in favor of an empty mental state." He said that the contemplation taught and lived by St. Teresa was not "a search for subjective and hidden possibilities through technical methods which are without interior purification."10 This, of course, is precisely what St. Jane de Chantal observed.

St. Teresa herself comments on proposals to suspend the intellect in prayer:

In the mystical theology which I began to describe, the understanding ceases working because God suspends it. . . . [if we] presume not to think and to suspend it ourselves . . . we remain boobs and arid, and attain neither the one nor the other.11

That is, we neither advance towards the state in which God Himself will suspend the working of the mind in infused contemplation, nor do we have the fruit of basic meditation.

Finally, we include here a word on the Rosary. We need not give any proof of the importance of the Rosary-so many Popes so many times have strongly recommended it. Vatican II did so implicitly when it wrote:

This most Holy Synod admonishes all the sons of the Church that the cult, especially the liturgical cult, of the Blessed Virgin be generously fostered, and that the practices and exercises of piety, recommended by the Magisterium of the Church toward her in the course of centuries, be considered of great importance.12

Pope Paul VI, in Christi Matri Rosarii, pointed out specifically that this general recomendation of Vatican II included the Rosary.13

Our special reason for speaking of the Rosary here is the fact that it should include meditation on each of the 15 mysteries.

First, we must notice that we are not asked to be fully attentive to the meaning of each word of the 50 Hail Mary's and the 5 Our Father's in the Rosary. No, that would be beyond human ability, even with the help of usual actual graces. Rather, the vocal prayers form a sort of background. Along with those vocal prayers, we are to meditate on the various mysteries.

This is, of course, difficult, as even some of the Saints have admitted. Yet it can be done. There are two chief methods of trying to do it.

One way is to use a set of inserted phrases or lines between the Hail Mary's, so that the narrative of the mystery advances a step with each one. Some can do this on their own; others will find useful one of the several books designed for this purpose.

Others can make a sort of discursive meditation simultaneously with the vocal prayers. This, as we said, is not easy. Yet it is so valuable spiritually that we cannot omit at least trying to do it. As a means of working into this, it is good to take a few moments before each of the decades, to get the meditation started. For some, this will be in one of the forms of discursive meditation described earlier in this chapter. Many will moving from one thought to another, or picture the episode unfolding. Others will find it easier and better to absorb the main thought of each mystery.

For example, in the first joyful mystery, one can dwell on the marvel that God saw fit to take on our nature; in the second, that He was willing to dwell in the womb of Mary for nine months-with awareness too, for even though His physical brain was not yet entirely formed at the early stages, yet His human soul had a spiritual intellect which was joined directly to the vision of God, through which all knowledge was available to Him (as we saw in chapter 8). In the third mystery we try to realize He was willing even to be a helpless baby; in the fourth, we think of His offering Himself to the cross in the presentation in the Temple, and His Mother's joining her fiat to His, continuing the acceptance she had made at the annunciation. In the fifth, we admire His restraint in not overwhelming the Doctors in the Temple, and His mysterious way of furthering the spiritual advance of His parents by His puzzling reply when they found Him there. With this kind of start, one can more readily continue during the decade.

Of course, the meditation can develop, as one advances, into the affective form, or that of the prayer of simplicity.

Some14 have even suggested that the recitation of the Rosary may cease altogether. We distinguish: (1) If infused contemplation comes during the saying of the Rosary, then the Rosary is put aside for that time; all vocal prayer needs to be dropped because of what is called ligature, which we will discuss in the next chapter; but, (2) even if such contemplation does come, the Rosary can and should be continued outside the brief periods of infused contemplation.

One's whole spiritual life can be transformed if this meditation in the Rosary is made habitually and well. The Rosary or other meditative prayer is essential for growing union with God.


1 Vatican II, On the Liturgy #7.
2 St. Jane Frances Fremyot de Chantal, Exhortations, Conferences, and Instructions, Newman, Westminster, 1947, p. 261.
3 Cf. Poulain, op.cit. pp. 8-51.
4 St. Teresa of Avila, Life, 28.
5 Pius XI, Menti nostrae, Sept 23, 1950. #47, NCCW Edition.
6 Herbert Benson, M.D., The Relaxation Response, Avon, 1976
7 M. Basil Pennington, Centering Prayer, Doubleday, N.Y., 1980, p. 45. H. Benson has also suggested in his newer, Beyond the Relaxation Response (esp. pp. 103-11) that one can add "the faith factor" to his previous proposals, by using a religious word or line, such as the Jesus prayer. Cf. comments above on the ideas of Pennington.
8 Cf. Benedict J. Groeschel, Spiritual Passages, Crossroad, N.Y. 1983, p. 104, speaks of "the current vogue to learn methods of meditation aimed at producing religious experience apart from the imperatives of moral conversion."
9 A. DeMello, Sadhana, Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1978, pp. 25-29.
10 Pope John Paul II, Homily at Avila, Nov. 1, 1982, in The Pope Speaks 28 (1983) pp. 114-15.
11 St. Teresa of Avila, Life 12.5. BAC edition I. p. 660.
12 Vatican II, On the Church #67.
13 Paul VI, Christi Matri Rosarii, Sept 15,1966. AAS 58.748. Pope John XXIII in his autobiography, Journal of A Soul, tr. D. White, Mc Graw-Hill, N.Y. 1964, 1965, p. 315, says that since 1953 he increased his Rosary to 15 decades daily, and that he continued that even in the busy work of the Papacy.
14 Cf. A. B. Calkins, "A Point of Arrival, The Rosary as Contemplative Prayer" in Civitas Immaculatae, April, 1987, special edition, p. 11. Unfortunately, some of the ideas of Sadhana, cited in note 9 above, seem to appear in part in this article.