As we've discussed on our Mental Prayer page, which provides an introduction to that important method of prayer that St. Teresa of Avila once called "a loving conversation with God", it is easy to feel intimidated at first to engage in it.
Mental prayer differs from vocal prayer in that we are not reciting fixed prayers such as the Our Father or the Hail Mary, but rather spending quiet time with our Lord meditating on a particular selection of scripture, spiritual writing, or some aspect of our faith such as our Lord's Passion.
As a quick reminder, meditation in Catholicism is not the same as that well known practice that has Hindu and Buddhist overtones with mantras and such.
Rather, it refers to that time you spend with God aware of His presence, with all humility and contrition, desiring to draw closer to our Lord by reflecting on your subject matter, and how it can further your spiritual journey with Him. We go into greater detail about this wonderful form of prayer here.
While it's true that you don't have to be a mystic, a religious, or some great theologian to enter into mental prayer, many articles and books on the subject do go into some detail about its various methods.
In essence, they boil down to using your memory, your intellect, and your will in preparation, meditation and a conclusion (which often involves some sort of resolution based on some insight you've gained from our Lord during your meditation).
"Yikes" you might think, "this simple conversation already sounds too complicated for me! I'll pass." That would be a mistake. The only wrong way to do mental prayer is not to do it at all! There are numerous ways in which you can engage in it, even if it's just for 15-30 minutes at a time.
The more you spend time with our Lord following some of the suggestions on our Mental Prayer page the more comfortable you'll get with it and hopefully over time the more spontaneous and free flowing your conversation with God will be for you.
We've reprinted below some selections from the pages mentioned above where these writers deal specifically with difficuties in mental prayer. (The text presented here is the same as that found on our separate web pages for each author linked above, with the same formatting of some sections in bold type for our readers' convenience.)
For those times you feel stumped, distracted, or dry, don't worry about it! That's perfectly natural! The great saints had such feelings from time to time, often for long periods of time, so you're not alone in this regard. The important thing is not to lose faith in God's love for you, even in the midst of, perhaps especially in the midst of, trials and tribulations!
FROM SAINT FRANCIS DE SALES
Concerning Dryness in Meditation.
SHOULD it happen sometimes, my daughter, that you have no taste for or consolation in your meditation, I entreat you not to be troubled, but seek relief in vocal prayer, bemoan yourself to our Lord, confess your unworthiness, implore His Aid, kiss His Image, if it be beside you, and say in the words of Jacob, “I will not let Thee go, except Thou bless me;” or with the Canaanitish woman, “Yes, Lord, I am as a dog before Thee, but the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their master’s table.”
Or you can take a book, and read attentively till such time as your mind is calmed and quickened; or sometimes you may find help from external actions, such as prostrating yourself folding your hands upon your breast, kissing your Crucifix,—that is, supposing you are alone.
But if, after all this, you are still unrelieved, do not be disturbed at your dryness, however great it be, but continue striving after a devout attitude in God’s Sight. What numbers of courtiers appear a hundred times at court without any hope of a word from their king, but merely to pay their homage and be seen of him.
Just so, my daughter, we ought to enter upon mental prayer purely to fulfill our duty and testify our loyalty. If it pleases God’s Divine Majesty to speak to us, and discourse in our hearts by His Holy Inspirations and inward consolations, it is doubtless a great honour, and very sweet to our soul; but if He does not vouchsafe such favours, but makes as though He saw us not,—as though we were not in His Presence,—nevertheless we must not quit it, but on the contrary we must remain calmly and devoutly before Him, and He is certain to accept our patient waiting, and give heed to our assiduity and perseverance; so that another time
He will impart to us His consolations, and let us taste all the sweetness of holy meditation. But even were it not so, let us, my child, be satisfied with the privilege of being in His Presence and seen of Him.
FROM ST. ALPHONSUS LIGUORI
WE OUGHT NOT TO SEEK IN MENTAL PRAYER
We must apply ourselves to meditation, not for the sake of spiritual consolations, but chiefly in order to learn what is the will of God concerning us. "Speak Lord," said Samuel to God, "for Thy servant heareth" (1 Kings 3: 9). Lord, make me to know what Thou wilt, that I may do it. Some persons continue meditation as long as consolations continue; but when these cease, they leave off meditation.
It is true that God is accustomed to comfort His beloved souls at the time of meditation, and to give them some foretaste of the delights He prepares in Heaven for those who love Him.
These are things which the lovers of the world do not comprehend; they who have not taste except for earthly delights despise those which are celestial. Oh, if they were wise, how surely would they leave their pleasures to shut themselves in their closets, to speak alone with God!
Meditation is nothing more than a converse between the soul and God; the soul pours forth to Him its affections, its desires, its fears, its requests, and God speaks to the heart, causing it to know His goodness, and the love which He bears it, and what it must do to please Him.
But these delights are not constant, and for the most part, holy souls experience much dryness of spirit in meditation. "With dryness and temptations," says St. Teresa, "the Lord makes proof of those who love Him." And she adds, "Even if this dryness lasts through life, let not the soul leave off meditation; the time will come when all will be well rewarded."
The time of dryness is the time for gaining the greatest rewards; and when we find ourselves apparently without fervor, without good desires, and, as it were, unable to do a good act, let us humble ourselves and resign ourselves, for this very meditation will be more fruitful than others.
It is enough then to say, if we can say nothing more, "O Lord, help me, have mercy on me, abandon me not!" Let us also have recourse to our comforter, the most holy Mary. Happy he who does not leave off meditation in the hour of desolation.
Distractions and Aridities
If, after having well prepared ourselves for mental prayer, as had been explained in a preceding paragraph, a distracting thought should enter, we must not be disturbed, nor seek to banish it with a violent effort; but let us remove it calmly and return to God.
Let us remember that the devil labors hard to disturb us in the time of meditation, in order to make us abandon it. Let him, then, who omits mental prayer on account of distractions, be persuaded that he gives delight to the devil. It is impossible, says Cassian, that our minds should be free from all distractions during prayer.
Let us, then, never give up meditation, however great our distractions may be. St. Francis de Sales says that if, in mental prayer, we should do nothing else than continually banish distractions and temptations, the meditation would be well made. Before him St. Thomas taught that involuntary distractions do not take away the fruit of mental prayer. [2, 2. q. 83, a. 13]
Finally, when we perceive that we are deliberately distracted, let us desist from the voluntary defect and banish the distraction, but let us be careful not to discontinue our meditation.
The greatest pain of souls in meditation is to find themselves sometimes without a feeling of devotion, weary of it, and without any sensible desire of loving God; and with this is joined the fear of being in the wrath of God through their sins, on account of which the Lord has abandoned them; and being in this gloomy darkness, they know not how to escape from it, it seeming to them that every way is closed against them.
When a soul gives itself up to the spiritual life, the Lord is accustomed to heap consolations upon it, in order to wean it from the pleasures of the world, but afterwards, when He sees it more settled in spiritual ways, He draws back His hand, in order to make proof of its love, and to see whether it serves and loves God unrecompensed, while in this world, with spiritual joys.
Some foolish persons, seeing themselves in a state of aridity, think that God may have abandoned them; or, again, that the spiritual life was not made for them; and so they leave off prayer, and lose all that they have gained.
In order to be a soul of prayer, man must resist with fortitude all temptations to discontinue mental prayer in the time of aridity. St. Teresa has left us very excellent instructions on this point. In one place she says, "The devil knows that he has lost the soul that perseveringly practices mental prayer." In another place she says, "I hold for certain that the Lord will conduct to the haven of salvation the soul that perseveres in mental prayer, in spite of all the sins that the devil may oppose."
Again, she says, "He who does not stop in the way of mental prayer reaches the end of his journey, though he should delay a little." Finally she concludes, saying, "By aridity and temptations the Lord proves His lovers, Though aridity should last for life, let not the soul give up prayer: the time will come when all shall be well rewarded."
The Angelic Doctor says that the devotion consists not in feeling, but in the desire and resolution to embrace promptly all that God wills. Such was the prayer that Jesus Christ made in the Garden of Olives; it was full of aridity and tediousness, but it was the most devout and meritorious prayer that had ever been offered in this world. It consisted in these words: My Father, not what I will, but what Thou wilt.
Hence, never give up mental prayer in the time of aridity. Should the tediousness which assails you be very great, divide your meditation into several parts, and employ yourself, for the most part, in petitions to God, even though you should seem to pray without confidence and without fruit. It will be sufficient to say and to repeat: "My Jesus, mercy. Lord, have mercy on us." Pray, and doubt not that God will hear you and grant your petition.
In going to meditation, never propose to yourself your own pleasure and satisfaction, but only to please God, and to learn what He wishes you to do. And, for this purpose, pray always that God may make known to you His will, and that He may give you strength to fulfill it. All that we ought to seek in mental prayer is, light to know, and strength to accomplish, the will of God in our regard.
FROM THE REV. BERTRAND WILBERFORCE, O.P.
A few concluding remarks may be useful, in order to remove difficulties that often arise and discourage the souls who feel drawn to give themselves to the holy and delightful exercise of prayer.
1. “Is not mental prayer a very complicated matter? There seems so much to remember, so many things to do.” When the method of prayer is drawn out step by step on paper this is quite true. It does look a complicated affair, and so would everything else if it were thus minutely described.
Try to set down on paper all that we must remember in order to eat and drink in a polite manner, and see how formal and complicated it all seems; but do it, and it at once appears easy and natural. It is the same with mental prayer. Practice it for a short time, and all its difficulty will vanish.
2. “Are all these things to be done in the exact order prescribed? “ The preparation will always come first, with the three short fervent acts, and the conclusion will always naturally be at the end; but in the body of the prayer no formal order is to be observed. That part should indeed always begin by a short meditation, some simple earnest thoughts, but the Acts and Petitions should come forth from the heart in any way that they arise.
In describing them we must adopt some order that the matter may be intelligible; but in practice they can be all intermingled in any way in which they spring from the soul. Remember, the end and object of the whole exercise is to converse with God; if you are doing this therefore you are doing well.
I have said that there should always be some short meditation, because I am speaking to beginners of whom this is true; but for those more advanced this becomes less necessary, and after a time might be only a distraction. If the mind is all day long full of worldly and distracting thoughts and imaginations suggested by business, amusements, conversations, study, light reading, &c., it is evidently necessary to think of some holy subject in order to be able to pray with any fervour or recollection.
When, on the other hand, a person leads a quiet, secluded life, with few distractions, regular spiritual readings and frequent reflections on spiritual subjects, the soul is very easily moved to pray, and less meditation is necessary. After a time, with holy and contemplative souls, any train of thought would become a distraction; they are at once, and without effort, absorbed in God.
We may liken them to gunpowder; the slightest thought of God acts like a spark and sets them at once in a blaze, whereas distracted souls are like damp wood that requires much artificial help to kindle it into a flame.
3. “How long ought mental prayer to last?” No general rule can be laid down. The real answer is that if we only consider the matter in itself, the longer mental prayer can last the better for the soul; but taking into account the weakness of most souls, and the many occupations that cannot be neglected, half-an-hour in the day is a reasonable average time.
If however half-an-hour appears too long, begin with fifteen minutes. One little quarter of an hour in each day is surely not too long to devote to the grandest of all occupations—conversation with God Himself.
People who are constantly occupied and more devout could easily spend two half hours, one in the morning, one in the evening, in this holy exercise. The appetite for this spiritual manna will increase by satisfying it.
The more you allow yourself, the more you will want. This may be said in conclusion, that the longer time you spend in fervent and humble mental prayer the more rapid will be your progress in the way of virtue.
4. “When is the best time for mental prayer?” Most certainly early in the morning. If it be faithfully performed in the early morning, this spiritual banquet is secured, but when once the duties of the day have begun, it is far more difficult to find time. Moreover, the early morning is the quietest time, and is far less liable to interruption. The brain, being then refreshed with sleep, is more able to attend to prayer.
Besides all this, God seems more inclined to give His graces to those who mortify their sloth and arise early in order to praise Him; and all those who practice mental prayer will agree that the early morning is the best time to converse with God.
This seems to be the lesson conveyed by the act of the manna being rained down in the desert early in the morning and melting with the first rays of the sun, “that it might be known to all, that we ought to prevent the sun to bless Thee, and to adore Thee, at the dawning of the light.”—Wisdom xvi, 28.
5. “I have no time for mental prayer.” It is difficult to answer this common objection with a grave face. What it means is, “I do not want to take the trouble to make mental prayer.” To say that would be at least honest.
But to plead the want of time to spend 15 minutes out of the 24 hours in conversation with God is childish. What would the same persons say if they saw a way of gaining $5 or even $1 by employing one quarter of an hour in a particular pursuit well within their power? How quickly would time be found!
Who is there that does not spend a quarter of an hour daily in useless conversation or idle reading or in doing nothing? I should reply, make time by arising a quarter of an hour earlier. All that is required is a little more earnestness in the one all-important business of salvation.
6. “Where should mental prayer be made?” God is everywhere, and there is no place in which we cannot find Him, but in order to speak to Him reverently and without distraction, a private place should be sought. “Thou when thou shalt pray, enter into thy chamber, and having shut the door, pray thy Father in secret.” Matt. vi, 6. Our Lord prescribed this secrecy to avoid ostentation and vainglory, but another motive would be to shun distraction. But for those who have no suitable place at home, the church is always ready.
7. “What book shall I use? For those who are able to think a little for themselves, a text of Holy Scripture is the best food for meditation, or a sentence from the Following of Christ [aka The Imitation of Christ].
But many need their thinking to be done for them by another, and this very thing often causes a difficulty. They come across a book which furnishes them with the thoughts and reflections of a man who probably was in a completely different state, both mental and spiritual, from their own. His thoughts most excellent and fruitful for himself, are not suited to them, to their difficulties, their temptations, their duties. The consequence is that they find these thoughts "dry"—that is, they do not come home to those using the book with any force or light, although so good in themselves.
As a general rule the simpler a book is the better for practical use, and each one should try to find an author, or to select some parts out of a book, suited to the needs of his own soul. If you come across one thought that strikes the mind, immediately delay upon it, as a bee on a honey flower, and strive to draw from that one thought your acts, petitions and resolutions.
If the thought suggested by the book enables you thus to pray and to resolve, it has done its office; and you need by no means distress yourself even if the acts elicited and the resolution formed do not seem to have any evident and immediate connection with the previous thought.
There is one snare, as has been said above, most carefully to be avoided—that is, to stop praying in order to refer to the book for more points of reflection; for this would be to give up intercourse with God in order to entertain new thoughts.
On the other hand it is well to have some other thought in store, in case you can pray no longer, and need some fresh light from the understanding to give impetus to the will. If you persist in using some book that does not suit your needs and fall in with your spiritual state, you will run the risk of suffering from a kind of mental indigestion, from trying to assimilate thoughts of another mind not fitted to be the food of your soul.
The result will very probably be that you will abandon mental prayer in disgust, saving, “It’s no use, I cannot meditate!” This would be as unreasonable as to give up eating because one particular kind of food disagreed with you and would not digest. Find the food that will.
Simple thoughts on the four great truths of religion, on the Passion of Our Lord, or the mystery of the Blessed Sacrament, will suit the greater number of souls; and half the difficulty vanishes when it is clearly understood that one simple thought is amply sufficient as long as it helps you to pray, which is the real object of the exercise.
Nor is it by any means necessary always to vary the thought, for often the same reflection repeated morning after morning, will suffice to help you to pray, and if so why change it! We eat bread day after day, and if one thought nourishes the soul morning after morning why change it for another? If it begins to pall and to produce distraction, then seek for another.
One holy soul found matter for prayer and union with God for months together from the two simple words “Our Father.” If they were sufficient to form matter for prayer for years together, why change? Yet some people would have been inclined to pull St. Francis by the habit and to say— "You have been saying ‘My God and my all ‘for an hour now; had not you better go to the second point?"
8. “I am distracted.” Examine the causes of these distractions. If they arise from too great dissipation of mind during daily life, try to live more in God’s presence. If from not having prepared any definite thought, to dwell upon the remedy is to have one always prepared. If from mere weakness of mind, do not be disturbed, use no violent effort but quietly turn the mind back to God. One thing at least utterly avoid, and that is to abandon mental prayer because you are distracted.
By this you will please no one except the devil. He does all he can to make you give up mental prayer, because he knows full well that if you persevere in it you will be saved. If by causing you troublesome distractions he can make you abandon mental prayer, he has succeeded in his object. St. Francis of Sales tells us that if in mental prayer we are able to do nothing but continually banish distractions and temptations, we shall derive great profit from the exercise and please God. What more could be desired?