How to Develop the Habit of Mental Prayer

May 27, 2022 | Articles, Prayer, The Interior Life

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

By Vir Christi

One of the beautiful aspects of our Faith are the routine prayers, the ones that we’ve learned by heart since childhood: the Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be, etc.  There’s a certain degree of comfort in those prayers.  They evoke memories and a sense of familiarity.  

As reassuring as those prayers are, though, we can think of them as poetry or beautiful litanies of praise.  Think about the time you spend with your loved ones: do you just recite them lines of poetry endlessly telling them how wonderful they are?  Of course not!  You talk with them, and spend time with them, to show them how important they are to you.  Prayer is the same way.  This is what we refer to as “mental prayer.”

How is Mental Prayer Different from Vocal Prayer?

Mental prayer is an opportunity to have a conversation with God.  What in your life is troubling you?  Why is that causing you so much worry?  Which people in your life are you concerned for, or grateful that you have?  Mental prayer is an opportunity to engage with God that goes beyond just the recited words of the prayers that we all know so well.  It helps us enter into a deeper relationship with Him.  That doesn’t make the recited prayers unnecessary or irreverent; in fact, when one is exhausted and struggles to find words, meditating on the words of the Our Father is a great spiritual exercise.  But God desires a growth in our relationship with Him, not a continuation of the status quo.

Think about a friendship that you have with some of the people in your life.  It started out surface-level: you employed conversation-starters, talking about a favorite sports team, hobby, author, or other common interest that you might have had.  Repetitive prayers, outside of meditative exercises like the Rosary, can be thought of as a good conversation-starter.  But the friendship gets meaningful when it moves beyond the repetitive commentary: when you stay up late into the night talking about your joys and fears, your hardships and your triumphs, and just enjoy being with the other person.

Mental prayer is when our friendship with God moves beyond the standard conversation-starters to the late-night conversation.  It’s the act of opening oneself up more to God and allowing Him to open Himself up more fully to us.  If we’re only using rote prayers, never diving deeper into the conversations, it can be difficult for us to hear how God speaks to us.  Mental prayer is making the leap, telling the Lord, “Jesus, I’m ready to be more than just a bystander; I want to be an active participant in whatever it is You want to do in my life.”

How Do I Go About It?

Mental prayer must be intentional.  When you set aside a period of time for mental prayer, you have to prepare for it properly.   About five to ten minutes before beginning your prayer, focus on creating a period of silence.  Turn off the phone, put down the book, close the laptop.  Don’t ask for anything, don’t say anything.  This is a time for you to pull away from the distractions of the world.  Think of it as ascending a spiritual Mount Tabor, in preparation to converse with God.

Once you’ve quieted your heart and your environment, begin the prayer by thanking God for the time He’s given you to spend with Him.  Ask Him for the particular graces that He desires to give you, and ask His pardon for any moments of distraction that you might have.  God is so eager to give us graces that even the bare minimum of prayer would win us an abundance of them if we would but ask!

Once you’ve done both of those things, this is where mental prayer gets tricky.  One of three different actions can happen during the time you spend with the Lord: you’re talking to Him, He’s talking to you, or the two of you are just sitting there together enjoying time together.  If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us prefer the first one: we love telling God all of our problems, and talking to Him like He’s a genie.  Mental prayer goes from good to great, though, when we make an active attempt to create space for the second and third actions: God talking to us, and us sitting with God in comfortable silence.

We all want God to talk to us!  But if we’re the ones constantly talking in prayer, how can we expect God to get a word in edgewise?  Think about when you’re sitting with a friend, and having a conversation with them.  If they’re talking, talking, talking, would you ever be able to share your ideas?  Of course not!  A healthy conversation is one where both people talk and give each other space to respond. If we expect that of our human interactions, how much more should that be true of our time with God?  We have to be silent and let Him speak.

The third action, sitting and enjoying God’s company, is the hardest for us to grasp but the most important for us to do.  Think about the married couples who have been together for a long time, or two old friends.  If you observe them long enough, you’ll see that there are periods of time where they are sitting together but say nothing to one another.  That’s because when you spend so much time with the other person, it makes you happiest just to exist in their space.  That’s what sitting with Jesus quietly in prayer does: you’re spending quality time with Him, and He with you.  It’s not wasted time!  This is what Heaven is going to be like: contemplating God’s Presence forever.  If we can’t handle that here on earth, how are we going to be prepared for an eternity of that in Heaven?

Don’t be discouraged if your thoughts keep drifting or it doesn’t feel like it’s going well.  There are so many graces at work during the process of mental prayer even when we aren’t at 100%.  Persistence is the key: if you keep putting in the work and trying to dedicate time to mental prayer, it’s going to begin coming a little more easily.  The hard days won’t be as frequent.

How Do I Know It’s Working?

Sometimes, we wonder if we’re hearing God’s voice or if it’s just our imaginations.  If you’ve made the appropriate preparations to pray, and you’re sitting in front of the Blessed Sacrament, there’s no reason to dismiss all of your thoughts as being of your making.  Now, if you’re sitting in front of the Tabernacle thinking about what you’re going to have for lunch afterwards, it’s probably safe to assume that that isn’t God speaking.  But if you have an image come to mind of a friend who you haven’t spoken to in a while, encouraging you to reach out, or maybe a family member you need to patch things up with?  That’s the Holy Spirit, guiding you to those thoughts.

Most of us aren’t going to have a Saul on the road to Damascus moment in prayer.  God moves quietly, such as when He presented Himself to Elijah in the tiny whispering of the wind (1 Kings 19:11-13).  But how well mental prayer is working can be seen in its effects.  If you notice an increase in virtue in all different areas of your life, and an outpouring of graces, where that increase wasn’t happening before?  Mental prayer.  If you’re feeling stable interior peace, and a stronger confidence in your identity as a child of God?  Mental prayer.

Be patient with yourself.  Saints aren’t made in a day!  They’re made over a lifetime of diligent habits of prayer.  In the spiritual life there are only two directions in which one can move, forwards or backwards.  You can’t stand still.  The important thing is to try and take a step forward every day; some days that will be a giant stride, and other days it’ll be a tiny half-step.  As long as you keep actively putting in the work for mental prayer, your spiritual life will flourish whether you immediately notice it or not.  Trust in God to answer your request to give you the graces you ask for each time!

Vir Christi

Vir Christi

Vir’s heart has been on fire for the Church from day one, and he dreams of the day when Constantinople will be a city again. He has a competitive drive satiated by sports and board games, but is also just as happy to sit down and read a good book for hours on end.

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