If we were to divide prayer into its two simplest forms, there are two kinds of prayer, vocal prayer and mental prayer. Vocal prayer is spoken prayer using set words; walk into a Catholic church during Mass or devotions and you’ll hear vocal prayer. Mental prayer may use few, if any, words but is a higher form of prayer and is especially beneficial to our souls.
When Jesus’ followers asked Him to teach them to pray, He taught them the Our Father, the best known vocal prayer. (Luke 11:1-4) The Our Father is a perfect prayer. It is a prayer that when thoughtfully said is instructive as well as getting us closer to God. In saying it, we ask the Father for the best things in the order in which we should ask for them, beginning with proclaiming His glory then moving into our personal needs.
For Catholics, our second best known vocal prayer is the Hail Mary. When we pray the Hail Mary, we are honoring Mary for her greatness, but as she tells us in her Magnificat,
Luke 1:46-55 “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.”
Her greatness is a reflection of God’s greatness, so in honoring her we ultimately are praising God.
And, due to the saints’ and good angels’ close proximity to God, we ask them to help us in our struggles, and ultimately to fully and permanently possess Him as they do forever in heaven.
There are the vocal prayers of the Mass or the Divine Office/Liturgy of the Hours, the daily prayer of the Church, there are the Psalms and other prayers of praise, thanksgiving, repentance and supplication in Scripture or many beautiful prayers composed by the saints through the ages. Prayer books with prayers to be said after Holy Communion often contain beautiful after-Communion prayers written by such Catholic saints as St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure and St. Augustine. They are wonderful reflections on the sacrament I have just received, the sentiments I should have and things I should ask for from the Lord. True, they are not my words, but if I say them slowly and thoughtfully with the Lord literally within me for a time, I make them my own. And, as all vocal prayer should do, set prayers can be a springboard for my own prayers, using my own words, tailored to my own life situation and needs.
It is important when we pray vocal prayers, however, to resist the inclination we have over time of rattling them off without thinking. When we merely say vocal prayers, and don’t employ our minds and hearts, they will do us little good. Remember the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount,
Matthew 6:7 “In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words.”
When you say vocal prayers, slow down and think about what you are saying. Say your prayers with as much faith as you can muster, believing that God will answer your prayers in the way that is best for you. Remember what Jesus promised,
Mark 11:24 “Therefore I tell you, all that you ask for in prayer, believe that you will receive it and it shall be yours.”
If I had to guess, most Catholics who do pray regularly probably spend much of their prayer time repeating vocal prayers. This is good, but they should also strive to make the second form of prayer, mental prayer, a more regular part of their spiritual lives.
We have many wonderful writings passed down to us from the saints on mental prayer; among its enthusiastic promoters was St. Teresa of Avila (1515-82), a Spanish Carmelite nun and one of four female doctors of the Church. As a teen, she resolved to become a saint, and entered the convent. She immediately noticed that its sisters had grown lax in their religious practice, preferring to chat with visitors rather than dedicate themselves to a life a prayer. She herself had difficulty engaging in deep prayer when she was young, but over time learned to pray well. She prayed so well, in fact, that God gave her the gift of levitation! She was embarrassed, however, and asked her fellow sisters to hold her down and prayed for God to take away this gift!
She left us many wonderful writings about prayer, and was a particular advocate of mental prayer. In her The Way of Perfection, for example, she writes, “We need no wings to go in search of God, but have only to find a place where we can be alone and look upon Him present within us.”
For her, mental prayer was an interior conversation with the One who we know loves us. She said, “The important thing in mental prayer is not to think much, but to love much.”
In sum, mental prayer is thinking about God, or things relating to God, so that we may use that material as a starting place to converse with Him and move our hearts to love Him. We can speak words, or merely be present to God.
Returning to St. John Vianney, there is a story of a man who regularly sat in John’s church before the Blessed Sacrament. Impressed by the man’s commitment and devotion to the Lord, one day the saint asked the man what he did as he sat there. The man replied, “I look at the Lord, and He looks at me.”
The man wonderfully reflects the guidance given us in Psalms 46:11,
“Be still and know that I am God!”
While there are many ways to approach mental prayer, a basic technique is to take, say, a story about Christ in the four Gospels, one of the Psalms, a reflection from a spiritual classic, etc., reading it, reflecting on it, then speaking to the Lord about it in your own words. As part of your “conversation” you are not only speaking but listening, not with your ears but your mind and heart. The Lord will speak to you in your reflections and insights and give you a peace and interior confirmation about what you should do. One must apply great effort and consistency to advance in mental prayer, ideally with the aid of a spiritual director, but those who advance experience great peace and joy in this life into the next.
Deacon Greco wrote a 2020 book on prayer, “Miracles Through Prayer.” To get a copy, visit the Spirit Filled Hearts Ministry online store at www.spiritfilledhearts.org