The importance of mental prayer

For young people wanting to deepen their life of faith, and especially for those drawn to a vocation to the priesthood or the religious life, one of the most important habits to develop is that of daily mental prayer. The term “meditation” can put people off because of its association with esoteric practices. Essentially we are talking about setting aside some time deliberately each day to pray in addition to liturgical worship: to offer that time to the Lord as a holocaust, to give it completely to Him so that we can raise up our minds and hearts to Him, speak to Him, and listen to Him.

Just to be clear, the liturgical worship is essential, of course, including at least some of the divine office, regular confession, and the sincere effort to break down habits of sin. I am not suggesting that those things are unimportant, but a time of mental prayer is indispensable.

St Ignatius of Loyola is sometimes said to have invented mental prayer. Here I disagree with my good friend Fr Ray Blake, and I think also with Professor Eamon Duffy who has characterised discursive mental prayer as a feature of the counter-reformation. Certainly the counter-reformation did see a great flowering of Catholic spiritual writing and an outpouring of writing to help clerics, religious and lay people to grow in their spiritual life, but mental prayer as such is woven into the life of the Church from the beginning. I agree with Tanquerey that meditation or mental prayer has always been practised in one form or another, and that the gospel account of Our Lord Himself spending whole nights in prayer is the primary example for us. We also find such prayer encouraged in the writings of the Fathers, in Cassian, St John Climacus, St Bernard, the School of St Victor and indeed St Thomas Aquinas who says that the intrinsic cause of devotion on our part must needs be meditation or contemplation. (ST 2a 2ae 82.3)

For religious who sing the office in choir, together with the Mass that forms a part of the daily liturgical round, that is naturally the high-point of the life of prayer, as it would ideally be in a parish, and was in the medieval English parishes that Professor Duffy so brilliantly brings to life for us. Even so, a part of the life of the Benedictine is that lectio divina which is in all essentials the same thing as the meditation fostered in the counter-reformation period.

On this point, I will propose a principle that has formed in my mind in recent years after hearing so much about Ignatian Spirituality, Monastic Spirituality, Eastern Spirituality, Franciscan Spirituality and the rest. There is only one “spirituality” in the Church and it is the spirituality of Jesus Christ in the gospels. St Ignatius, St Francis, St Benedict and St John Chrysostom were all rooted in the same gospel of Christ. They were also speaking to people with the same fallen human nature. The similarities in all the different schools of prayer are far greater than the minor differences of style or emphasis.

What the counter-reformation saints did was to adapt the practice of prayer for people living in a Europe that was now divided on religious grounds, and in an increasingly urban society that was on the steady road to that development which would culminate in the industrial revolution. It is fascinating to compare St Francis de Sales and St Ignatius of Loyola. In most people’s minds, the gentle Bishop of Geneva is contrasted with the fiery founder of a military style “Company of Jesus.” Yet the ten meditations for beginners in the “Introduction to the Devout Life” are simply a shorter version of the Spiritual Exercises, well adapted for lay people living in the world.

If you want to learn about mental prayer from scratch, I would suggest reading the “Introduction to the Devout Life.” Of course it has some dated references and style but it is easy to apply his teaching to everyday life today, and St Francis is a most sympathetic teacher of prayer. If you want to get going before you get the book, I did write a very short and simple guide to the practice of mental prayer.

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