Mental prayer is simply spending time in the presence of God, talking with him about absolutely anything, even about our lack of knowing exactly what to say. It is dealing with our Lord as a close, intimate friend.
When speaking to the Carthusian monks of the Charterhouse of Serra San Bruno on October 9, 2011, the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, encouraged them with the words, “Every monastery…is an oasis in which the deep well, from which to draw ‘living water’ to quench our deepest thirst, is constantly being dug with prayer and meditation.” 1 Such meditative or contemplative prayer—mental prayer—can be practiced anywhere, both inside and outside a monastery. Drawing such “living water” is a necessity for every Christian. Traditional, vocal prayers, like the rosary, play an important role in the interior life, but mental prayer takes on a special importance in the life of the Christian. Mental prayer is our daily contact with God, our sharing, as between friends, with the Lord of heaven and earth, our Father. Mental prayer forms an essential part of the Christian spiritual life, whether the Christian is a member of the clergy or laity, religious or secular, even Protestant or Catholic. Indeed, for many evangelicals, mental prayer is the only form of prayer; it serves as a common foundation among Christians of diverse backgrounds.
Mental prayer is one of the simplest forms of prayer. Doing mental prayer well takes no education. St. Josemaría Escrivá, a saint of the twentieth century, famously wrote, “You don’t know how to pray? Put yourself in the presence of God, and as soon as you have said, ‘Lord, I don’t know how to pray!’ you can be sure you’ve already begun.” 2 Mental prayer is simply spending time in the presence of God, talking with him about absolutely anything, even about our lack of knowing exactly what to say. It is dealing with our Lord as a close, intimate friend. In the words of that master of the interior life, St. Teresa of Avila, “Mental prayer in my opinion is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us.” 3
In mental prayer, we should converse with God as a friend, as the one “who we know loves us,” in St. Teresa’s words. We can talk to God about anything. We can ask him for our needs, and for the needs of others, although the majority of our time should probably not be spent just on petitions. We can complain to God about the difficulties we are facing, and ask his advice on how to move forward, or ask God to give us light so we can see what he is asking of us, right here and now, and formulate concrete resolutions. We can make acts of thanksgiving, thanking God for the good things in our lives, and perhaps also for the bad. We can make acts of faith, telling our Lord that we believe in him, that we believe he is present, that we believe he hears us, we believe he sees us, we believe he loves us, or asking him to increase our faith. We can make acts of love, telling our Lord how much we love him, and asking for him to help us love him more, and to love the others in our lives as he loves them. We can make acts of contrition, telling our Lord how sorry we are for our many failings, making reparation for our sins and even the sins of others, or asking him to give us true contrition, so that we truly feel sorry because we love him. We can talk about what’s been going on in our day, or about our ambitions, about our friends, about our spouses, about our children, about our parishioners, about our brothers or sisters in our religious community, and their needs and concerns. We can tell him about all the little things in our lives, just as little children tell their parents about all the small details of their daily lives. The most important thing is that we spend time in his presence, and talk with him.
Setting the amount of time we should spend in mental prayer can take some serious thought and reflection, best done in consultation with a spiritual director, or a confessor, or someone whose spiritual advice we trust. For some, an hour is a worthy goal. That’s probably a good upper limit for souls dedicated to God who live in the midst of the world. Perhaps, religious contemplatives might do more. I think it’s best to think of the spiritual life in terms of gradually moving up an incline plane. Some people start with only five or ten minutes of mental prayer each day, gradually over the years working their way up to a half hour a day. The amount of time devoted to mental prayer should probably be tailored to individuals based on the demands of their life and their experience with prayer. If they’ve never prayed before, they should probably start with a brief set period of mental prayer, perhaps just ten minutes a day. If they have more experience with prayer, perhaps they can start with more. If they work a busy job (including housework) and have very young children, an hour a day is likely too much, especially if they are doing other important spiritual practices like daily Mass, spiritual reading, and spending time with vocal prayers.
One of the great things about mental prayer is that it can be prayed wherever one finds oneself: in front of the tabernacle in a church, oratory, friary, convent, or monastery; at one’s desk at work; on the living room couch; on a plane, train, or in the car; on a mountain peak or at the beach; or when walking downtown through the city streets; in a monastic cell or in a bedroom. Praying before our Lord present in the Blessed Sacrament is probably ideal. There, in front of our Lord’s sacramental presence, he works on our soul and communicates with us in the quiet of our heart, even if we’re distracted. In the presence of our Lord, even if we are unable to do any talking at all, and are not active, we can rest assured our Lord does not remain idle. Fr. John Hugo recounts the famous story of St. John Vianney in the village of Ars in the nineteenth century:
The Curé of Ars, St. John Vianney, used to go to his parish church and he would always see there an old peasant man in rapt prayer. So one day he said to him, “What do you do? How do you pray?”
“Well,” said the peasant, “I look at him and he looks at me.” 4
If we find that we are not able to steal away to spend some time before the Blessed Sacrament, for one reason or another, we can pray wherever we are. In general, we should probably try to find a place where we will be able to avoid distraction. One technique to avoid distraction that many saints have recommended is to bring along some spiritual book—Scripture or a writing from a pope or a saint—and read a few lines when we find ourselves distracted. We can then talk with God about what we’re reading, in the hopes of gaining some spiritual insight into our lives or formulating some practical resolution. A general rule is to read as little as possible, but as much as necessary during our time devoted specifically to mental prayer.
Fighting distraction will be one of the most difficult battles we face during mental prayer. 5 I am reminded of the comment a priest once gave to someone embarking on the practice of mental prayer for the first time. That soul new to prayer asked, “Can I eat or exercise while I pray?” To which the priest responded, “No,” and then he added, “but you should pray while you eat and while you exercise.” He was expressing the idea that, under normal circumstances, we should devote a set amount of time at a fixed period of each day to spend in nothing but mental prayer, without doing any other activity that might distract us. But, as St. Paul informs us, we are called to “Pray at all times” (Eph 6:18, RSVCE). So we should pray while we work, while we eat, while we exercise, and travel. Our set times for mental prayer, however, help enable us better to practice the presence of God and turn all aspects of our lives into prayer. Our times of mental prayer and our participation in the Sacred Liturgy are like the large fire that heats the furnace of our souls. Throughout the rest of the day, we continually throw in more fuel and fan the flames with our vocal prayers, pious devotions, offering of work and of difficulties, etc.
Sometimes, the occasion may arise when we might have to spend our time in prayer while driving on the road, or in some other less than ideal scenario. In general, less than ideal is better than not at all. The worst way to do mental prayer is not to do it. It’s also probably not wisest to leave our time for mental prayer until late in the evening, although sometimes that might happen out of necessity. For those who are married, or have children or others who have a claim on their lives, occasions will likely arise when time for mental prayer has to be shortened or completely omitted. When such sacrifices of our prayer time become frequent or habitual, we probably need to take a look at our lives and see if there’s something else we can omit, or perhaps adjust the amount of time we spend in mental prayer, in consultation with a spiritual director, a confessor, or someone whose spiritual advice we trust. Rare is the person who cannot devote a mere five minutes in a day to prayer, and five minutes is better than none.
In general, we should be reluctant to omit our times of prayer. When it comes to our comfort, our preferences, even our work, we should put prayer first, if we see ourselves as souls dedicated to God. Our prayer, our time with God, should have pride of place in our lives, even, or perhaps, especially when we are experiencing difficulties, spiritual aridity, or other trials. When we have foreseeable obstacles to making time for prayer, a soul in love will plan creative solutions to spend time with our soul’s Lover. Souls in love with God might more easily skip a meal than skip prayer time. But, when others have a demand on our lives, when our lives are not our own, we must be willing to drop what we’re doing for the sake of charity—super omnia caritas, above all is charity (1 Cor 13:13)—and to do so with no hesitation, recognizing our Lord’s call to meet him in meeting the needs of those who need our time.
I’ll conclude with the advice of a saint who lived heroic sanctity in the heart of the world—a husband, a father, a lawyer, a civil servant, a martyr—St. Thomas More:
If you are concerned for your well-being, if you wish to be safe from the snares of the devil, the storms of this world, the ambush of your enemies; if you long to be acceptable to God, if you crave to be happy at the last—then let no day pass without at least once making yourself present to God in prayer. 6
- Pope Benedict XVI, “Homily of His Holiness Benedict XVI, Liturgy of Vespers,” Church of the Charterhouse of Serra San Bruno, Sunday, 9 October 2011, available here online from the Vatican website. ↩
- St. Josemaría Escrivá, The Way, no. 90, in The Way, Furrow, The Forge (Princeton: Scepter, 2008). ↩
- St. Teresa of Jesus, The Book of Her Life, 8, 5 in The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila Volume One, 2nd rev. ed., trans. Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D. (Washington, D.C.: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1987), 67, translation slightly modified. ↩
- David Scott and Mike Aquilina, eds., Weapons of the Spirit: Living a Holy Life in Unholy Times: Selected Writings of Father John Hugo (Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 1997), 92. ↩
- See the comments in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2729. ↩
- St. Thomas More, The Life of Pico Della Mirandola: “A Very Spectacle To All” (Princeton: Scepter, 2010), 33. ↩