There are many layers of the Christian life, but one in particular has always mystified me: mental prayer. “How do I practice particular virtues, such as temperance?”, “What is the most selfless and expedient way to help the poor?”, and “How can I participate more actively in my parish?”, are meaningful questions, quickly answered by drawing up a specific formula of action tailored to our personal station in life. But what about mental prayer?
Anyone who has attempted mental prayer knows that, within five minutes of silently sitting in an easy chair at home, confusion and perhaps even boredom sets in. We may question how a distracted fifteen minutes could possibly impact our own salvation, and on a larger scale, the life of the Church. So what are we to do? It’s not as easy as looking up how to refinish a piece of furniture, and there’s no Mental Prayer for Dummies at our local bookstore. However, modern culture has conditioned us to approach all our “tasking” with the question, “How to?”, or more to the point, “How are we to act?”.
While I never did find, Mental Prayer for Dummies, I did stumble upon Jacques Philippe’s book, Time for God. For Philippe, the heart of the matter is that mental prayer is not something we do, but rather, something that happens to us, if we create the suitable environment for it in our souls:
There is no ‘method’ of praying, the sense of a set of instructions or procedure that we merely have to apply in order to pray well…true contemplative prayer is a gift that God gives freely.
Indeed, this concept of receptivity is foreign to our do-it-yourself modern way of thinking.
At this point, it is helpful to think in terms of hosting: we wouldn’t expect a fruitful visit with friends in our home if, when they arrived, we were entirely distracted and spent our time in another room or focused on tasks other than being present to them. In order for there to be a good time, we must set aside our preoccupations, and truly receive our friends. If guests are welcomed in this manner, any messiness in our home likely would be mercifully overlooked (if they are good and kind friends, that is). It is much the same with God. Our attitude towards His Presence often determines the kind of visit we have with Him in mental prayer. Philippe explains,
…talk about prayer should not focus on describing methods or giving instructions, but on explaining the necessary conditions for receiving the gift. These conditions are certain inner attitudes, certain dispositions of the heart. What ensures progress in the life of prayer, what makes it fruitful, is not so much how we pray as our inner disposition in beginning and continuing it. Our principle task is to try to acquire, keep, and deepen those dispositions of the heart. God will do the rest.
Philippe discusses many of these inner attitudes and dispositions and, to further explore them, you will have to read his book. In my own reading of his work, two ideas stood out against the rest: humility and love. Defining humility, Philippe writes, “Humility lies in peaceful acceptance of one’s own radical poverty, which leads people to place all their trust in God”. We can only receive His action if we realize that it is He who is acting in the first place. This might sound like an oversimplification or even simplistic, but in reality, Philippe emphasizes that this concept is very difficult to accept. How many honestly can claim they are secure in their own total and utter dependence upon God? How much easier is it to feel useful and capable, working through a formula of action that produces tangible results? Insecure in our own poverty, “people have no difficulty discovering a thousand excuses for avoiding that state of inaction before God, that lays bare their radical nothingness”.
On the other hand, it is humble people, at ease in their dependence upon God, who will, “persevere in the life of prayer without presumption and without relying on themselves…they place all their hope in God and are certain that they will obtain from God’s mercy all that they are powerless to do or merit for themselves”. As a modern day example, we have the recently deceased Mother Angelica. It is rare that we come across the likes of her, who was comfortable, and even found humor, in being God’s “dodo”. Yet, it is a radically humble disposition like hers that is actively receptive to God’s Presence and dependent upon His action, a crucial requirement for mental prayer.
The other attitude of the soul necessary for mental prayer is that of love, and it should come as no surprise that Philippe places the utmost importance upon letting God love us first. “Our first task in mental prayer, instead of offering or doing anything for God, is to let ourselves be loved by him like very small children. Let God have the joy of loving us”. Our own response of love to God may be immediate, but it may occur later on as well. Once love is cultivated over time, it becomes easier to discern the value of other thoughts and movements of the soul. If they strengthen our love for God, they are good. If they weaken or distract from our love, they are to be set aside. Ultimately, it is characteristic of love to forget ourselves and become wholly invested in the Other; it becomes less relavant whether a thought or movement makes me feel good, and more relavant that it gives greater glory to God.
This brings us back to the beginning, where we asked how a few distracted minutes spent in mental prayer could impact our own salvation and the life of the Church. Philippe states that there is a union of the love between God and the individual soul, and the love between God and His Church. They are “one and the same – love that is the gift of the Holy Spirit”. The more we enter into the Heart of God through prayer, the more we become “identified” with His Heart and share in His Love for others and the Church. The attitudes we learn in prayer gradually become a part of our personality, and therefore, we are able to love others more perfectly outside the actual time spent in prayer. “Prayer is a school, an exercise in which we understand, practice, and deepen certain attitudes toward God, ourselves, and other people”. This explains why a saint like Therese of Lisieux is the Patroness of Missionaries. She never left her convent walls, yet her loving union with God through contemplative prayer has, over the years, brought about many graces within the Church and the world. Philippe quotes her: “He has given them [the Saints] prayer which burns in a flame of love. And that is how they have lifted the world; that is how the saints who are still fighting here below lift it, and how the saints in the future will lift it too, until the end of the world”. Simply put, mental prayer impacts the world.
Making time for God in mental prayer might sound simplistic, and even passive. But, as explained by Jacques Philippe, if it is understood properly as an active receptivity of God’s love that results in a transformation of the soul, not only could the consequences could change ourselves, but the Church and the world.