Mental prayer

St. Teresa of Avila

Mental prayer is a form of prayer recommended in the Catholic Church whereby one loves God through dialogue, meditating on God's words, and contemplation of his face. It is a time of silence focused on God. It is distinguished from vocal prayers which use set prayers, although mental prayer can proceed by using vocal prayers in order to improve dialogue with God.[1]

One of the foremost writers on mental prayer, St. Teresa of Avila, stated: "Contemplative prayer [oración mental] is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us."[2] Since the emphasis is on love rather than thought, modern authors recommend that it be called interior prayer.[3]

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, meditation and contemplative prayer which takes place in mental prayer are "major expressions of the life of prayer" in the Christian tradition.[2] The practice of mental prayer is necessary for reaching the goal of Christian perfection, said St. Theresa of Calcutta (more commonly known as Mother Teresa). "Holiness is impossible without it." All saints, according to St. Alphonsus Liguori, Doctor of the Church in moral theology, have become saints by mental prayer.

Nature and history

Mental prayer was defined by Fr. John Hardon as a "form of prayer in which the sentiments expressed are one's own and not those of another person. Mental prayer is accomplished by internal acts of the mind and affections and is either simple meditation or contemplation." [4] Prayer is mental when the thoughts and affections of the soul are not expressed in a previously determined formula. The function of mental prayer is to transform the mind and through the transformation of the mind to effect a change in dispositions and in the heart. This mental conversion is not as simple as it is usually taken to be, but normally involves a long time process.[5] Adolphe Tanquerey distinguishes between vocal prayer, which is expressed by words or gestures, and mental prayer, "which takes place wholly within the soul". It is a time of silence focused on God and one's relationship with him. It is distinguished from vocal prayers which use set prayers, although mental prayer can proceed by using vocal prayers in order to improve dialogue with God.[6] Mental prayer can be divided into meditation, or active mental prayer; and contemplation, passive mental prayer.[7]

John Cassian (5th century) and John Climacus (6th century) discussed the ways of mental prayer. Among the Fathers of the Church who have recommended mental prayer are St. Augustine of Hippo, St. John Chrysostom, St. Jerome, St. Basil, St. Boethius, and St. Bernard of Clairvaux.[8]

From before the middle of the twelfth century, the Carthusians had times set apart for mental prayer. Early in the sixteenth century, the Dominican chapter of Milan prescribed mental prayer for half an hour during the morning and the evening. Among the Franciscans, there is record of methodical mental prayer about the middle of that century. Among the Carmelites, there was no regulation for mental prayer until Saint Teresa of Avila introduced it, practicing it for two hours daily. Although Saint Ignatius of Loyola reduced meditation to a definite method in his spiritual exercises, it was not made part of his rule until thirty years after the formation of the Society of Jesus. His method and that of St. Sulpice have helped spread the habit of meditating beyond the cloister.[8]

Modern authors recommend that this prayer be called "interior prayer". Fr. Jacques Philippe said: "It would be better to say interior prayer instead of mental prayer, because in our modern culture, the word "mental" is associated with thoughts - as something cerebral - whereas this form of prayer is more an affair of the heart, instead of reflection. St. Teresa of Avila said that it is not an act of thinking much, but of loving much."


Ordinary or active mental prayer consists of two operations - one belongs to the thinking faculty which applies the imagination, memory, and understanding to consider some truth, principle, fact or mystery; the other is dependent on the will with a view to exciting proper spiritual emotions, to ask for the good proposed by the mind, and resolve on some act or course of action regarded as God's will and as a means of union with Him. In some degree, it has always been practiced by God-fearing souls. According to St. Teresa, the soul in this stage is like gardener, who, with much labour, draws the water up from the depths of the well to water his plants and flowers.[8][9]


Saint Mother Teresa said that, "We must never forget that we are bound to perfection and should aim ceaselessly for it. The practice of mental prayer is necessary to reach that goal. Because it is the breath of life for our soul, holiness is impossible without it. It is only in mental prayer and spiritual reading that we cultivate the gift of prayer. Mental prayer is greatly fostered by simplicity-- that is forgetfulness of self and of the body and of the sense, and by frequent aspirations that feed our prayer." [10]

"He who neglects mental prayer," affirms Saint Teresa of Avila, "needs no devil to carry him to hell. He brings himself there with his own hands." Her fellow Carmelite, Saint John of the Cross, also said, "Without the aid of mental prayer, the soul cannot triumph over the forces of the demon."[11]

On the reason for mental prayer, Saint Alphonsus Liguori, the Catholic Church's Doctor of Moral theology, explained: “Mental prayer is the blessed furnace in which souls are inflamed with the love of God. All the saints have become saints by mental prayer” He said that "It is morally impossible for him who neglects meditation to live without sin," because of its incompatibility with sin: nobody can continue the practice of mental prayer in the state of mortal sin. He will either repent or quit the practice of mental prayer.[12]

In his work, Necessity and Power of Prayer, The Great Means of Salvation and Perfection, St. Alphonsus Ligouri explained the effectiveness of mental prayer:

This is the chief fruit of mental prayer, to ask God for the graces which we need for perseverance and for eternal salvation; and chiefly for this reason it is that mental prayer is morally necessary for the soul, to enable it to preserve itself in the grace of God.
For if a person does not remember in the time of meditation to ask for the help necessary for perseverance, he will not do so at any other time; for without meditation he will not think of asking for it, and will not even think of the necessity for asking it.
On the other hand, he who makes his meditation every day will easily see the needs of his soul, its dangers, and the necessity of his prayer; and so he, will pray, and will obtain the graces which will enable him to persevere and save his soul.

Benedict XVI told priests that prayer and meditation, "spending time in God's presence in prayer is a real pastoral priority; it is not an addition to pastoral work: being before the Lord is a pastoral priority and in the final analysis, the most important. In the Foreword of his book, Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict XVI emphasized that "everything depends" on "intimate friendship with Jesus."[13]

Learning mental prayer

John Paul II, in his program for the new millennium, said in his message for the 42nd "World Day of Prayer":

"We have to learn to pray: as it were learning this art ever anew from the lips of the Divine Master himself, like the first disciples: 'Lord, teach us to pray!' (Lk 11:1)."[14]

Since sanctity is for everyone, according to Catholic doctrine, anyone can learn mental prayer. St. Therese of the Lisieux learned mental prayer when she was eleven years old. "Mental prayer is not just for priests and nuns, but is for everyone. The youngest of children are capable of reaching great heights through mental prayer," is the teaching of the Franciscan Friar Minors.

Principles of mental prayer

Relationship with a person

Prayer means dealing with someone, a person, the living God. As John Paul II said, "We shall not be saved by a formula but by a Person, and the assurance which he gives us: I am with you!" "Being Christian is.. the encounter with an event, a person," said Benedict XVI. There is an I, a someone who wants to be with us, someone who listens, feels, sees, talks and interacts with the one praying.

"Friendly dealing" (tratar de amistad) is the literal translation of St. Teresa's definition of mental prayer: "tratar de amistad, estando muchas veces tratando a solas con Quien sabemos nos ama". The literal translation is: friendly dealing, many times dealing one-on-one with Him whom we know loves us. And this person has a face which we can contemplate, a face that is a singular manifestation of his person.

The principle of divine action

The first important principle is "What matters in prayer is not what we do but what God does in us during those moments," said Jacques Philippe in Time for God. "The essential act in prayer is, at bottom, to place one's self in God's presence and to remain there...This presence, which is that of the living God, is active, vivifying. It heals and sanctifies us. We cannot sit before a fire without getting warm."

Allowing God to be fully present is key to the highest levels of prayer, according to John Paul II. "In prayer, the true protagonist is God," he said in Crossing the Threshold of Hope. "Man achieves the fullness of prayer not when he expresses himself, but when he lets God be most fully present in prayer." The biblical reason for this, according to John Paul II is: "we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings" (cf. Rom 8:26). As Mother Teresa said, "In vocal prayer we speak to God, in mental prayer he speaks to us. It is then that God pours himself to us." "Placing oneself in God's presence and remaining there" is the essential act of prayer, according to Philippe.

Basic decision is making time for mental prayer

The basic decision then is to "make time for the Lord, with the firm determination not to give up." (CCC 2710) The recommended length of time per day varies from "a few minutes" (Friars, "30 minutes" (Eugene Boylan), "several minutes" (Josemaria Escriva), "one hour" (Francis of Sales), "minimum of half an hour in front of the Blessed Sacrament" (Alphonsus Liguori). The recommends starting with 5–10 minutes.

Primacy of love

The second fundamental principle, according to Jacques Philippe is "love is above everything else." As St. Teresa explained, in prayer, it does not matter as much to think as to love. This is in accordance with the commandment that Jesus aptly called "the greatest": Love God with your whole heart, your whole soul, your whole mind and your whole strength. "Loving in the first place is allowing oneself to be loved," said Philippe. Benedict XVI stressed in Deus caritas est: "Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift...One can become a source from which rivers of living water flow. Yet to become such a source, one must constantly drink anew from the original source, which is Jesus Christ, from whose pierced heart flows the love of God." (Italics added) Benedict XVI emphasized that this is "the heart of the Gospel, the central nucleus of Christianity": "In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us." (1 Jn 4:10; italics added). We have come to believe in God's love is, he says, the fundamental decision of a Christian's life.

Joseph Ratzinger emphasized that sanctity is "nothing other than to speak with God as a friend speaks with a friend, allowing God to work, the Only One who can really make the world both good and happy."

"Fundamentally, prayer is to place oneself in God's presence and to allow him to love us," says Philippe. And with this, the basic attitude of a Christian is humility coming from a knowledge of his own powerlessness and sinfulness in comparison to the grandeur of God. Thus Jesus criticized the self-praise of the Pharisees which showed them as people who "trusted themselves that they were righteous," while he praised the tax-collector's petition for mercy, because "he who humbles himself will be exalted."

The Christian's love increases as a response to the love of God. "Contemplative prayer," according to the Catechism, "is the prayer of the child of God, of the forgiven sinner who agrees to welcome the love by which he is loved and who wants to respond to it by loving even more." (CCC 2712 )

St. Teresa of Avila said that "to love is to give everything and to give one's self. If my daily prayers steadily revolve around and return to one idea, which is that or rousing my heart into giving myself totally to the Lord, to keep on serving him, then such prayer would be poorer yet better!"

Practice of mental prayer

Aids to prayer

St. Francis of Sales said: "Begin all prayer, whether mental or vocal, by an act of the Presence of God. If you observe this rule strictly, you will soon see how useful it is." He says that God is everywhere and is in our hearts and souls. Thus, "a blind man when in the presence of his prince will preserve a reverential attitude if told that the king is there, although unable to see him."[15]

Mother Teresa said that "I always begin my prayer in silence, for it is in the silence of the heart that God speaks." Her "simple path" states: "The fruit of silence is PRAYER. The fruit of prayer is FAITH. The fruit of faith is LOVE. The fruit of love is SERVICE. The fruit of service is PEACE."

There are some formulas which can help start and end mental prayer:

Preparatory Prayer: My Lord and my God, I firmly believe that you are here, that you see me, that you hear me. I adore you with profound reverence, I ask your pardon for my sins, and the grace to make this time of prayer fruitful. My immaculate Mother, Saint Joseph my father and lord, my guardian angel, intercede for me.[16]
Closing prayer: I thank you, my God, for the good resolutions, affections and inspirations that you have communicated to me in this meditation. I ask your help to put them into effect. My immaculate Mother, Saint Joseph my father and lord, my guardian angel, intercede for me.[16]
Topics for mental prayer

See also



External links

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