Mental Prayer …
(from a December 4, 1977 conference)

People sometimes ask for a definition of prayer.  They want to know exactly what it is, but there are so many definitions of prayer that no single formula really covers all kinds of prayer.  St. Teresa of Avila gives us a helpful definition of what mental prayer is, and the most intimate meeting we have with God is the one we have during mental prayer, which is the prayer of the heart.  St. Teresa’s description of mental prayer is helpful because it contains a phrase which is not found in many other definitions.  She says that mental prayer “is nothing but friendly intercourse and frequent solitary converse with Him Whom we know loves us.”  Those last few words, “with Him Whom we know loves us” are very important.  For mental prayer you need confidence and the knowledge that God enjoys it, even with you.  We know that God loves us.  We need to be as vividly aware of that as possible when we are having our meetings with Him in mental prayer.  It is a meeting that seems to be called by ourselves, but in fact God has arranged it, and He wants it because He loves us.  It is not because He gets anything from us but because He can give us His love that God delights to find us engaged in mental prayer.  It is an activity never to be given up on any pretext.

Although God is closer to us than we are to ourselves, we can speak about getting closer to Him.  This is a metaphor to describe growth in our union with God.  As far as prayer is concerned, we get nearer to God by finding Him more and more deeply in our own hearts.  The process of getting deeper and deeper into our own hearts in prayer depends on God’s grace, of course, but we can help it by clearing away obstacles.  In particular, we need to get rid of those things that prevent us from having interior peace.  God dwells in peace, and when we are not peaceful we are not capable of listening to Him, not capable of feeling His presence within us, although He is there all the time. . .

True peace only comes when in us there is conformity with the will of God, and being at peace with one another is one requirement of God’s will for us.  The second need, if we are to have interior peace, is detachment from the things of this world.  One of the greatest obstacles to peace of soul is dependence on the things of this world for our satisfaction.  If we live for temporal things and look to them for pleasure all the time, we shall never be a peace.  Not only can the things of this world not give us true satisfaction, but they are not dependable and do not last.  So being attached to temporal things is a bar to true peace of heart.  As a matter of fact, it is not the possession of many things that destroys our peace or blocks our meeting with God, but the desire for them.  It is our desires that tie us in knots and cause our frustrations and lack of peace.  We ought to want those things that are needed if we are to live the lives God wants us to lead, but we should not want things for any other reason.  We should not love them in themselves.  We should not see them as part of our personal make-up and identity.  We should be detached from the things of this world so that if God did remove some of them from us we should not be shattered.  Our attachment should be to God and the things of God.  Other realities should be loved because of their place in God’s scheme of things and not for themselves.  So we need to be at peace with all men and to be detached from created things, to have a certain independence with regard to them.

The third requirement for peace of heart in which to meet God is humility.  The fact is that to be with God, to meet Him in peace, we have to be looking for Him; we have to be looking at Him in our hearts, and we cannot look at God if we are always watching ourselves.  Self-regarding is an obstacle to seeing God.  If we are always watching ourselves during our prayer, we shall not see God even though He is there, and if we are not humble in general, we shall be watching ourselves at prayer because we are always watching our own interests at other times too.  Turn away from yourself; look at God; see yourself as the nothing you are before God.  But remember that nothing has been loved by God into yourself.  It is not you who make yourself any good.  It is God.  Be humble.  God is real, and we are real only if we are rightly related to Him.  If in our hearts we feel self-important, independent, self-confident, and self-existent, we have not seen our real dependence on God; we have not seen the truth about ourselves.  Humility is truth.  You will not see God if you are standing on a pedestal before yourself or other people.

In our journey to meet God, then, we do not have to go far, for God is with us.  We do not have to persuade Him to let us meet Him, for He has invited us.  We do not have to persuade ourselves that we are attractive or pleasant in order to feel that God is waiting; He is knocking at the door.  All we have to do is to ask Him to come in.  We have to make room for Him in our hearts.  If our hearts are full of rancor against someone else, or if we are attached to created things so that our hearts are set on them, or if we are proud and our hearts are set on ourselves, then we crowd God out.  No wonder that in such cases we do not find that peace and joy in prayer that the spiritual writers promise us if we truly engage in mental prayer.

When I was quoting St. Teresa’s definition of mental prayer earlier on, I pointed out that we need to know that God loves us.  We know that He loves us so much that He sent His infinite Son to become a mere man and then to die on the Cross for us.  He loved us while we were still sinners, says St. Paul.  How much more must He love us when we turn to Him and seek Him with whatever love we have in our hearts?  To pray deliberately, and especially to pray mentally, is something very great.  The desire to pray well is itself a great grace from God.  It is God making His invitation felt.  We know that we are invited to pray whenever we will.  When we actually do so we are doing something of eternal significance, unlike so many of the things we do during the course of our day.  We are in the conscious presence of the God we love and by Whom we know that we are loved.  We should therefore enter our state of prayer with great humility and even with awe because of the greatness of God.  We should enter it with great joy because of the beauty and goodness of God.  And we should enter it with great confidence because God loves us with God’s love, not ours.

“Mental prayer is nothing but loving intercourse, frequent conversation in solitude, with Him Whom we know loves us.

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