“When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen” (Matt 6:6). Prayer is lifting our souls to our creator in loving conversation. It could even be a silent act of loving, where words are unnecessary. St. Therese of Child Jesus says “prayer is an aspiration of the heart, it is a simple glance directed to heaven, it is a cry of gratitude and love in the midst of trail as well as joy; finally, it is something great, supernatural, which expands my soul and unites me to Jesus.”
Vocal Prayer and Mental Prayer
Prayer is traditionally categorized as vocal and mental prayer. When one prays vocal prayer, he uses a prescribed formula like the ‘Our Father’, the ‘Hail Mary’, novenas and other devotions. The mind and heart should be involved, of course; else it can hardly be called prayer. In mental prayer, one talks to God freely, in his own words, as one does with an intimate friend.
Why Mental Prayer?
St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta Says 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 this 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.” Even Jesus, when He was incarnate, felt the constant need for prayer: ‘Early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up and slipped out to a solitary place to pray.’ (Mark 1:35) With all the oppositions and trials He faced during His public life, He needed some time to rest in the lap of His Father, and come back revitalized. 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 process involves the part of the soul in persevering in mental prayer, as well as the part of God in elevating the soul to higher levels of prayer.
Degrees of Mental Prayer
Since the essential element of prayer is loving God, the different degrees of prayer are just the different stages of intimacy of the soul with her God. Mental prayer can be divided into active mental prayer and passive mental prayer. In active prayer, the soul needs to make its own effort, whereas in passive prayer God guides us, without any merit of our own, other than our willingness to be led.
Active Mental Prayer
Active prayer consists of meditation and active recollection. Meditation is the first step of the soul toward its intimacy with God. Here both the intellect and will is needed. One dwells on some spiritual truth, an attribute of God, or some spiritual text, to start with. Every effort is made to understand God’s love for us from the topic of meditation. Then speaking with God, telling Him of even the little things that matter to us, for His eyes and ears are inclined towards us, and the littlest of the things concerning us is very important to Him.
Perseverance is required in the practise of active prayer, to be faithful to spend every day, a few minutes to start with, in practicing it. Another battle one has to fight is distractions, since the mind is never still. It is not the distractions, but the effort one takes to focus back on prayer, that God takes into consideration, “for he knows how weak we are; he remembers we are only dust.” (Psalms 103:14)
Active recollection is the practice of the presence of God in us. The soul looks within herself, and with her eyes of faith acknowledges and loves God present in her. Cultivating the habit of active recollection, even during ordinary occupations inflames the soul more and more with the love of God, and paves the way for the first steps of passive prayer.
Passive Mental Prayer
Passive mental prayer is also known as mystical contemplation. In this form of prayer, man’s efforts cease to play a role in its achievement. It is a result of God’s gift, a ‘short cut’, and calls only for our consent. We cannot even prolong the experience.
Passive mental prayer is classified into semi-passive prayer, or the prayer of Quiet and wholly passive prayer, or the prayer of Union. God does not take possession of the soul all of a sudden; He does it gradually. First comes the union of the intellect with God, then the union of the will, union of the intellect and the will with God, then comes the union of the intellect, will, and internal senses, then the union of the intellect, will, internal senses an external senses in a transient way, and finally the union of the intellect, will, internal senses an external senses in a permanent way.
In each stage of passive prayer, our faculties (intellect, will, internal senses and external senses) get more and more united with God. The understanding will be fixed only on God, and is incapable of occupying itself with anything else.
Let us strive, therefore, to begin our union with God by practicing mental prayer, for as St. Augustine rightly said, our souls were made for God, and it cannot find rest unless it finds its rest in Him.“I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people” (Ephesians 1:18)