March 1, 2013

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Year of Faith: Vocal and mental prayer

John F. FinkThe classic definition of prayer is “the raising of the mind and heart to God in adoration, thanksgiving, reparation and petition.” However, I have always thought of prayer simply as a conversation with God or with the saints. We can talk about anything.

There is both vocal prayer and mental prayer. Of course, all prayer is mental prayer because it should involve the mind. However, we usually use “mental prayer” as synonymous with “meditation.”

Most of the prayers of the Church are vocal prayers, and I’m willing to bet that most people—even those in contemplative convents or monasteries—pray vocal prayers more often than they meditate. We use vocal prayer during liturgical celebrations, and Jesus himself taught his Apostles a vocal prayer—the Our Father.

The biggest problem with vocal prayer is that we too easily become distracted while saying prayers we have learned by rote. Our minds can be miles away while we continue to pray the prayers we have learned by heart. We’re not thinking about what we’re saying. We say prayers that are meaningful, but we think about all the things we have to do today.

As far as I know, all we can do about distractions is to turn away from them, and toward what we are saying, as soon as we realize they are there. I’m not aware of any sure-fire method of completely eliminating distractions—I think they’re simply part of our human condition—but we can force them out of our minds as soon as we’re aware of them.

“Mental prayer” can mean either meditation or contemplation. Meditation requires a good bit of attentiveness. Fortunately, Catholics have plenty of things to help us—the Bible, spiritual books of all types, paintings or statues, the liturgical texts for the day, the wonders of God’s creation, even the events of the day.

Meditation can engage our thoughts, imagination, emotions and desires, all in the act of praying.

Meditation involves three basic steps: thinking of some religious truth, consideration of its application to one’s life, and a resolution to put it into practice. Those seriously interested in practicing meditation should read either St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life or St. Ignatius of Loyola’s The Spiritual Exercises.

Contemplative prayer has always been considered the summit of the Christian life of private prayer. However, it is not necessarily for everyone. As Thomas Merton made clear in his book Contemplative Prayer, true contemplation “can come to us only as a gift, and not as a result of our own clever use of spiritual techniques.”

Contemplative prayer is the wordless and total surrender of the heart in silence. It differs from meditation in that the mind is active in meditation but passive in contemplation.

Merton warned us against a false contemplation, a quietistic view of contemplative prayer. He wrote that a person cannot become a contemplative merely by “blacking out” sensible realities and remaining alone with himself in darkness. “A person doing this is not alone with God, but alone with himself,” Merton wrote.

Not everyone can be a contemplative. †

Local site Links:

Like this story? Then share it!