MENTAL PRAYER: JUST DO IT. DON’T WORRY ABOUT MAKING “PROGRESS,” THE “QUALITY,” LEST YOU GET DISCOURAGED AND GIVE UP
Lord, teach us to pray.
This was the backdrop of an engaging talk on mental prayer given by Redemptorist priest Father John Fahey at CPG’s November meeting. Beginning with the truth that God desires the salvation of the whole human race, not just a few select individuals, Father John stressed that prayer is a demonstration of our longing to grow closer to God and to express desires consistent with God’s will. Noting that mental prayer is essential to adult Catholic life, Father John focused on two aspects of mental prayer that deepen one’s encounter with God and develop a richer spiritual life: petition and meditation.
To prepare for mental prayer, it is important to be cognizant of our need for redemption, to show some sort of need before God even though God already desires salvation for us. Accordingly, in recalling the story of the leper who approached Jesus saying “If you wish, you can make me clean,” Father John emphasized that Jesus’ response was “I do will it,” thus highlighting the need for each one of us to actively and earnestly ask for things that are already God’s will for us. In so doing, Father John explained that praying for specific favors that God wills allows us to participate more fully in his plan, thereby helping us to grow in compassion and experience deeper ongoing conversion. First, pointing out that without God we can do nothing, Father John observed that many times we come to prayer with a certain image of ourselves by placing that image before God instead of who we actually are at a particular moment, with our failings and needs. Recalling the leper who had no illusion about who he was but nevertheless went to God completely humble and in need, Father John remarked that God does not save an image of ourselves; he can only save us as we are, warts and all. Thus, a necessary attitude, before engaging in either meditation or prayers of petition, is authentic humility so that we acknowledge our need for God’s grace to gain insight into our true selves. After all, we cannot fool God, try as we might, but we do try to fool ourselves. If we are going to pray, really pray, it might as well be as we truly are.
Part of this attitude of humility, then, is recognizing one’s constant need for a savior, which is particularly important for people who have achieved success professionally because of the potential temptation to think of oneself as self-sufficient with the use of one’s own abilities and talents to reach a certain status and level of expertise. Father John, in response to a question from the audience about one’s tendency to deny our biggest flaws, noted that sin gets more and more subtle as we progress in the spiritual life and thus requires ever deeper insight into the workings of our hearts, with the assistance of grace. Equally important to petitioning God for deliverance from problems in our own lives is prayer for others, such as those affected by war, natural disasters, illness, or personal grief. The goal here is not so much to “get” God to do something, but to use the image of God’s willing the healing and consolation of people in desperate situations – like the leper in need– to make our own hearts grow bigger, more compassionate toward others generally. In other words, to love more deeply. Citing Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and Pope Paul VI, Father John highlighted how prayer not only actuates God’s grace but also prompts us to action, saying “without us, God won’t,” and “if you want peace, work for justice,” meaning that our participation in God’s plan for salvation for the entire human race is a requisite for sparking the action of grace in the world.
Next, Father John turned to the practice of meditation during mental prayer, distinguishing Christian meditation from the type of meditation practiced in Eastern religions. Meditation in a Christian context is understood as an active reflection on and engagement with scripture rather than an emptying of the mind. The key is sitting quietly, calmly reading a passage of scripture, reflecting on it, and engaging in an active conversation with God: the scene, the people present there, what they say, what they do. Father John reminded us that even though the stories in the Bible occurred over 20 centuries ago, they still resonate because they reflect human nature and concern eternal truths, which can challenge our worldview and attitudes even today. Both aspects of mental prayer can be completed in 15-20 minutes a day. Importantly, at the conclusion of mental prayer, one should make a resolution based on the scripture, taking into account how one plans to live the truth reflected on during meditation, how one intends to follow God faithfully. Father John stressed that, to make prayer a truly personal encounter with God, the concluding resolution should be a reflection of one’s own reading of scripture and unique situation, rather than an analysis prepared by someone else. Although written commentary is useful in illuminating and explaining scripture, because mental prayer is a personal encounter with God — not Bible study — one’s resolution should be based on the meaning one derives from that intimate encounter.
Finally, Father John emphasized the importance of devoting time to mental prayer on a daily basis without worrying whether we are doing it “correctly” or “making progress.” He explained that once we start down the road of judging the quality of our prayer, we run the risk of getting discouraged, giving the Enemy an opening so that we may eventually give up altogether. It is therefore critical that we persevere in the effort to engage in prayer and not get caught up in whether it is “good enough,” let alone perfect.