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Mental prayer

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Title: Mental prayer  
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Subject: Teresa of Ávila, Opus Dei, Teachings of Opus Dei, Way of Perfection, Spiritual formation, John Barres
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Mental prayer

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 his face. It is a time of silence focused on God. 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.[1]

One of the foremost writers on mental prayer, St. Teresa of Avila, stated: "Mental 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."[1] Since the emphasis is on love rather than thought, modern authors recommend that it be called interior prayer.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, meditation and contemplative prayer which takes 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 Blessed Mother Teresa. "Holiness is impossible without it." All saints, according to St. Alphonsus Liguori, Doctor of Church on Moral theology, have become saints by mental prayer.

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." [2] 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 through the transformation of the mind to effect a change in dispositions and in the heart. This mental conversion is not as simple as it is usually taken to be, but normally involves a long time process.[3] Adolphe Tanquerey distinguishes between vocal prayer, which is expressed by words or gestures, and mental prayer, "which takes place wholly within the soul". It is a time of silence focused on God and one's relationship with him. 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.[4] Mental prayer can be divided into meditation, or active mental prayer; and contemplation, passive mental prayer.

John Cassian (5th century) and John Climacus (6th century) discussed the ways of mental prayer. Among the Fathers of the Church who have recommended mental prayer are St. Augustine of Hippo, St. John Chrysostom, St. Jerome and St. Basil. Boethius praised it and St. Bernard of Clairvaux argued for it.[5]

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 morning and evening. Among the Franciscans there is record of methodical mental prayer about the middle of that century. Among the Carmelites there was no regulation for it until Saint Teresa of Avila introduced it for two hours daily. Although Saint Ignatius of Loyola reduced meditation to a definite method in his spiritual exercises, it was not made part of his rule until thirty years after the formation of the Society of Jesus. His method and that of St. Sulpice have helped to spread the habit of meditating beyond the cloister.[5]

Modern authors recommend that this prayer be called "interior prayer". 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."


Ordinary or active mental prayer 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 operation 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 Him. In some degree or other it has always been practised by God-fearing souls. According to St. Teresa, the soul in this stage is like gardener, who, with much labour, draws the water up from the depths of the well to water his plants and flowers.[5]


Blessed Mother Teresa said that, "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." [6]

"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."[7]

On the reason for mental prayer, Saint Alphonsus Liguori, the Catholic Church's Doctor of Moral theology, 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” He said that "It is morally impossible for him who neglects meditation to live without sin," because of its incompatibility with sin: nobody can continue the practice of mental prayer in the state of mortal sin. He will either repent or quit the practice of mental prayer.[8]

In his work, Necessity and Power of Prayer, The Great Means of Salvation and Perfection, St. Alphonsus Ligouri explained the effectiveness of mental prayer:

This is the chief fruit of mental prayer, to ask God for the graces which we need for perseverance and for eternal salvation; and chiefly for this reason it is that mental prayer is morally necessary for the soul, to enable it to preserve itself in the grace of God.
For if a person does not remember in the time of meditation to ask for the help necessary for perseverance, he will not do so at any other time; for without meditation he will not think of asking for it, and will not even think of the necessity for asking it.
On the other hand, he who makes his meditation every day will easily see the needs of his soul, its dangers, and the necessity of his prayer; and so he, will pray, and will obtain the graces which will enable him to persevere and save his soul.

Learning mental prayer

John Paul II in his program for the new millennium said in his message for the 42nd "World Day of Prayer" said:

"We have to learn to pray: as it 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)."[10]

Since sanctity is for everyone, according to Catholic doctrine, anyone can learn mental prayer, whether young or old. St. Therese of the Lisieux learned mental prayer when she was eleven years old.[2] "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.

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."[11]

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."

There are some formulas which can help start and end mental prayer:

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.[12]
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.[13]
Topics for mental prayer
  • Calling God by his name. As prayer means dealing with God as a person, then it is important to deal with God by means of calling him by the name by which he relates with us.
    • 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." " (CCC 435)
  • 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."[14] The Catechism of the Catholic Church thus questioned focusing on other things: "how could the prayer of the children of adoption be centered on the gifts rather than the Giver?" (2740)
    • "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." (CCC 2707)
    • 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."[15] 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."[16]

See also



External links

  • Catechism of the Catholic Church on Contemplative Prayer
  • St. John of the Cross on Spiritual Poverty, Carmelite website
  • St. Alphonsus: Master of Prayer by Margaret M. O'Shea, IHM
  • Interview with Jacques Philippe
  • , (Chap. 21, "Mental Prayer") Christendom College Press.)
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