Mental Prayer – transcript

This is a transcript of a conference on mental prayer given by the Most Reverend Bishop Donald Sanborn on London, Jan 3, 2015.  See the Catholic Resources page for a link to the original video.

“Most lay people do not have any notion of mental prayer.  It’s something that is really outside of their world.  They think it’s something that priests do and nuns do and it’s just something they don’t do.  And really it shouldn’t be that way because it is extremely helpful for the spiritual life.  Of all of the forms of prayer it is the most helpful for the spiritual life.  The most efficacious.  So I’d just like to speak to you today about mental prayer.

Prayer in general is the elevation of the soul to God: that’s the definition of St. John Damascene.  And in prayer the soul leaves behind the thoughts of the Earth and even those thoughts that are good and useful at other times; business, for example.  It leaves those behind and it looks affectionately at God.  It is to enter into a conversation with God, and those are the words of St. Gregory of Nyssa and of St. John Chrysostom.  God listens to us as a father would listen to his child, and he responds to us by granting us interior lights and affections.

So this is what happens: we speak to God as we would to our father.  We are His children.  Now God is everywhere so He knows exactly what is going on in your mind.  When you speak to God He is listening to you more then you are listening to yourself.  His presence is stronger, we might say, than your own consciousness of what you’re thinking.  So whenever you speak to God He is always present to you; he is always listening.  Even if you are a sinner, He is listening to you.  There is nothing happening in your mind or soul that He is not aware of.  So we must always remember that.

So we can speak to God at any time.  If someone throws you into the bottom of a well, and there’s no way for you to get out, you can still pray.  You can always pray.  There’s never a time in which you cannot pray, and we should always take advantage of that.  And he will respond to us not by locutions, that is not by hearing voices, but by interior lights.  That means by inspirations to think things or do things, that is, affections: greater love of God, greater detachment from things of this world.  That will be the fruit of this conversation with God that you have.

Prayer does four things: it adores the divine majesty, it asks pardon for sin by confessing its faults to God, it thanks God for favours received, and it begs God for new graces, both temporal and spiritual.  And, as you know, there’s vocal prayer and mental prayer.  And vocal prayer is made by using signs or words, and vocal prayers are very useful, and even necessary, even obligatory.

St. Thomas [Aquinas, I presume] said ‘If anyone is voluntarily distracted, it is a sin, and it hinders the fruit of the prayer.’ So it’s like a tree that doesn’t bear fruit.  If you are voluntarily distracted that means that you know that you’re distracted but you don’t do anything about it.  Now that is relatively rare in a pious person.  Furthermore, it is morally impossible that our attention be always actual.  That means it is very difficult to keep our minds always on the prayer.  [unintelligible phrase]  When we are saying the Rosary, to keep our minds always on that Mystery of the Rosary that we have selected, whatever decade we’re saying; it’s morally impossible to accomplish that.  It suffices that the will to pray persevere.  So that’s why it’s important to think about the Mystery at the beginning and that we make an intention to pray.  The will is suspended only if we consent to the distraction.  So if we start to think about, purposely, what we’re going to make for dinner, or something like that, while we’re saying the Rosary, that would be voluntary distraction.

Therefore, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, in order that vocal prayer be meritorious and obtain its effect it is not necessary that the attention remain actual until the end.  In other words, as long as we intend to keep our minds on prayer, and we do not consent to any voluntary distraction then our prayer is good. It’s meritorious and will have its effect.  It suffices that the prayer begin with an attention which is not afterwards retracted; where you say, at least implicitly, I want to say my Rosary, I want to say it piously, I want to keep my mind on it.  If that’s at least implicitly in your mind then your prayer is good.  However, distracted prayer, even if it’s not sinful… (because we’re not always obliged to pray – it may shock you to know that we are not obliged to say the Rosary every day. There’s no law that says we must.)  So even if it’s not sinful or if the distraction is involuntary, nevertheless in this case the involuntary distraction does not nourish the soul as much as attentive prayer.  That is to say, when we have involuntary distractions in prayer, our prayer is not as perfect and it does not nourish us as much.  So the ideal is that we always have an attentive and undistracted prayer.

St. Gregory the Great said ‘God does not listen to those who, while praying, do not listen to themselves.’  And therefore it is important to commence vocal prayer with the will to persevere in complete attention.  And the way we do this is by putting ourselves in the presence of God, and at the same time withdrawing ourselves from the world.  Second: at certain fixed times to renew our attention.  In the Rosary, for example, it’s a good idea to keep a picture of the Mystery in front of you so that you’re constantly renewing your attention to it.  Thirdly, to look at the tabernacle or a crucifix or a holy picture, speaking to God as if we are seeing Him.  So those are ways in which to keep our minds on prayers.

Prayer is a very difficult thing to do.  A very difficult thing to do well.  It’s very hard, and it’s a lot of work.  We should not feel wrong if we have a certain reticence to pray because of laziness: it’s work!  Our bodies would like to sit in a soft chair instead of kneeling and saying the Rosary.  And it’s not only the kneeling, it’s the keeping your mind on the prayer, which is difficult.  It involves a lot of work to do that because you’re dealing in spiritual things.  God is a spirit, He has no body and you’re uplifting your intellect and your will to things that are completely spiritual – that’s difficult!  And so you have to have a certain diligence.  And you must overcome laziness with regard to all prayer whether vocal or mental prayer.

There is a diligence involved in prayer.  And it’s an absolutely necessary thing because it is more necessary than even the food you put to your mouth that day.  The food that you put to your mouth will keep your body going for a while but you know that eventually your body breaks down.  So to worry about your body too much… it’s like your house – no matter how much you fix up that house, it’s going to fall down one day.  Somebody will tear it down after it becomes no longer livable.  The same as your car – it’s going to the junk yard one day. […]  But the prayers that you say last forever in their effect. They never lose: it’s like a currency that is always good.  It has everlasting effect.  And it’s the only thing you take to heaven with you.  Everything else you leave behind, and your relatives will fight over them.  And you take to heaven the prayers that you have said.  Very, very valuable things that never lose their value.

So St. Ignatius actually said that we should recite vocal prayers very, very slowly.  And he even said this: ‘leaving the space of one breath between each word.’  That’s what he said.  Now, that’s not a law, but it shows you the care that we should have in approaching prayer.  It does say that.  Many times the words and examples of the saints are given to us for our edification but not necessarily our imitation.  That is, what they do in matters of virtue are so extreme that you would say ‘I could never do that.’  But it fixes your attention on that virtue, whether it’s a great act of humility, or a great act of courage or martyrdom or various other things.  Like St. John the Baptist, his great penances, or the great penances of many saints that you read about.  You might say ‘I could never do that’ but it does tell you the necessity of penance.  It pulls you toward penance.  And that’s why God raises up these people.  Now, other things are given to us for our imitation in the lives of the saints but many of the things they do are given to us for edification. Saint Francis of Assisi, for example, would not walk upon worms because he said that he would not walk upon something to which Our Lord compared Himself.  So that doesn’t mean we should never step on a worm, it just tells us something.  It tells us where his mind is in comparing him… that… his seeing the humility of Christ even in all things.

So, coming to mental prayer then.  Mental prayer is defined as an interior and silent prayer by which the soul raises itself to God without the aid of words or formulas in order to discharge its duty towards Him, and to become better.  That’s a very important point about mental prayer, and that is that it is directed toward the practical.  It is to speak to God, and to converse with God, for the purpose of becoming more virtuous.  It is not a mere speculation about God or what He’s like.  It’s not merely theology or a pure speculation.  It is to speak to God, to elevate our minds toward Him, in order to love Him more.  Whenever we converse with someone whom we esteem we always come back from that conversation having more esteem for that person.  It increases the friendship. And vice versa, we might have a great esteem for someone but we fall out of communication, and the friendship suffers.  Oh yes, you get a Christmas  card, whereas perhaps ten years earlier you were very, very close.  And now you get a Christmas card, and you don’t hate them, you don’t dislike them, but the friendship has gone.  Because there’s no communication.  St. Thomas Aquinas says communication is a necessary element of friendship.  So the more you communicate with God in mental prayer, the more you’re going to be like Him, the more you’re going to love Him.  It fires up the love that you have for Him by the virtue of charity which is in your soul.  It’s just natural.  And that’s why it’s a very efficacious means of increasing the fervour of your spiritual life.

All mental prayer has as its purpose to glorify God but it also has the purpose of making us better (as I said).  We do mental prayer in order to be converted from evil, toward the good, and from the good to the better, and from the better to perfection.  Everything in life has a perfection;every flower, every animal has a perfecion.  So you have these shows in which people come and bring their roses.  There’s the perfect rose and they get the prize.  Or you have dog shows (and I know they exist in England [the talk was given in London]) and the perfect dog is paraded around and people applaud.  And the dog is just perfect.  Everything has a perfection, and the spiritual life has a perfection.  And of course the most important perfection is the perfection of the spiritual life.  Everything else will go away.  In the Olympics there’s a perfection.  You get the prize because you’re perfect; you did it perfectly.  So the spiritual life has a perfection, and mental prayer is the most efficacious means of achieving that perfection.

So mental prayer seeks a progressive conversion intending to perfection in the spiritual life.  And mental prayer is the pre-eminent source of the transformation of the soul towards perfection.  This is what all the theologians teach.  St. Pius X extolled mental prayer to priests as indispensable to their apostolate.  So St. Alphonsus said that it is so efficacious:

  • that either our mental prayer will persevere or our sin will persevere but that the two cannot persevere together for very long in the same person,
  • that if you are in the state of sin, if you have habits of sin, mortal sin, and you begin a programme of mental prayer, the mental prayer will drive out that habit of mortal sin or the mortal sin will drive out the habit of mental prayer.  The two are incompatible, because if you love sin you cannot stand to be in the presence of God.

When you do mental prayer it’s as if you are going and standing in the presence of a king.  You hear the king speak, you look at Him (and that you do by reading sacred scripture), you hear God speak, you meditate on the things of God.  It’s not as if you have, as I said, a locution with God – that would be something very extraordinary – but through reading sacred scripture or the writings of the saints and the Fathers, you see what God is and you think about Him, you contemplate God.  And so doing, your whole soul is bared.  And if it’s in sin, you won’t be able to stand it.  So either you will abandon the mental prayer because you can’t take it any more or you will drive out the sin.  It’s the most effective way, yet most lay people don’t do it.  And perhaps because they’ve never been told to do it or it has never been suggested to them to do mental prayer.  It is the most difficult prayer that you will do because it is so ethereal and it means that you kneel down or sit down (St. Teresa says sit down so that ought to encourage you) and give yourself over to something that is entirely spiritual.  Completely detaching yourself from your body.

Bishop Sheen said there’s a difference between looking at something and contemplating something.  If you’re in a museum and you pass by a painting, a great painting by Fra Angelico, ‘Oh, there it is,’ and then you keep going, you have looked.  But if you stand in front of it and stare at it, you’re contemplating, and you find in that contemplation many details that you would never find if you did not contemplate.  That happened to me last year in Vienna.  The Caravaggio Scourging – it was in their art museum in Vienna.  And for some reason, seeing a picture in person is so different from even the best of the reproductions that you may see in books; there’s something about it, there’s something that draws you.  And the same is true of mental prayer; when you present yourself before God in mental prayer there’s something that draws you, and it is very refreshing for the soul to do that.

So St. Teresa said ‘mental prayer is nothing else in my opinion but being on terms of friendship with God; frequently conversing in secret with Him who, as we know, loves us.’  It is the silent elevation and application of our mind and heart to God in order to offer Him our homages and to promote His glory by advancement in virtue.  So, that said, how do we meditate?  First of all, you must set aside a time in which to meditate, and that is extremely difficult to do in the busy day of a lay person.  Fortunately, at the seminary we have bells, and bells tell us what to do.  We don’t have to think about it.  And we go like robots, very voluntarily, to the chapel where we should be.  I’m joking of course – we’re not like robots but it’s very good.  The bell is very good because it tells you now is the time for…  you have to put down what you’re doing and you go.  And that’s the purpose of it, the reason why people join the religious life is to have that bell in order that they accomplish the good things they want to accomplish.  And so it’s easy for us because we live by that bell, and we accomplish our duties every day faithfully.  But in the busy life of the layperson, which has a lot of ups and downs especially if there are children, it’s just hard to pick out that time.  But it’s important that you pick out a time every day in which to do it, and usually the same time.

The first thing to do in meditation is to make an act of humility.  Of ourselves we are nothing – this is humility.  Even worse than nothing because our sins are a disorder which are inferior to nothingness itself.  To love sin is to love nothing because it’s disorder, and disorder is a privation of existence and good.  So that’s the act of humility.  You must come to God in a spirit of humility and in a spirit of contrition for sin, that we don’t deserve to be here. By our sins we deserve to die.  By our sins, if they are mortal, we deserve hell, but we are nonetheless in humility.  That’s the first thing is an act of humility.

Then we must make a profound and prolonged act of faith in some fundamental truth or other.  So we can pick any subject.  St. Alphonsus says if you can’t think of a subject for meditation think of the Passion of Christ – you can always choose the Passion of Christ.  There’s so much in the Passion of Christ, you are never stuck for a subject on meditation.  But there are many other things that you could find in very many good books such as contemplating the perfection of God, the goodness of God, Our Lord, the Mysteries of His life, His Passion, His Glory, our duties of state in life, our vocation (whether it be a married state, a single state, or a religious state), our last end, death, judgement, heaven and hell.  I think it was St. Ignatius who said that we should die every day.  Every day we should die, and be judged.  On the Feast Days we can think about what the Sacred Liturgy proposes to us, such as Christmas or Epiphany.  And we can use a book if necessary.  So some people find it very easy to think about God without any book at all.  Other people, no matter how advanced they are (even if they’re great saints), cannot get their minds on what they should be thinking about without a book.  So if you use a book you should read the book very slowly, not as if you’re reading a newspaper.  Read the book very slowly, put it down, think about what the sentence said, pick it up again and put it down, perhaps read the same thing over again, put it down: that’s the way you use a book when you’re meditating.  It’s very effective, and I even recommend it, for someone starting out especially.  But some people never give it up.  Everyone is different about this.  Everyone is different but the same thing can be accomplished.

Then you should make an act of hope, because the consideration of a supernatural truth gives rise to supernatural hope.  The soul desires eternal happiness, eternal life.  It desires the peace that is promised by the heavenly Father to those who follow Christ.  These are the important things of life, [is] that we achieve eternal life and that we have the life of God in our souls here and that we have this interior peace that comes from the love of God, that we already possess God to a certain extent by supernatural charity.  As I said, all of the gold in the world cannot buy that.  It drives out all of the problems of life; it drives out all of the anxiety of life; it drives out all of the sadness and depression of life because you’re in possession of the one necessary thing.  Sure, you know, it’s not going to cure your cancer but it is going to give your soul order. Charity [love of God] is something that pulls your soul together and puts it in order, just as a piece of coal turns into a diamond.  It takes on a crystalline shape and structure, and is clear and admits the light through it.  So also charity puts in order your whole soul so you are at peace.  Peace, as St. Augustine said, is the tranquillity of order.  So when your soul is in order it is at peace.  And therefore there is an act of hope, that we hope for all of these things: the interior peace in this life, the virtue of charity, the state of sanctifying grace, and eternal life in the next world.

That’s the whole thing – we will all die one day, we’re all going to die.  In a hundred years everybody in this room will be dead.  It’s true.  We’ll be buried some place if we’re lucky, we might be at the bottom of the sea (some people are) eaten by fish, or burned up.  We never know.  We never know what’s going to happen to us.  But, if we’re lucky, so to speak, we’ll be dead and in a cemetery where no-one will visit us.  Go and look at cemeteries, gravestones that were put in 300 years ago; nobody knows even who they are.  And they were as alive as we are.  It’s all going to pass away, just like the leaves on the trees that fall in the autumn.  It’s all going away, very soon.  The only thing that lasts is what we do and hope for in mental prayer.  Eternal life.

And we should make an act of charity, that is, an act of love of God.  We want to tell God that we love Him.  For example, ‘My God, I no longer wish to lie when I tell you that I love Thee.’  How many times do we say we love God but then we sin so much.  We no longer want to do that.  ‘Grant me to love Thee and please Thee in all things.’  See, there should be aspirations like this at the end of the mental prayer. Just as you would tell anybody whom you love ‘I love you’ and just as that’s so natural for a child to tell his mother or his father that he loves him or her.  It’s so natural.  This is what we should do.  We are children of God.

Or we could say something like this: ‘I wish to conform my will to the divine will.  May Thy will be accomplished in me by fidelity to the commandments.  I wish to break all that renders me a slave to sin, a slave of pride, a slave of egoism and of sensuality.  I wish, oh Lord, to share more and more in the divine life which you offer to me.  Thou hast come that we may have life in abundance; increase my love for Thee.  Thou dost ask only to give; I wish to receive as Thou dost wish that I should receive in trial as well as in consolation.’  This is an example: that you should start conversing with God, telling God how you love Him, telling Him how you want to be released from sin, telling Him that you need graces in order to be better, telling Him that you will strive to give up every attachment to sin that you may have.

So you’re making these spontaneous acts that pertain to virtue.  That’s how you should end mental prayer.  So this mental prayer puts us in intimacy with God.  We always imitate those whom we truly and deeply love.  It’s a general principle.  If we love someone we will imitate them, whether for good or for bad.  We will want to be whatever we regard as virtuous in them.  So evil people want to be like other evil people.  They make idols for themselves and want to be like them.  And so good people look to the saints or to other virtuous people for their example, ultimately God.  So the more you converse with God, the more you are like Him, the more you will imitate Him.  And He will give you the grace to do all of this.  This is not on your own.  You are going to Him for those actual graces in order to be better.

If you ask Him for an actual grace that you need for your spiritual life He will give it to you infallibly.  ‘Ask and you shall receive.’  That’s exactly what that means.  If you ask for a yellow Ferrari you’re not going to get it, but if you ask for a grace that you need for your spiritual life, ask and you shall receive if you go to Him with sincerity and perseverance.  You will get it.  That’s the promise of God.  And this is going to Him with sincerity and perseverance.  You can’t be casual with God.  You have to be serious and sincere with God and He will listen to you.  The more we converse with God the more godly we will become.

So I recommend to you, as much as I possibly can, the practice of mental prayer.  It is, as I said, a difficult thing for you to put in your day but you should try very much.  And the best time of the day is the morning.  It’s always the best time of the day, in all respects, is the morning.  So if you take 15 minutes, say ‘I will do 15 minutes of mental prayer.’  If you can’t do 15, do 10.  If you can’t do 10, do 5.  But don’t say ‘well, because I can’t do 15, I’ll skip it.’  Do something, every day, and you will see, I guarantee you, an increase in virtue.  Thank you for listening.”

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