A Beginner’s Guide to Mental Prayer

prayer

A few years ago, I read Dom Chautard’s The Soul of the Apostolate and became convinced of his thesis: the interior life must come first; our good works and apostolates will follow as the good fruit of a sound interior life. As I’ve tried to implement Chautard’s teaching in my own life, its truth has become more and more apparent. I’ve also come to see that his teaching is nothing less than the teaching of Christ in the Gospels (“Seek first the Kingdom of God”) and of St. Paul (“Pray without ceasing”).

This re-commitment to prayer and the interior life has led me to pray the psalms more frequently–and to memorize several of them–and I’ve been struck by how well they themselves express the constant seeking of God that should be our aim. Psalm 42 begins: “As the deer longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for you, O God.” Psalm 27 likewise says: “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after, that I may dwell in the House of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord and to contemplate in His Temple.” Later, Psalm 27 continues: “You have said, seek my face; my heart says to you, your face Lord do I seek.” Psalm 1 puts the concept of ceaseless prayer even more directly: blessed is the man whose delight is in the law of the Lord, “and on His law he meditates day and night.” (Emphasis added.)

The lives of the saints also affirm the importance of the interior life: their very lives are a manifestation of the teachings of the Gospels; and in their heroic virtues and actions, we see the fruit of their deep lives of prayer.

So we really have no choice here. If we are serious about following Christ (and Christ has harsh words for the lukewarm), we need to commit to the interior life, i.e., to a serious life of prayer that ceaselessly seeks God in all things. So where should we begin? Or if we’ve already begun, what concrete step should we take next?

Just in time for the new year, I propose that you recommit yourself to daily prayer. And I’ll be even more specific: resolve to spend 15 minutes each morning in mental prayer.

With mental prayer, we retreat into the interior room of our soul and spend time conversing with our Lord. St. Teresa of Avila explains the concept well: “Mental prayer is nothing else than an intimate friendship, a frequent heart-to-heart with Him by whom we know ourselves to be loved.” (If St. Teresa’s definition is too amorphous for you, fear not; below, I’ll propose a basic structure for spending your 15 minutes of mental prayer.)

Why mental prayer? Because it just might be the best thing you can do to grow in holiness and virtue; and I suspect it’s an area many are neglecting. But don’t take my word for it; listen to the saints. St. Alphonsus Ligouri says: “It is morally impossible for him who neglects meditation to live without sin.” The great Carmelites St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross concur. St. Teresa says: “He who neglects mental prayer needs not a devil to carry him to hell, but he brings himself there with his own hands.” St. John of the Cross says: “Without the aid of mental prayer, the soul cannot triumph over the forces of the demon.”

So the next thing to do is to begin. Thinking happy thoughts about praying more is not enough; nor is it sufficient to simply read articles and books about prayer. You must take action. Here is a basic structure for accomplishing 15 minutes of mental prayer to help you get started:

  • Every morning, awake 15 minutes earlier (you’ll probably also want to go to bed 15 minutes earlier the night before), and spend 15 minutes in solitude with our Lord. This can be done in the presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament (perhaps stopping at a church on the way to work) or it can be done in a quiet place at home.
  • As you begin, recall that wherever you are, God is present: He is near you and with you and is pleased that you are offering this time to Him. Humble yourself before Him; praise Him for your redemption, achieved through the Incarnation, Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of our Savior Jesus Christ.
  • Then, prayerfully read a spiritual text, for example: the Gospels, St. Francis de Sales’s Introduction to the Devout Life, Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, or the day’s Office of Readings from the Liturgy of the Hours. And don’t just read: Meditate on the text. Pray the text. Go slow. Pause. Apply the text to your life. Dialogue with God regarding the text. Re-read the text.
  • Offer God acts of love, thanksgiving, humility, adoration. Petition God for a certain grace, perhaps growth in a certain virtue, and consider opportunities to exercise this virtue throughout the day. Then, make a concrete resolution to do good or avoid a particular evil during the day.
  • Conclude briefly by thanking God for the time of meditation and asking him to bless your day and your resolutions.

Again, this is only a basic structure to get you started. As St. Teresa says, the essence of prayer is a loving and friendly conversation with God, but without some structure, the time for prayer can easily devolve into distraction. Using a spiritual text gives you a subject for your meditation and gives you something to return to should you become distracted.

Daily mental prayer is transformative. A car won’t drive without fuel; daily mental prayer is the fuel of the spiritual life. It’s possible that, without knowing it, you’ve been driving on fumes for years. By mental prayer, we fill up our tank as we invite the Holy Spirit to animate our thoughts, words, and deeds throughout the day. The Holy Spirit will respond! Daily mental prayer will also give you an increased hunger and thirst for the Sacraments. And your mental prayer will properly dispose you so you obtain the full grace and merits of the Sacraments.

For me, the impetus to begin mental prayer was a Miles Christi weekend retreat based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. (You can find their retreats at www.mileschristi.org.) At the end of the retreat, the priests encouraged the retreatants to make firm resolutions for the spiritual life. One of the strongly recommended resolutions was 15 to 30 minutes of daily mental prayer, preferably combined with a resolution to wake up early and do this each morning. I’m now about three years into my resolution and I can tell you that it has been truly transformative.

So make your new year’s resolution today: resolve to spend 15 minutes each morning in mental prayer. And keep your resolution!

 

– Will Bloomfield is the publisher of the Sacred Art Series, available through www.SacredArtSeries.com.

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