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  • Writer's pictureChurch of St. Mark

From the Heart of the Shepherd

By Fr. David Hottinger, PES - Pastor

From the bulletin for Divine Mercy Sunday (Apr 07, 2024)

Parish School of Prayer, Pt 6: Mental Prayer

The great doctress of prayer, St. Teresa of Avila once wrote: “There is no salvation without vocal prayer, but there is no holiness (in this life, I add) without mental prayer.” 

By “vocal prayer,” we are usually referring to the recitation of prayers composed by others, whether they are actually vocalized or not. By “mental prayer,” we typically mean “praying with our thoughts.” Beyond that it is hard to get more precise. One spiritual writer called mental prayer “thinking in the presence of God.” This would perhaps be better called meditation. But “mental prayer” would also include heart-to-heart dialogue with the Lord (spoken aloud or in the silence of our hearts), as well as those more passive forms of prayer we call contemplation. These latter are less discursive (considerations leading to greater understanding) as they are experiential: basking in the light of the truth, tasting and savoring the presence of God, desiring Him in His apparent absence, loving and knowing oneself to be loved.  

Mental prayer, therefore, is as much an activity of the mind as it is the will. It embraces both head and heart. In fact, it ought to exercise both. Perhaps a working definition could be: training the powers of the soul upon the truth God has revealed, in order to respond appropriately with one’s life. The Prodigal Son performed a perfect act of mental prayer in the pig-sty: he reflected a moment on the truth of his present circumstances (famine, hunger, inability to eat the pods he fed the pigs) and what he knew to be true of his father’s house (abundance). Putting two and two together, he came to the realization that he would be far better off back home. Then he resolved to conform his life to that truth: “I will arise and go back to my father and say…” (Lk 15:18). 

Here we see that mental prayer and vocal prayer are not mutually exclusive. The prodigal prepared something of a “vocal prayer” in the speech he composed, fruit of his meditation. St. Ignatius recommends concluding a session of mental prayer with the recitation of the Our Father, not as an empty ritual, but as sacred words we engage in an even more heartfelt way thanks to our prayerful reflections. The Rosary, on the other hand, is at surface-level a string of vocal prayers. But through it Our Lady seeks to lead us to the contemplation of various scenes of her life and that of her Son, even as we are “telling the beads,” as they used to say.

Understood thus, mental prayer is the most natural of things. It is essentially what we are constantly doing: thinking, reflecting, desiring, seeking, admiring. The only difference is the subject matter and the company. Outside of prayer, our ruminations tend towards monologue. In mental prayer, we “lift up our hearts” and thoughts to bring them into God’s presence, relate them to the truth He has revealed, and ask His Spirit to order them in His love. 

One could, therefore, literally “pray always” by transforming his or her entire interior life into mental prayer. It would simply mean inviting God into the internal monologue and addressing our thoughts and feelings to Him throughout the day. A first step and necessary step, however, would be to ensure one is doing (nothing but) mental prayer for at least part of the day, say 20 or 30 minutes. It usually helps to have a text in hand; reading a bit from scripture or a spiritual book can springboard one’s meditation on saving truth when the grist of life does not already provide the material. 

You busy parents who can rarely count on having twenty uninterrupted minutes: don’t be discouraged, just get creative. Your very children are veritable books of divine revelation; contemplate in them the drama of good and evil, grace and free will, playing out in their wounded yet beautiful natures and unique characters. You who work in secular environments: though your surroundings will try to keep your thoughts from God, trust that the Good Spirit is ever at work in those with a habit of prayer to help them see all things from a spiritual perspective, the good that we ought praise God for, and the evil that befalls those who neglect His law. And you scatterbrained members of modern society, who feel incapable of maintaining your focus for more than a few moments: have no fear! The very act of returning the attention to God, lamenting your weak attention, and resolving to try again is already a prayer. One very pleasing to Our Heavenly Father who “pours gifts on His beloved while they slumber” (Ps 127:2), and much more so while they struggle to adore Him with their thoughts!

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