Mental prayer is a form of prayer recommended in the Catholic Church whereby one loves God through dialogue, meditating on God's words, and contemplation of Christ's face. It is distinguished from vocal prayers which use set prayers, although mental prayer can proceed by using vocal prayers in order to improve dialogue with God. And no prayer is purely vocal, as it has traditionally been defined: "Prayer is the raising of one's mind and heart to God."
One of the foremost writers on mental prayer, St. Teresa of Avila, stated: "Contemplative prayer [oración mental] is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us." Here the emphasis is on love rather than on thought.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, meditation and contemplation which take place in mental prayer are "major expressions of the life of prayer" in the Christian tradition. The practice of mental prayer is necessary for reaching the goal of Christian perfection, said Mother (Saint) Teresa of Calcutta. "Holiness is impossible without it." St. Ignatius of Loyola, the Church's patron of retreats, popularized meditation and contemplation through his thirty-day retreat or Spiritual Exercises, which he customarily administered to laypersons.
Nature and history
Mental prayer was defined by Fr. John Hardon as a "form of prayer in which the sentiments expressed are one's own and not those of another person. Mental prayer is accomplished by internal acts of the mind and affections and is either simple meditation or contemplation."  Prayer is mental when the thoughts and affections of the soul are not expressed in a previously determined formula. The function of mental prayer is to transform the mind and thereby effect a change in dispositions and in the heart. Such transformation is a lifelong process. Adolphe Tanquerey distinguishes between vocal prayer, which is expressed by words or gestures, and mental prayer "which takes place wholly within the soul." Mental prayer can proceed by using vocal prayers in order to improve dialogue with God. Mental prayer can be divided into meditation, more active in reflections, and contemplation, more quiet and gazeful.
John Cassian (5th century) and John Climacus (6th century) discussed the ways of mental prayer, and many Fathers of the Church gave their own recommendations for it: St. Augustine of Hippo, St. John Chrysostom, St. Jerome, St. Basil, St. Boethius, and St. Bernard of Clairvaux.
From before the middle of the twelfth century, the Carthusians had times set apart for mental prayer. Early in the sixteenth century, the Dominican chapter of Milan prescribed mental prayer for half an hour during the morning and the evening. Among the Franciscans, there is mention of methodical mental prayer about the middle of that century. Among the Carmelites, there was no regulation for mental prayer until Saint Teresa of Avila introduced it, practicing it for two hours daily. In the mid-sixteenth century Saint Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises, which he used with laypersons, taught methods of both meditating on one's life and of contemplating the Gospel accounts of Jesus' life, as a means of becoming more like Christ. His method and that of St. Sulpice have helped spread the habit of meditating beyond the cloister.
Some modern authors recommend that this prayer be called "interior prayer". Fr. Jacques Philippe said: "It would be better to say interior prayer instead of mental prayer, because in our modern culture, the word "mental" is associated with thoughts – as something cerebral – whereas this form of prayer is more an affair of the heart, instead of reflection. St. Teresa of Avila said that it is not an act of thinking much, but of loving much."
Meditation consists of two operations – one belongs to the thinking faculty which applies the imagination, memory, and understanding to consider some truth, principle, fact or mystery; the other is dependent on the will with a view to exciting proper spiritual emotions, to ask for the good proposed by the mind, and resolve on some act or course of action regarded as God's will and as a means of union with God. To some degree, this has always been practiced by God-fearing persons. According to St. Teresa, the person in this activity is like a gardener, who, with much labour, draws the water up from the depths of the well to water the plants and flowers.
Saint Mother Teresa said:
We must never forget that we are bound to perfection and should aim ceaselessly for it. The practice of mental prayer is necessary to reach that goal. Because it is the breath of life for our soul, holiness is impossible without it. It is only in mental prayer and spiritual reading that we cultivate the gift of prayer. Mental prayer is greatly fostered by simplicity – that is forgetfulness of self and of the body and of the sense, and by frequent aspirations that feed our prayer.
"He who neglects mental prayer," affirms Saint Teresa of Avila, "needs no devil to carry him to hell. He brings himself there with his own hands." Her fellow Carmelite Saint John of the Cross also said, "Without the aid of mental prayer, the soul cannot triumph over the forces of the demon."
Saint Alphonsus Liguori, the Catholic Church's Doctor of moral theology, in his work Necessity and Power of Prayer, The Great Means of Salvation and Perfection, explained: "Mental prayer is the blessed furnace in which souls are inflamed with the love of God. All the saints have become saints by mental prayer." And, recommending its importance, he said: "It is morally impossible for him who neglects meditation to live without sin." He added that, because of its incompatibility with sin, nobody can continue the practice of mental prayer in the state of mortal sin. They will either repent or quit the practice of mental prayer. He saw it as a means of making available the graces needed for a persevering faith.
Benedict XVI, speaking to priests, said of prayer and meditation: "Spending time in God's presence in prayer is a real pastoral priority; it is not an addition to pastoral work: being before the Lord is a pastoral priority and in the final analysis, the most important." In the Foreword of his book Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict XVI emphasized that "everything depends" on "intimate friendship with Jesus."
Pope Francis said: "The spiritual life is fed, nourished, by prayer and is expressed outwardly through mission: inhaling and exhaling. When we inhale, by prayer, we receive the fresh air of the Holy Spirit. When exhaling this air, we announce Jesus Christ risen by the same Spirit."
Learning mental prayer
John Paul II, in his program for the new millennium, said in his message for the 42nd "World Day of Prayer":
- We have to learn to pray as if we were learning this art ever anew from the lips of the Divine Master himself, like the first disciples: "Lord, teach us to pray!" (Lk 11:1).
Since sanctity is for everyone, according to Catholic doctrine, anyone can learn mental prayer. St. Therese of the Lisieux learned mental prayer when she was eleven years old. "Mental prayer is not just for priests and nuns, but is for everyone. The youngest of children are capable of reaching great heights through mental prayer," is the teaching of the Franciscan Friar Minors.
Pope Francis said: "The Lord speaks to us through the Scriptures and in our prayer. Let us learn to keep silence before him, as we meditate upon the Gospel."
Principles of mental prayer
- Relationship with a person
Prayer means dealing with someone, a person, the living God. All prayer, even prayer of petition, is described by the Catechism of the Catholic Church as an openness, a response to God's Spirit speaking within us. "The Holy Spirit ... keeps the memory of Christ alive in his Church at prayer. ...It is the Face of the Lord that we seek and desire; it is his Word that we want to hear and keep." The Catechism quotes Guigo the Carthusian: "Seek in reading and you will find in meditating; knock in mental prayer and it will be opened to you by contemplation." As John Paul II said, "We shall not be saved by a formula but by a Person and the assurance which he gives us: I am with you!" And Benedict XVI said: "Being Christian is ... the encounter with an event, a person." There is an I, a someone who wants to be with us, someone who listens, feels, sees, talks, and interacts with the one praying.
"Friendly dealing" (tratar de amistad) is the literal translation of St. Teresa's definition of mental prayer: "Tratar de amistad, estando muchas veces tratando a solas con Quien sabemos nos ama." The literal translation is: "Friendly dealing, many times dealing one-on-one with Him whom we know loves us. And this person has a face which we can contemplate, a face that is a singular manifestation of his person."
- The principle of divine action
The first important principle is: "What matters in prayer is not what we do but what God does in us during those moments," said Jacques Philippe in Time for God. "The essential act in prayer is, at bottom, to place one's self in God's presence and to remain there. ...This presence, which is that of the living God, is active, vivifying. It heals and sanctifies us. We cannot sit before a fire without getting warm."
Allowing God to be fully present is key to the highest levels of prayer, according to John Paul II. "In prayer, the true protagonist is God," he said in Crossing the Threshold of Hope. "Man achieves the fullness of prayer not when he expresses himself, but when he lets God be most fully present in prayer." The biblical reason for this, according to John Paul II, is: "We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings" (cf. Rom 8:26). As Mother Teresa said, "In vocal prayer we speak to God, in mental prayer he speaks to us. It is then that God pours himself into us." "Placing oneself in God's presence and remaining there" is the essential act of prayer, according to Philippe. St. Ignatius of Loyola has as a basic principle of his Spiritual Exercises that "the Lord communicates himself to the well-disposed person."
- Basic decision is making time for mental prayer
The basic decision then is to "make time for the Lord, with the firm determination not to give up." The recommended length of time per day varies from "a few minutes" (Friars Minor.org), "30 minutes" (Eugene Boylan), "several minutes" (Josemaria Escriva), "one hour" (Francis of Sales), "minimum of half an hour in front of the Blessed Sacrament" (Alphonsus Liguori). The beginningcatholic.com recommends starting with 5–10 minutes.
- Primacy of love
The second fundamental principle, according to Jacques Philippe is "love is above everything else." The Catechism draws on Ephesians 3:16f in saying: "The Father strengthens our inner being with power through his Spirit 'that Christ may dwell in (our) hearts through faith' and we may be 'grounded in love.'" As St. Teresa explained, in prayer it does not matter as much to think as to love. This is in accordance with the commandment that Jesus aptly called "the greatest": Love God with your whole heart, your whole soul, your whole mind and your whole strength. "Loving in the first place is allowing oneself to be loved," said Philippe. Benedict XVI stressed in Deus caritas est: "Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift. ...One can become a source from which rivers of living water flow. Yet to become such a source, one must constantly drink anew from the original source, which is Jesus Christ, from whose pierced heart flows the love of God" (italics added). Benedict XVI emphasized that this is "the heart of the Gospel, the central nucleus of Christianity": "In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us" (1 Jn 4:10; italics added). We have come to believe in God's love is, Benedict says, the fundamental decision of a Christian's life.
Joseph Ratzinger emphasized that sanctity is "nothing other than to speak with God as a friend speaks with a friend, allowing God to work, the Only One who can really make the world both good and happy."
"Fundamentally, prayer is to place oneself in God's presence and to allow him to love us," says Philippe. And with this, the basic attitude of a Christian is humility coming from a knowledge of his own powerlessness and sinfulness in comparison to the grandeur of God. Thus Jesus criticized the self-praise of the Pharisees which showed them as people who "trusted themselves that they were righteous," while he praised the tax-collector's petition for mercy, because "he who humbles himself will be exalted."
The Christian's love increases as a response to the love of God. "Contemplative prayer," according to the Catechism, "is the prayer of the child of God, of the forgiven sinner who agrees to welcome the love by which he is loved and who wants to respond to it by loving even more." St. Teresa of Avila said that my daily prayers should revolve around "giving myself totally to the Lord."
Practice of mental prayer
- Aids to prayer
St. Francis of Sales said: "Begin all prayer, whether mental or vocal, by an act of the Presence of God. If you observe this rule strictly, you will soon see how useful it is." He says that God is everywhere and is in our hearts and souls. Thus, "a blind man when in the presence of his prince will preserve a reverential attitude if told that the king is there, although unable to see him."
Mother Teresa said that "I always begin my prayer in silence, for it is in the silence of the heart that God speaks." Her "simple path" states: "The fruit of silence is PRAYER. The fruit of prayer is FAITH. The fruit of faith is LOVE. The fruit of love is SERVICE. The fruit of service is PEACE."
Ignatius of Loyola began each of his Spiritual Exercises with a "Preparatory Prayer" to place oneself in the presence of God, and closed each with a "Colloquy." Examples of elaborated forms have since arisen:
- Preparatory Prayer: My Lord and my God, I firmly believe that you are here, that you see me, that you hear me. I adore you with profound reverence, I ask your pardon for my sins, and the grace to make this time of prayer fruitful. My immaculate Mother, Saint Joseph my father and lord, my guardian angel, intercede for me.
- Closing prayer: I thank you, my God, for the good resolutions, affections and inspirations that you have communicated to me in this meditation. I ask your help to put them into effect. My immaculate Mother, Saint Joseph my father and lord, my guardian angel, intercede for me.
- Topics for mental prayer
- Calling God by name. As prayer means dealing with God as a person, it is important to address God with familiar names.
- Jesus, the model of Christian prayer, used the word "Abba" or Daddy, an endearing Hebrew word to call God the Father. "A fundamental word in the mouth of 'the Son' is 'Abba'," said Benedict XVI. "It expresses his whole being, and all that he says to God in prayer is ultimately only an explication of his being (and hence an explication of this one word)." The Catechism quotes St. Augustine: "Our Father: at this name love is aroused in us ... and the confidence of obtaining what we are about to ask. ...What would he not give to his children who ask, since he has already granted them the gift of being his children?"
- "The name of Jesus is at the heart of Christian prayer. All liturgical prayers conclude with the words "through our Lord Jesus Christ." The Hail Mary reaches its high point in the words "blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus." The Eastern prayer of the heart, the Jesus Prayer, says: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." Many Christians, such as St. Joan of Arc, have died with the one word "Jesus" on their lips."
- Focus on God. Benedict XVI said in Jesus of Nazareth: "Prayer is not about this or that; it's about God's desire to give us the gift of himself, the gift of gifts – the one thing necessary. ...The gift of God is God himself." The Catechism thus questioned focusing on other things: "How could the prayer of the children of adoption be centered on the gifts rather than the Giver?"
- The Catechism said further: "We are usually helped by books, and Christians do not want for them: the Sacred Scriptures, particularly the Gospels, holy icons, liturgical texts of the day or season, writings of the spiritual fathers, works of spirituality, the great book of creation, and that of history the page on which the "today" of God is written."
- Meditating on the life of Jesus Christ. In Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict XVI kept on repeating Jesus' point: "He who sees me sees the Father. ...The figure of Jesus is the mirror in which we come to know who God is and what he is like."
- That God is love. St. Francis of Sales said: "I commend earnest mental prayer to you, more particularly such as bears upon the Life and Passion of our Lord. If you contemplate Him frequently in meditation, your whole soul will be filled with Him, you will grow in His Likeness, and your actions will be molded on His."
- The bulk of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the second and third "weeks", consists of contemplations on the life of Christ, and the fourth and final week is on seeing God in all things.
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