The practice of mental prayer

Mental prayer, meditation, lectio divina, there are various names for the practice of private prayer urged by the saints. St Ignatius of Loyola, St Francis de Sales, St Alphonsus Liguori, Pere Grou, and St Josemaria Escriva are among those who have recommended this practice to any person who wishes to advance in holiness.

It can become confusing for people to see how many different "methods" of prayer have been suggested. I think it would be right to say that they are essentially the same. The most important thing is that we spend some time in personal prayer, giving God the opportunity to love us and to work his grace in our lives. For those who work in the active apostolate, Dom Chautard's book "The Soul of the Apostolate" sets out the reasons why the interior life is always to be given priority: our exterior apostolic works will only bear fruit insofar as they are themselves the fruit of our interior life of prayer.

For someone who wishes to start out on this practice, I intend to outline here, as simply as possible, a method of meditation based on that given by St Francis of Sales and St Alphonsus.

Here are the suggestions of St Alphonsus:
1. An act of faith in the presence of God. For example:
O my God, I believe that You are present with me; and I adore You from the abyss of my nothingness.
2. An act of humility. For example
My Lord, I ought, on account of my sins, to be now dwelling in hell; I am sorry that I have offended You; spare me for the sake of Your goodness.
3. A petition for light. For example:
Eternal Father, for the sake of Jesus and Mary, give me light in this meditation, that I may receive from it profit to my soul.
Then, St Alphonsus suggests, say a Hail Mary that she may obtain this light, and Glory be, in honour of St Joseph, your Angel Guardian and holy patrons.

These acts are to be made briefly but devoutly. They help us to realise what we are about to do, to whom we are about to speak, and the purpose of the pious exercise.

For the substance of the meditation, we can use a book if that is helpful. There are many books of meditations. St Alphonsus wrote several, we can use The Imitation of Christ or the Meditations on the Passion by St Thomas a Kempis, St Josemaria's collection for every day of the year, Magnificat or some other collection of reflections on the readings for the Mass, the text of the Gospels: there are plenty to choose from. St Alphonsus considers those who are unable to read and says that they could meditate on the four last things, the goodness of God, or the life and passion of Jesus Christ. St Ignatius taught his followers to imagine that they were at the Gospel scene, and to think of what Our Lord might say, or how they might feel.

The purpose of the meditation is to lead to prayer itself, that is to say, a personal discourse in which we both speak to Almighty God and listen to him. If some point in the meditation, we are moved particularly, there is no need to continue reading. Many spiritual writers suggest "affections" or prayers from the heart. We can use these if they help or simply speak our own.

The meditation should also lead us to some practical resolutions for the present time. We should decide, on the basis of the prayer in which we have engaged, to practise some virtue or to avoid some temptation or vice. We might resolve to be forbearing with a particular person or to avoid looking at some television programme, for example.

At the conclusion of our prayer, St Alphonsus suggests that we should:
1. Give thanks to God for the inspirations received
2. Make a firm purpose to observe the resolutions we have made
3. Ask God the Father, for the sake of Jesus and Mary, to remain faithful

Finally, he says, we should commend to God the souls in purgatory, the prelates of the Church, sinners, and all our relations, friends and benefactors by saying an Our Father and a Hail Mary. He refers to the suggestion of St Francis de Sales that we should choose some simple and brief thought or inspiration to carry around with us during the day.

Simple as it is, even this "method" can seem more complicated than necessary. It is given only as guidance so that you can profit from this most powerful means of growing in holiness.

The length of time we give to mental prayer might vary according to our state of life. Someone who is just setting out on this path might resolve, to start with, to give a quarter of an hour. Half an hour would be better. Some people are able to give this prayer an hour in the day: either in one session or in two half-hours.

For most people living in the world, the best time will be first thing in the morning when we are less likely to be disturbed or to have interruptions or appointments that prevent us. It is also appropriate as a means of consecrating the whole day to Our Blessed Lord.

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