Archive for February 24, 2011

Meditation – The Foundation of Mental Prayer

Posted: February 24, 2011 by CatholicJules in Great Catholic Articles

Fr Andrew Apostoli, C.F.R.

If your spiritual life is to develop properly, you must learn how to meditate — the foundation of mental prayer. A great deal can be said about meditation, but we’ll have to limit ourselves to some basic points. I’d like to approach it by sharing something of my own experience.

When I first entered the seminary, I was already used to saying formal prayers, such as my morning and night prayers and some devotional prayers out of a little prayer booklet. But somehow, the idea of meditation seemed complicated. There was talk of different methods and steps in the meditation process. Even the meditation book from which a reflection was read daily to the community in the chapel listed “meditation points” to consider. I felt a bit apprehensive!

Nevertheless, after going to a few organized meditation periods, I realized that this basic form of mental prayer came quite naturally. There was nothing to be afraid of! I began by simply thinking about Jesus in the Gospels, about His words and actions, or about some important part of my Catholic faith, such as the Mass or God’s mercy. Then I found I wanted to talk to the Lord about what I was reflecting on.

In this way I came to realize that my thinking or reflecting (that’s the actual meditation) was leading me to new awareness and insights about Jesus and the truths of my Catholic faith. These insights, in turn, were stirring up various feelings within me (such feelings are called sentiments or affections). The more I meditated and came to new insights, the more I was led to speak with the Lord in my own words, having a loving conversation heart-to-Heart (mine with His). And that, quite simply, was mental prayer.

The Rosary and Stations of the Cross
In fact, I came to realize that I’d actually known for a long time what it is to meditate. For example, I’d done it for years whenever I prayed the Rosary. When reciting each of the fifteen decades, we meditate on one of the joyful, sorrowful, or glorious mysteries or significant events in the life of Jesus and His Blessed Mother.

As I constantly meditated on these mysteries, they became more meaningful for me. I began to see Jesus’ and Mary’s love in each mystery, and gradually realized they have that same love for me, too. By meditating, I was growing to know and love them more personally.

A similar thing was happening when I made the Stations of the Cross. Meditating on fourteen scenes from the passion and death of Our Lord, I experienced feelings (those sentiments or affections) of deeper gratitude to Jesus for all He suffered for me. There were feelings of deeper sorrow for my sins as well, since they caused Jesus to suffer so much. This, in turn, moved me to be more resolved, with the help of His grace, not to commit these sins again in the future.

Judging, then, from my own experience, I would say that many of us Catholics first learn to meditate by simply reciting the Rosary or making the Stations. As we seek to deepen this part of our mental prayer life, a few practical points about meditation and mental prayer may be helpful.

Formal Prayer vs. Mental Prayer
First, mental prayer (also called the prayer of the mind) usually develops naturally from formal prayer (or the prayer of the lips), as my own experience shows. A comparison between these two types of prayer can be useful. Recall St. John Damascene’s famous definition of prayer as “the raising of the mind and the heart to God.” In formal prayer, when we focus on the words of the prayer with our minds, the heart is then moved to love God with the sentiments contained in those words.

For example, if we recite an “Act of Faith,” the words prayed would logically stir up feelings or sentiments of faith in our hearts as we say something such as this: “God, You are all-knowing, and You reveal to us what we need to know and do to get to heaven. I believe in all that You have revealed to us! Please grant me a strong faith so that I will always believe what You teach us through Your Church.”

In mental prayer, however, the focus is not restricted by the words of a prayer formula. Rather, the focus of meditation is usually on a story, such as an event from the life of Jesus; or a teaching He gave, such as a parable; or something from the life of a saint, such as St. Thérèse; or something contained in a good spiritual book. My mind isn’t limited to the words, but moves through various details of the story or ideas contained in the teaching.

The mind, by reflecting on these details, can produce a far wider range of insights, which then stir more sentiments in the heart. The mind is freer to roam through this spiritual landscape. Thus the difference between formal prayer and the meditation of mental prayer is like the difference between reciting a poem, where each specific word is already given, and telling a story freely in your own words.

The Benefits of Meditation
Meditation as form of mental prayer has many benefits. One is a greater understanding and clarity regarding the teachings of our Catholic faith. By meditating, we go deeper into these realities and discover many valuable new insights that weren’t obvious at first sight.

St. John of the Cross used the image of mining for precious metals to describe this spiritual activity. If “there’s gold in them thar hills,” then the more you mine, the more you’ll find! The treasures of the Sacred Scriptures and other truths of our faith aren’t always obvious on the surface, but they’re limitless for those who bother to search for them.

Another benefit, as we’ve seen, is that our reflections stir up the vital sentiments of the heart so needed for loving and serving the Lord faithfully. These sentiments are really the most important fruit of mental prayer. They lead us to talk to God!

In fact, without these sentiments, we’d end up with a purely intellectual exercise, a mere reasoning process. Prayer requires talking with God, and that requires the sentiments.

In this regard, we should mention that beginners practicing mental prayer typically do much more reasoning or reflecting in the mind than speaking from the heart. But as time goes on, less reflection is needed to produce more sentiments. It’s like the growth of a human friendship.

When friends first meet, they need to ask lots of questions and share lots of facts about themselves to get to know each other better. After the friendship has grown, however, there are fewer questions but a deeper knowledge and more intense love for each other. In fact, when the reasoning in prayer becomes significantly less and the sentiments in the heart begin to predominate, it’s usually a sign that we’ve come to the third state or kind or prayer, called affective prayer (or the prayer of the heart).

Finally, the meditation of mental prayer helps us form the resolutions we need to grow in the love of God and our neighbor by a more conscious and consistent practice of the Christian virtues. Our meditations, in the light of the Holy Spirit and with the assistance of His grace, give us insights into how to apply the values of the Gospel, Church teachings, and the wisdom of the saints to our own daily lives. For all these reasons, the meditation that provides a foundation for mental prayer is a must for growth in Christian holiness!

Fr. Andrew Apostoli, C.F.R., is a priest of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, St. Felix Friary, 15 Trinity Plaza, Yonkers, NY 10701; 914-476-7279