The Royal Highway to Heaven
Mental Prayer in Our Daily Lives
"The devil knows that he has lost the soul that perseveringly practices mental prayer."
St. Teresa of Avila
I gave this presentation a few years ago at a retreat. Many of the people there had never heard of mental prayer. Their approach to prayer was a hit and miss method. It consisted of praying to God only when they needed something. How many of us are guilty of that kind of prayer? We think of God only when we need Him. That is not what prayer is! The aim of this chapter is to explain what prayer is, particularly mental prayer and to show its value.
In this day and age of rushing around, always moving and the need of being constantly busy, has made people afraid of solitude and silence. This is sad, because it is only in the silence of our hearts that God speaks to us. Today mental has been abandoned and forgotten, pushed to the wayside. Yet it was the food for the saints. St. Peter Alcantara called it, "The Golden Key". St. Teresa of Avila referred it as, "The Royal Highway to Heaven," the title of this chapter. You may feel this form of prayer is not for you. Remember, mental prayer is not only for the saint or mystic, it is for everyone. Prayer simply is the lifting up of our souls to God. There are two kinds of prayer; vocal and mental prayer. Vocal prayer is every prayer performed by means of a given formula. Our voice is used in the recitation of these prayers. On the other hand, mental prayer is prayer without aid of any particular formula. It is prayer made by the mind, without the use of the spoken word. Another word for this kind of prayer is meditation. It consists of thinking of God or of Holy things with the intention of rendering Him our homage. Thus every pious thought, every pious desire is a mental prayer. 1
St. Bonaventure tells us the value of this kind of prayer,
"If you would suffer patiently the adversities and miseries of this life, be a man of prayer. If you would gain power and strength to overcome the temptations of the enemy, be a man of prayer. If you would mortify your will with all its affections and lusts, be a man of prayer. If you would understand the cunning devices of Satan, and defend yourself against his deceits, be a man of prayer. If you would live joyfully, and with sweetness walk in the path of penitence and sorrow, be a man of prayer. If you would drive out from your soul the troublesome gnats of vain thoughts and cares, be a man of prayer. If you would sustain your soul with the richness of devotion, and keep it ever full of good thoughts and desires, be a man of prayer. If you would strengthen and confirm your heart in the walk with God, be a man of prayer. Lastly, if you would root out from you soul all vices, and in their place plant virtues, be a man of prayer, for in this is obtained the unction and grace of the Holy Spirit Who teaches all things.
"And besides all this, if you would climb to the height of contemplation, and delight in the sweet embraces of the Bridegroom, exercise yourself in prayer, for this is the way by which the soul mounts up to contemplation and the taste of heavenly things." 2
St. Lawrence Justinian also writes on prayer,
"In prayer the soul is cleansed from sin, pastured with charity, confirmed in faith, strengthened in hope, gladdened in spirit. By prayer the inward man is directed aright, the heart purified, the truth discovered, temptation overcome, sadness avoided, the perceptions renewed, languishing virtue restored, lukewarmness dismissed, the rust of vices done away; and in it there do not cease to come forth living sparkles of heavenly desires, with which the flame of Divine love burns. Great are the excellences of prayer, great are its privileges! Before it heaven is opened, secret things are made manifest, and to it the ears of God are ever attentive." 3
Finally St. John Climacus calls prayer the salvation of the world, the great beauty of the angels, the origin of grace, and the most glorious possession we can hold in this world. In prayer we adore, ask pardon, give thanks and beg for graces from God. As the above three saints have said there are many advantages to mental prayer. It detaches us from sin, from the devil, the flesh and the world and from ourselves, uniting us to God. We are preserved from lukewarmness or cured from it. In Sacred Scripture Our Lord said to be either hot or cold, for if you are lukewarm He will vomit you from His mouth. Mental prayer is the source of all virtues, helping us to persevere in our vocation and to obtain perfection by the shortest possible way.
There are two kinds of mental prayer: active and passive. Active Mental prayer is our own efforts, with God's action being less evident. In Passive Mental Prayer God's action is strong, while the soul is passive and attentive to God. It is Active Mental Prayer that I will talk on, later I will briefly touch on Passive Mental Prayer.
Before going on, we must remember that all prayer has as its sole object, to give glory to God. St. Jane Frances de Chantal wrote that before prayer prepare your soul; think of where you are going and to whom you mean to speak. She further wrote that the fundamental state of mind for mental prayer is purity of intention by which we resolve that everything we do will be for the glory of God alone. There also must be a complete self-resignation to God's Will and a complete giving up of our own opinions so that we can do the Will of God.
St. Teresa of Avila urged her daughters to practice mental prayer. She writes, "There, nothing is to be feared, and everything that can be desired is to be found. Progress is slow...but at all events, we learn by degrees to know the road to heaven. It is not in vain that we have chosen God for our friend...Those who give up mental prayer I really pity, they serve God at their own cost. It is not so with those who practice mental prayer. This adorable master pays all their expenses. In exchange for a little trouble He gives them consolations which enable them to bear all crosses..."
St. Francis de Sales says, "Since mental prayer brings our intellect to the light of God, and keeps our will exposed to the flames of divine love, there is nothing which can better dispel the darkness with which ignorance and error have obscured our intelligence, nor better purify our hearts from all our depraved affection. It is the water of benediction which should serve to wash away the iniquities of our souls, to refresh our hearts consumed by the thirst of our cupidity, and to nourish the first seeds which virtue has there planted, and which are good desires."
St. Alphonsus Liguori, a Doctor of the Church, writes, "as long as a soul gives herself to mental prayer you will behold her a model of modesty, of humility, of devotion, and of mortification; let her abandon mental prayer, and soon the modesty of her looks disappears, her pride will burst forth at the least word which offends."
In conclusion, St. Francis de Sales in his book, "Introduction to the Devout Life", writes, "I especially counsel you to practice mental prayer, the prayer of the heart, and particularly that which centers on the life and passion of Our Lord, By often turning your eyes on Him in meditation, your whole soul will be filled with Him. You will learn His ways, and form your actions after the pattern of His."
Mental prayer is divided into three parts, the preparation, the body and the conclusion.
The preparation consists of the habitual, the proximate and the immediate. The habitual preparation is really something we, as Christians should be already be doing everyday; removing sin from our daily lives. We should work on removing dissipation and faults against silence and especially we should work against becoming slaves of our passions and senses. In today's world we need recollection and silence, purity of heart and mortification.
The proximate preparation consists of three acts. first, placing ourselves in the presence of God; second, acknowledging our unworthiness and sinfulness before God; and third, to ask God for the grace to pray well. The subject matter of the prayer is chosen according to your needs and in accordance with the advice of your spiritual director. For example, you may choose an incident from the life and Passion of Our Lord, or on the virtues and glories of Our Lady. The choice of subject of the meditation should be made after your night prayers. The time and the place of meditation should also be determined and set. The best place, of course, is in front of the Blessed Sacrament, when it is feasible. Initially when starting out you should plan on at least 15 minutes. As you progress you will be able to work up to an hour.
In the immediate preparation we are placing ourselves in God's presence. At this point we ask for the help of the Holy Spirit, Our Blessed Mother and Our Guardian Angel. We make an act of Faith in God's presence. By this act of faith, we are acknowledging are dependence on God. Other acts will come from this, such as acts of humility, confidence and contrition.
The Body of mental prayer, according to St. Francis de Sales, consists of talking to ourselves and with God; praising and blessing Him because of who He is; speaking to Him as a child would to his father. You begin with your considerations, an example coming from an incident or teaching from the Life of Our Lord. The considerations strengthen our faith and help give rise during the prayer to affections, petitions and resolutions. At this point St. Francis de Sales and St. Ignatius both recommend that we place before our imagination the substance of the mystery we are about to meditate, as if it were really taking place before our eyes. We then pass slowly from one detail to the next, allowing the Holy Spirit to guide us.
You can also use the method of asking yourself certain questions about what it is you are considering. Who, what, where, by what means, why, how and when? In considering Our Lord's passion these questions could follow these lines; Who is suffering? What pains is He enduring? Where is He suffering? By what means did He suffer? Why did He suffer? How did He suffer? When did He suffer? Some people though experience great difficulty when first starting out. Again St. Francis de Sales recommends in the beginning we use a book. He tells us to read very slowly, allowing time for reflection on what is being read. When you read something that touches you, take time to dwell on it, allowing yourself to draw all the fruit you can from it. St. Teresa of Avila declared, "that she spent more than fourteen years before she could meditate otherwise than while reading." St. Francis further tells us that we should not allow our meditation to become mere spiritual reading or curiosity. He says, "God takes account of our good will and rewards it."
It is important to state at this time, that up to this point you have not been praying. These considerations are the introduction to prayer and they bring about the affections, petitions and resolutions which is the prayer. Father Crasset, in his book, "On Prayer", says affections are the certain movements of the soul, which arise from the consideration, or from the mere thought of some subject, such as the acts of all the virtues; of faith, hope, charity, adorations, admiration, praise, thanksgiving, oblation of oneself, grief for one's sins, shame for one's past life, and so on." As you move from one consideration to another, an incident may move you from within to feel sorrow for Jesus' sufferings, wonder at His patience or delight in His kindness. This in turn will motivate you to want to imitate Jesus. From this will follow the petitions. It is important that we petition God for the graces we need to follow through with our resolutions. This desire to imitate Jesus, especially the virtue manifested in the incident of His life we have just considered, is the heart of mental prayer. St. Vincent de Paul tells us, "The principal fruit of mental prayer consists in making a good resolution, and a strong one too, in grounding one's resolutions on a firm basis, in being thoroughly convinced of their necessity, in being ready to put them in practice, and in foreseeing obstacles in order to overcome them."
We end with the conclusion. That is, we thank God for His guidance and inspiration, we offer back to God the good derived from the mediations, we petition for His assistance to carry out our resolution. We can conclude by making a spiritual nosegay. St. Francis de Sales tells us, "This is to take one or two thoughts which have touched us in prayer, and which before God we believe to be more useful to us, in order to think often upon them during the day, and to make use of them as ejaculatory prayers to raise ourselves to God and to unite ourselves to Him; just as we see persons of the world, who, being in a beautiful garden, carpeted with flowers, do not leave without having in their hand one or two of its flowers, whose scent they inhale now and again after leaving the garden."
At this point, you are probably thinking this sounds complicated! It is really very easy and to illustrated this point, I will briefly take you through a sample meditation. Sometimes though, you will spend very little time on considerations and move immediately to affections. This is OK! The Holy Spirit is guiding you and you should always follow His inspirations.
Let us assume the topic of your meditation is Our Lord's Passion. Begin by placing yourself in the presence of God. With the topic in mind ask yourself, who is suffering? The response is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Now ask yourself what pains is He enduring? Think of His many sufferings, the scourging, the crowning with thorns, the buffeting and jeering of the soldiers, the malice and the hatred of the Jews. There is so much here to meditate on. Moving on, you can ask yourself in what place did He suffer and then in spirit go to the places; the garden, the pretorium, Calvary, and so on. By thinking, by what means did He suffer, brings to mind His abandonment by His Father, His Mother's desolation, the flight of the apostles, Peter's denial and the treason of Judas. When you ask why, your thoughts could be, Our Lord's love for His Father's glory, our salvation or His hatred of sin. Another point of consideration would be how did this come about? Our Lord voluntarily abandoned His Body and Soul to suffering for us. This is only a sampling of some of the considerations you could make. Anyone of the these could lead you into your affections, resolutions and conclusion.
Another approach would be to make a statement of fact. For example; "Jesus died on the cross for love of me." Think on this thought and put yourself at Calvary at the foot of the cross with Mary, Our Mother. You might think, "How unworthy I am of such love." Then through the intercession of Our Heavenly Mother, ask Our Lord to make you worthy of His Love. Ask Him to increase your faith, hope and love!
Still another method is to present yourself before God. Then take yourself to a place, for instance Nazarath with Our Blessed Mother or to the Last Supper. One of my favorites is think and dwell upon is St. John resting his head upon Our Lord's Sacred Heart at the Last Supper. There is so much fruit in this particular meditation. The love and treasures of His Sacred Heart are inexhaustible.
Mental prayer is work, but it is worth it. Its fruit is contemplation if God so chooses. In Mental prayer, all the work is on your part, but in contemplations, God is the giver, we are the receiver. By cooperating with the Holy Spirit and allowing Him to work within you, you will know when this great grace is given to you.
I would like to go into some counsels and helps, distractions, and hindrances of mental prayer. Prayer is the work of the heart. Keep it simple, effective and sincere. Do not pray for your own consolation but for the glory of God. St. Jane Frances de Chantal counsels us by saying, "Anyone who, when praying to God, notices that he is praying, is not entirely attentive to prayer. He is turning his attention away from the God to whom he is praying."
Also, we must never take on more than we can handle. Thomas a Kempis, author of the "Imitation of Christ", writes, "Never imitate those indiscreet persons, who through the grace of devotion have ruined themselves, because they wished to do more than they could, not weighing the measure of their own littleness, but following the affections of their heart rather than the judgment of reason."
St. Teresa of Avila advises also never to shorten your prayer because it is full of desolation and without consolation. She persevered in her prayer for years in weariness, disgust and discouragement. One day Our Lord said to her with great affection, "Be not afflicted, my daughter; in this life souls cannot always be in the same state; sometimes you will be fervent, sometimes without fervor; sometimes in peace, sometimes in trouble and temptations; but hope in Me and fear nothing."
In his book, "On Prayer", Father Crasset reminds us of the purity of intention we should bring to our prayer, especially if we are seeking God and not ourselves. "Be resigned to pass this time (of prayer) either in light or in darkness, in consolation or in desolation, without seeking any other satisfaction than that of doing the will of God. This resignation is important, in order to receive His grace, and to remain peacefully in whatever state he may place you. If you leave off your prayer with a satisfied mind, after having done what you could to make it well, it is a sign that you entered upon it with a pure intention; if you leave it off, saddened and cast down, it is a sign that you sought in it your own satisfaction and not God's will."
St. Peter of Alcantara in his book, "A Golden Treatise of Mental Prayer", gives us nine means of help to attain this devotion, that is mental prayer. I will briefly list the helps.
Many of us who have tried to pray are aware of distractions. Some we have no control over while others we do. Some of the causes of distractions are Satan, poor preparation, our passions, our own levity of mind, and our own weakness. Distractions that are voluntary and deliberately entertained are wrong, while involuntary distractions, which we have no control over, do not harm us. In fact, St. Francis de Sales refers to such distractions during meditation, as meditation of patience. Such a meditation is as pleasing to God as one without distractions.
Another form of distraction is aridity. This is a state where one is unable to produce the acts of meditation. All the saints have endured this state. In this state we must diligently imitate the saints and persevere in prayer. Remember that virtue does not consist in affections and consolations, but in doing the will of God. It is also helpful to remember that God tries by aridity those whom He loves. Aridity is an excellent source of great spiritual profit. The important point here is not to become discouraged and quit.
When you begin mental prayer, Satan will tempt you with illusions or false ideas. He will try to convince you that mental prayer is too difficult, thereby convincing you to quit. He will endeavor to convince you that since you do not show any visible progress in virtue that you should abandon this form of prayer. You will be led to judge the value of your meditations by consolations and good sentiments you have experienced. As shown before this is a false and detrimental thought.
St. Peter of Alcantara has given us ten hindrances to mental prayer. I will briefly list them.
All writers on prayer have different ways of describing the various stages. St. Teresa of Avila refers to it as mansions, while some writers simply call it degrees of prayer. I have described in detail the second degree of prayer, Meditation or mental prayer. The third degree is called affective prayer. This form of prayer is based upon mental prayer, but more time is spent on the affections than on the considerations.
The prayer of simplicity, the fourth degree, consists of a simple, loving gaze upon God or His perfections. St. John Vianney tells of a farmer he saw at a certain hour everyday in church praying. St. John noticed that the man knelt quite still, gazing at the tabernacle for a long time. He asked the farmer what he did while he was in church. The man answered him, "I say nothing, I look at my God and He looks at me." This is prayer of the simplicity. The soul is very much absorbed in God and His presence.
The fifth degree of prayer is infused recollection. This form of prayer is characterized by the union of the intellect with God. The soul is filled with joy as it discovers so many marvels of God's love. This prayer is an illumination of the mind.
Prayer of the quiet affects the will rather than the intellect. In this form of prayer the soul wants to do nothing but love. The effects of this prayer, according to St. Teresa of Avila are great. She writes that there is a great liberty of spirit; filial fear of God and fear of offending him; deep confidence in God; love of mortification and work; profound humility; disdain for worldly pleasures; and growth in all the virtues.
The last three degrees are called Prayer of union. The seventh degree is the prayer of simple union and is a degree of infused contemplation. Three things characterize this form of prayer: absence of distractions; absolute certitude of being intimately united with God; and absence of weariness.
The prayer of ecstatic union is the spiritual espousal of the soul with Jesus along with the preparation for the spiritual marriage of the soul to Jesus. The soul at this level is absorbed in God and there is the suspension of the activity of the senses.
The final degree is the prayer of transforming union. This is the mystical marriage. The soul has the habitual awareness or sense of the divine Presence, even during one's occupations. This brings us to the question, "Can I achieve or reach the prayer of transforming union?" The answer is yes. For Christ said, "You must be made perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Mt. 5:48) St. Teresa, writes that all are invited and states, "Reflect that the Lord calls everyone." All you have to do is ask.
St. Jane Frances de Chantal has given us a description of the various states of prayer in which one may find oneself. She writes, "There are some who in prayer can do nothing but hold themselves before God with great honor and respect, and that prayer is good. Others have a thousand kinds of bad thoughts and feelings; this is suffering and enduring, and is still a prayer. Others undergo many distractions; they must have good patience and so long as the will is not in the distractions, prayer does not cease to be good. Finally, there are others who go to prayer and find our Lord just as they would like to have Him; this is the prayer of rest, in which there is more enjoyment than suffering." Be assured that no matter where you are in your prayer life, if you are doing God's will than you are on the right path to heaven and sanctity.
In closing, I would like to tell you a story I read that summarizes everything I have covered. One day Saint Benedict walked in the chapel to join his brother monks in prayer. As he stood there looking about, he was surprised to see an angel standing beside each monk. In front of each angel was a scroll. Some of the angels were busy writing while others just stood there. Upon closer examination Saint Benedict discovered that a few of the angels were writing in gold, while several were writing in silver. Quite a few of the angels were writing in lead, but the majority of the angels were just standing there with their unhappy heads bowed down. It was revealed to him the meaning of what he saw. The angels were writing down the prayers of the monks. The scrolls in gold, were prayers of the monks who prayed and meditated very well. The silver writing was the prayers of the monks who had a few distractions that they had momentarily entertained, while the angels writing in lead, were taking down the prayers of the monks whose prayers were mediocre. Finally the monks whose prayer time was spent distracted and in idle thoughts, were not worth writing, therefore their angels were upset, their hands folded, and doing nothing. The next time you pray, reflect on this thought, and ask yourself: "How do I want my spiritual prayer book written; in gold, silver, lead, or left blank?"
1 Very Reverend Joseph Simler, (Rockford, IL: Tan Publishers, 1984) p. 1,2
2 St. Peter of Alcantara, (New York: Morehouse-Gorham Co. 1905 ) p. 3-5
3 Ibid. p. 5-6
Catechism of Mental Prayer by Very Rev. Joseph Simler, Tan Publishers, Rockford, IL
Conservation with Christ, Peter Thomas Rohrbach, Tan Publishers, Rockford, IL
The Cloud of Unknowing by William Johnston, New York, Doubleday and Co.
The Works of St. John of the Cross. The Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Dark Night of the Soul, The Spiritual Canticle, The Living Flame of Love
The Works of St. Teresa of Avila. The Life of Teresa of Jesus (Her Autobiography), The Way of Perfection, and Interior Castle.
The Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena, translated by Algar Thorold, Tan Publishers and Co.
Prayer, The Key to Salvation by Father Michael Mueller, C.Ss. R. Tan Publishers and Co.
St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Paulist Press, New York.
The Three Ages of the Interior Life by Fr. Reginald Garrigou- Lagrange, O.P., Volume I and II. Tan Publishers and Co.
The Ways of Mental of Prayer by Rt. Rev. Dom Vitalis Lehodey, Tan Publishers and Co.
Mystical Union with God, by Rev. James Alberione, SSP. STD. Boston, MA - St. Paul Editions.
Treatise on the Love of God by St. Francis de Sales, Volume I and II (This the Introduction to the Devout Life). Tan Publishers and Co.
Wings of the Lord by St. Jane Frances de Chantal, Boston, MA St. Paul Editions
Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis
Further recommended reading
Outlines Of Meditations by the Right Rev. James Bellord, D.D.. Catholic Truth Society, London 1932.
Prayer, the Great Means Of Salvation by St. Alphonsus De Liguori. Sealy, Bryers and Walker, London 1921.
A Golden Treatise Of Mental Prayer by S. Peter Of Alcantara. A.R. Mowbray and Company, London 1905.
Spiritual Progress from Fevour To Perfection by L. Beaudenom. The Carroll Press, Baltimore, Maryland 1950.
Facing Life by Raoul Plus, S.J.. The Newman Press, Westminster, MD. 1950.
Meditations and Instructions On The Blessed Virgin by A. Vermeersch, S.J.. Burns Oates and Washbourne ltd., London 1910.
Meditations and Readings by Saint Alphonsus. B. Herder Book Co., St. Louis, Mo. 1923.
Examination Of Conscience According To Saint Bonaventure by Philotheus Boehner, O.F.M.. The Franciscan Institute, Saint Bonaventure, New York 1959.
Moments Of Light by Dom Hubert Van Zeller. Burns Oates, London 1949.
Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament by Blessed Peter Julian Eymard. The Sentinel Press, New York, N.Y. 1930.
Trustful Surrender To Divine Providence by Father Jean Baptiste Saint-Jure, S.J. and Blessed Claude de la Colombiere, S.J.. Tan Book and Publishers, Inc., Rockford, Illinois 1983.
Meditations For All Days Of the Year by Rev. M. Hamon, S.S.. Benzinger Brothers, New York, Cincinnati, Chicago 1894.