What is mental prayer and how can you do it?

posted in: Prayer and Virtue | 14
St. Therese of Lisieux. (Public Domain).
St. Therese of Lisieux. (Public Domain).

Catholics divide personal prayer into 2 broad categories – vocal and mental. Vocal prayer includes prayers written for recitation. Mental prayer is prayer in one’s own words. (Mental prayer can also be subdivided into meditation and contemplation. The Catechism calls vocal prayer, meditation, and contemplation the 3 expressions of personal prayer.)

St. Teresa of Avila wrote, “Mental prayer, in my view, is nothing but friendly intercourse, and frequent solitary converse, with Him Who we know loves us.” St. Thérèse of Lisieux likewise wrote, “With me prayer is an uplifting of the heart; a glance towards heaven; a cry of gratitude and love, uttered equally in sorrow and in joy.”

Catholics are generally comfortable with vocal prayer, but mental prayer can leave us at a loss. How can you spend 20 minutes or more in prayer without a pre-written text? How can you keep your prayer from becoming mere rambling?

St. Teresa strives to make mental prayer simple and accessible to all. Since each soul is unique, each person’s prayer is unique as well. There is no one-size-fits-all model. The method of mental prayer takes 2nd place to the attitude of the heart. Still, for beginners especially, a general format to follow is helpful.

If you don’t know how to pray, try this

This method is taken primarily from St. Frances de Sales, but also incorporates other authors’ suggestions. Feel free to adapt it to your own situation and temperament.

St. Teresa of Avila. (Photo Credit: Wikipedia).
St. Teresa of Avila. (Photo Credit: Wikipedia).

– Preparation. Place yourself in God’s presence. Think about His omnipotence or His residence in your heart. Quiet your soul and set aside distractions.

– Meditation. This is the key to the conversation. Read a short passage from Scripture or another spiritual book. Or, if you have a vivid imagination, visualize an event from the Gospels. You could even gaze at a holy picture. Although many subjects are suitable for meditation, you should most often focus on Christ. As a general rule, the saints and Catechism recommend that when possible we meditate on the Gospels. This is how we get to know Jesus and are inspired to speak with Him. It also helps you to continue growing in virtue, as you compare your life with Christ’s teaching. Reflect on the passage. You may find it helpful to ask who, what, where, and why. How does your subject affect you? What is the Holy Spirit saying to you through it?

– Conversation. This is the goal of your mental prayer and should make up 20 minutes or more of a half-hour prayer time. Speak to God from your heart about your subject. Thank and adore Him, asking His help in acquiring virtues you have thought about or overcoming related temptations. Examine your conscience. Think of concrete ways you can change your life, and make resolutions. Offer other petitions that are on your heart. If you run out of things to say, return briefly to your meditation for more inspiration.

– Conclusion. Thank God for the time you have spent with Him and the insights you have gained. Consider how to improve your prayer next time. You could add a heartfelt Our Father or Hail Mary or invoke the saints to whom you are devoted or who are connected with your subject. Ask them to help you keep your resolutions, to bring you back to prayer tomorrow, and to maintain a prayerful attitude all day.

Remember, as the Catechism says, “[A] method is only a guide; the important thing is to advance with the Holy Spirit, along the way of prayer: Jesus Christ” (#2707).

Connie Rossini

Share with us: How do you practice mental prayer?

14 Responses

  1. Ruth Ann Pilney (@RuthAnnPilney)

    I learned and practiced mental prayer as you have outlined it when I was a member of the Sodality of Our Lady in high school. I used this form of meditation for maybe 15 years. Gradually my prayer took on a different form, but sometimes I return to the way you have suggested. It’s a tried and true way.

  2. Connie Rossini

    My experience is similar. I learned this as an OCDS postulant. I don’t usually follow it strictly any more, but it still helps on days when I am really distracted or tired.

  3. Sr. Ann Marie

    For me music is a great help. In fact I pray better with music–religious or secular–than with spiritual books. Sometimes just a line in a song is a wonder steppingstone to mental prayer. I also listen to music if I’m out walking–primarily because it takes my mind off the fact that I don’t partiuclarly like to walk for an extended time. However, the music also sometimes turns my waling into a time for prayer. Journaling is also helpful to me.

  4. Connie Rossini

    It’s wonderful how prayer time can be so different for each person. In clement weather (which we don’t experience much in winter here in Minnesota) my husband likes to take a “prayer walk.” It keeps him from falling sleep! I’m more of an imagination person. Thanks for visiting and commenting!

  5. Nancy

    What a excellent post – thank you for the inspiration. I am greatly helped by praying (or at least starting out praying) with music. I also want to let you know that I’ve nominated you, from my blog the Breadbox Letters, for a “Liebster” blog award. You can check that out at http://thebreadboxletters.blogspot.com/2013/02/id-like-to-thank-academy.html. Don’t even know if the “rules” would fit your format, but I thought I’d give you the chance to decide :)!

  6. Debbie Preece

    I learned to pray for inspiration as a young mother with three children under five. I always wanted to be a mother and raise my children unto God, but as time went by I found my coping skills were lacking and I lost the Joy of being a mother. Out of desperation, I knelt as you described and opened my heart and mind to the will of God and how to be the best mom I could be. I found an amazing pathway opened to a little program that came with a built-in consistency factor that gave me the ability to manage my skills as a mother and the children started blossoming. Within a few weeks this happy face token system was what brought that joy back. I will ever be grateful for that prayer and answer.

  7. Nancy H C Ward

    I place myself into God’s presence, verbalizing my dependence on him for everything and repenting of any known sin. Then I open my heart to receive his love for me by listening to his words of love to me spoken in my heart. Often I use the breathing technique of breathing in God’s love and breathing out my “self” or my sins or distractions. In conversing with him I journal a lot either during the prayer conversation or at the end of it so as to capture those moments with him. I often receive amazing insight and guidance during this time. I always end my praising him in gratitude for all he is.

    • Connie Rossini

      Nancy, isn’t it great that we can all have our own individual way of praying? It’s like our spiritual idiolect :)–no two are identical. There’s so much room for individuality within orthodoxy. Thanks for commenting.

  8. Edna Arquiza

    I’m OCDS too. During our formation, we acquired the habit of following our morning praise and vespers with at least 15 min of silent (mental) prayer. Slow breathing in “God’s presence” and breathing out the “evil” can easily set me to listen to what comes to mind barring distracting thoughts. Keeping my eyes closed also helps to minimize distraction but there’s always distraction during prayer, in which case, it’s better to just look at the image of our crucified Lord or imagine Him hanging on the Cross with the most sorrowful Mother Mary at His feet. Before you know it, 15 minutes is up. I find 15-20 min is just fine. Longer than that in one seating to me is very rare.
    Thank you for your site. I just stumbled on it as i was searching for topics to share with my formands in their first year of temporary promise. ❤.
    In Carmel, thank you very much!

    • Connie Rossini

      Edna, thanks for your comment. A couple of thoughts. First, aren’t there standardized guidelines now for OCDS formation? Everyone is supposed to be learning basically the same thing at the same level. As I understand it, this was one of the reasons the new Constitutions and statutes were written. But maybe you are just looking for something to supplement it? I probably would not have even mentioned that except that the practice you mention having learned in formation yourself, seems… odd. It sounds more like Centering Prayer than anything in the Carmelite tradition. If you are trying not to pay attention to thoughts during prayer, and see all thoughts as distractions, I can understand why you could not go longer than 15-20 minutes. It’s not natural for the human mind to be without thoughts. Nor is turning away from all thoughts what constitutes prayer. The second part you said about imagining Christ or Mary–yes, that is traditional Christian meditation. “Breathing in God’s presence and breathing out evil”–I haven’t heard of a practice exactly like this. Maybe I am misunderstanding what you are saying. Unfortunately, even in OCDS people are sometimes taught practices that are not in line with the Catholic tradition.

  9. Darryl Louie Labial

    Well, coming from the Ignatian spirituality, it is like an examination of consciousness. Though very technical is one way of lifting up your hearts, soul and mind to where I am now in my experience to this day and where my hopes will be.

Share your thoughts with us.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.