Prayer, Its Necessity, Its Power, Its Conditions, Chapter XI – Vocal Prayer and Mental Prayer

cover of the ebook 'Prayer, Its Necessity, Its Power, Its Conditions, by Father Ferreol Girardey'Vocal Prayer

By vocal prayer is meant any prayer we recite with our lips, and this is usually done according to some special formula. All Christians habitually recite vocal prayers, such as the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Apostles Creed, the acts of faith, hope, charity and contrition. The daily Divine Office which the Church prescribes to her Clergy and Religious, also the prayers of Holy Mass are chiefly taken from the Psalms and other parts of Holy Scripture; the prayers used by the priest in the administration of the sacraments and in blessings are also vocal prayers. The Church has, moreover, enriched many vocal prayers with indulgences. They who devoutly recite such prayers derive therefrom a double benefit, the benefit of the pious prayers themselves and the indulgences attached to them. Almost beyond computation are the prayer books published for the faithful, containing beautiful prayers in honor of the Blessed Trinity, of the Blessed Eucharist, of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, of His Passion, of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph and other saints and the holy angels, for all occasions and all kinds of wants. Such devotional books, if properly used, are great helps to prayer, especially during the Mass and other divine services, and when going to confession and holy Communion. The majority of men are not able to pray long without being led away from prayer by thoughts foreign to the subject of their prayers; hence the use of a prayer book helps to rivet their attention to the divine service, to the object of their prayers. This is especially the case with those who but seldom pray and with children. These latter, if they do not use a prayer book at Mass and holy Communion, usually act like quite a number of their elders and spend the greater part of the Mass and other divine services in turning around and gazing about the church, and in doing almost anything but praying.

As to vocal prayers, whether recited by heart or read from a prayer book, there is great danger of their being devoid of merit and efficacy, because they are frequently said without attention and hurriedly and with the desire of soon finishing them. This is the case not only with persons who hardly ever pray, but more especially with those who are accustomed to recite many and long vocal prayers. It is not the quantity or the length of the prayers we say that will profit us, but their quality or the manner in which they are said. The pharisees were wont to say many prayers, but our divine Saviour said of them: “This people honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me.” (Mark 7:6) Of some of us Jesus can truly say: “These persons address to Me very many and very long prayers, but their mind, their thoughts are far from Me, for they pray only with their lips, but their mind hardly gives Me a thought, for it is occupied with other things.” Such prayers are counterfeit and worthless. Vocal prayers to be good and genuine prayers, should be said, first, with attention, that is, we must think on what we are saying to God and on what graces and benefits we are asking of Him; secondly, since we are speaking to God, it behooves us to pray with due respect, reverence and confidence, and not hurriedly to finish our prayers quickly; and thirdly, we should say them earnestly and fervently, with the intention of doing our part to obtain all that we pray for and should not expect God to do everything for us with out our making any effort or exertion on our part, as has been fully explained in previous chapters. Let us bear in mind that one Our Father well recited is better and more effective than a hundred or more recited without attention, or hurriedly and carelessly.

The saying or recitation of the Rosary partakes of the nature of both vocal and mental prayer. The Rosary is composed of the very best vocal prayers, the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Apostles Creed and the Glory be to the Father; and whilst reciting these excellent prayers, we should reflect on the principal mysteries of our holy religion. If we thus say the Rosary, we may lawfully make use of this devotion even whilst hearing Mass on days of obligation, provided we pay special attention to the principal parts of the Mass, the Offertory, the Consecration and the Communion; and we shall thereby obtain many graces and benefits through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.

Mental Prayer

1. Mental prayer is prayer made with or in our mind, not according to formulas, but prompted by what we have previously reflected or meditated on and found to be adapted to our spiritual wants. A general experience proves that many vocal prayers do not bring much, if any, profit to our souls, and this for several reasons. To pray well, and therefore profitably and efficaciously, we must pray not only with attention, humility, confidence, earnestness and perseverance, but we must pray also for those things that are necessary or useful to our salvation. But, as Saint Alphonsus declares, comparatively few persons among those who have recourse to prayer, actually know the special needs of their soul, because the majority, for want of due practical reflection, do not know the real wants of their soul, nor the manner in which they should pray for them. To possess this necessary knowledge, there is need of serious reflection or meditation, serious self-examination and appropriate practical resolutions and fervent petitions to God for grace to keep said resolutions, followed up by genuine efforts to carry out these resolutions. All these requisites are to be found in mental prayer only, in what is usually called making meditation. In mental prayer God enlightens us concerning our duties, our short comings, our spiritual wants, concerning the resolutions we should make, and, moreover, through our appropriate prayers and petitions, He imparts to us the necessary grace and strength to keep our resolutions faithfully and to persevere therein. This may seem too complicated to many, but should not discourage them; let them read attentively the following pages, and they will be convinced that every one possessed of a good will can make mental prayer in a more or less perfect degree. Hence let every one take courage and make up his mind to try his best to make mental prayer, and he who earnestly perseveres in trying, will succeed and find mental prayer greatly profitable to his spiritual interests, and a most powerful help to his salvation.

2. Let us suppose that you have a vacant and untilled field, full of various kinds of weeds and with a soil hard and dry. You wish to cultivate it and render it productive. To do so will require both time and plenty of hard work, for you will be obliged not only to cut down those weeds, but to root them all out and to render the ground soft and well fitted to receive seed and bring a good crop to maturity. All this will require your constant attention and labor, for the sprouting of weeds and the attacks of the weather, the bugs and insects, besides the necessary attention to be bestowed on the growing crop, will keep you very busy. That field represents your soul, which, owing to the consequences of original sin, is like a wild, untilled field, full of weeds and having a hard and dry soil, that is, possessing no relish for things spiritual, and full of evil inclinations and passions, surrounded by all kinds of dangers and almost constantly assailed by the world and the devil. You must struggle almost without intermission against your evil inclinations, and labor earnestly to root them out; unless you do this, you will be liable to become a great sinner, for man is so weak and helpless of himself, that there is no sin, no crime, however great, into which he may not fall, if he is not restrained by the grace and mercy of God. Hence holy Job tells us that “Man’s life is a warfare upon earth.” (Job 7:1) How shall we know our evil inclinations and the means to over come or root them out, how to obtain and use these means, unless through mental prayer? Mental prayer is necessary also to enable us to combat and conquer the external enemies of our soul, that is, the world and the devil, and to discharge our duties towards God, towards ourselves and our fellow-men.

3. It was for the purpose of obtaining this knowledge and of finding out the means of success in this spiritual warfare that Saint Augustine was wont to pray: “Lord, grant that I may know myself, that I may know Thee.” This two- fold knowledge is necessary. First, we must know ourselves, who and what we are, our origin, our final destiny, our duties and obligations, our weaknesses, helplessness, our shortcomings, our needs. Men are usually satisfied each with himself, however full of great faults; each one seems to have nothing serious to reproach himself with. And what is the reason of this? Because no one ever makes a serious or thorough self-examination; each one easily sees his neighbor s faults, but is ever blind to his own; each one is always ready to examine the conscience of his neighbor, but never his own, and if he does, it is only superficially in order to contrast his supposed good qualities with the shortcomings of others. Hence few only are those who are aware of their faults, shortcomings, spiritual misery and the needs of their soul. To acquire the necessary self-knowledge, there is need of serious reflection and examination of conscience concerning our thoughts, words and actions; we should try to see ourselves as we are, as others see us, in order to find out our weaknesses. They who neglect doing this, will hardly be aware of their special needs. For instance, a man who is puffed up with pride usually does not acknowledge it and will not pray for and strive to acquire humility, without which he cannot be saved. A man who is very irritable and addicted to impatience, will pray for many other things, but will never think of the necessity he is under of praying for patience and making serious efforts to overcome that dangerous fault. A miser, a gossiper, a backbiter, a mean, selfish man, will not earnestly pray for grace to overcome his ruling passion or do all in his power to root it out. Such persons do not seriously study themselves before God, and therefore in their prayers they never think of praying for what they need the most, in order to overcome their pet and most dangerous fault; but they usually pray for what is neither necessary nor useful to their salvation; or, if they do pray for it, they are not disposed to do, on their part, what is necessary to secure the success of their prayers.

4. In order to know ourselves, we have also to know our relation, our duties towards God and what is required to fulfill them. God is our Creator, our Lord, our Sovereign, infinitely perfect, infinitely powerful, holy, wise, good, just and merciful. He possesses boundless authority over us, for we belong wholly to Him. We should know what He has done for us, how much He loves us, how we absolutely depend on Him for all we have and all we are, the fearful malice of grievous sin, the frightful punishment it deserves, and be well penetrated with the eternal truths, our final destiny and the means of securing it, death, judgment, the eternal rewards and punishments. All this we should not only know, but be so intimately penetrated therewith, that such knowledge should become the rule and guide of our conduct. These all-important matters, the truths of faith are seen, not with our corporal eyes, but with those of our mind and can be properly contemplated and examined and become our guide only by means of mental prayer, by means of practical meditations. The man who does not reflect, lives without knowing whither he is going and how he will end; hence he runs a great risk of losing his soul, for he gives but little heed to the truths and means that will insure his salvation. How can we know God and His infinite perfections and His boundless love and benefits towards us, if we do not seriously reflect on them? How can we appreciate the importance of salvation, the malice of sin, the value of divine grace, the necessity of prayer to fulfill our duties, if we fail to reflect seriously and practically on these truths? A person that does not make mental prayer, that is, does not practically reflect on spiritual subjects, is cold and indifferent towards God, lacks uprightness of intention, and usually acquits himself carelessly of his spiritual duties, for he is not accustomed to perform them with a lively sense of the presence of God. He is very much like an ordinary workman, who is usually remiss, careless and slothful when his overseer is out of sight. Can this be otherwise? Without the practice of mental prayer our soul greatly resembles a parched garden, in which the flowers fade and fall, the plants wither, and everything looks wretched and barren. He who fails to devote frequently, if not daily, some time to serious reflection and self-examination, dries up the source of pious and salutary thoughts, of the spiritual unction, imparting relish for the works of salvation, and, consequently, fails to receive the abundant graces giving life, energy and fervor to his mind and will. Such a one has reason to address to himself these words of the psalmist: “My heart is withered, because I forgot to eat my bread” (Psalm 101:5), that is, because I failed to nourish my soul with the bread of holy meditation and prayer. In short, he who does not make mental prayer, becomes dissipated in mind, seldom thinks of God and usually performs his devotions through mere custom and with but little fruit at most. And what virtues can we acquire in this way? Faith? But ardent faith requires the nourishment of both reflection and petitions. Humility? But how can we be come humble without studying ourselves and our perverse inclinations and our helplessness? And if we do not truly know ourselves, how can we correct our defects? And moreover, without serious practical reflection our charity, our patience, our obedience will lack the supernatural sap, which raises our works to God, and our virtues will be only apparent rather than real and solid, merely natural instead of supernatural, as they should be, in order to please God and deserve heavenly reward and secure our salvation. Hence Gerson, celebrated for both his great learning and piety, does not hesitate to say that ” he who does not meditate, that is, does not seriously and practically reflect on the matters that concern his salvation, can not, without a miracle, lead a truly Christian life.”

5. Experience, whilst showing us that the neglect of serious reflection on the concerns of salvation, is the reason why so many neglect their religious duties and go astray into paths more or less sinful, and remain therein for many years wholly regardless of their salvation, also shows us the effect of serious reflection, self-examination and prayer in so many sinners, even great and obdurate sinners, who are sincerely and thoroughly converted during missions, retreats and Lenten courses. How does this happen? Such sinners, who hitherto had never reflected on the wants of their soul and its sad state, are aroused by sermons and prayers to serious thought, self-examination and almost compelled to make appropriate resolutions to give up sin, to confess their iniquities and earnestly to beseech God for mercy and strength to amend their life. They had previously, for want of serious reflections and self-examinations, gone astray, and now urged on by God’s grace they have reflected seriously, examined their conscience and returned to God and to the path of duty and salvation! If, after their conversion, they continue frequently to reflect seriously on the principal truths or mysteries of religion, on the importance of salvation, renew and practise their good resolutions and pray earnestly for the grace to remain faithful, they will persevere; but if they grow remiss therein, or even fail altogether in the use of these means, they will surely relapse. God, out of mercy, sends to the sinner, at least now and then, remorse or qualms of conscience, in order to induce him to repent; if the sinner is faithful to this remorse and begins seriously to reflect on his wickedness, he will soon proceed to examine his conscience and become aware of the sad state and danger of his soul; if he perseveres in this, he will pray fervently and receive all the graces he needs for his conversion and amendment. And this happy change is the result of his practice of mental prayer.

6. Saint Alphonsus, declared Doctor of the Church on account of his many learned works, in which the Church found nothing deserving of blame, wrote among others the best, the most practical book on Prayer, and it was his ardent desire to supply, had it been in his power, every man on earth with a copy, on account of the absolute necessity of the prayer of petition for the graces of salvation. Let us now consider the principal points of his teaching on mental prayer. “Prayer,” he says, “is absolutely necessary for our salvation, and mental prayer is necessary to pray well. Without mental prayer we can have no supernatural light concerning God, the eternal truths, the mysteries of faith, the virtues and vices, the vanity of earthly goods, honors and pleasures, and the grandeur and excellence of the spiritual and heavenly goods. Without it we cannot acquire the necessary knowledge of ourselves, our misery, our helplessness, nor can we discover our faults or the means of avoiding and correcting them. Hence we cannot pray with sufficient earnestness, humility, confidence and perseverance for light and strength to avoid sin and perform our duties, or to overcome temptations or to subdue our passions, unless we practise mental prayer. ‘The earth is laid waste, because there is no one that thinks in his heart.’ (Jeremiah 12:11) Mental prayer excites and increases our faith and hope in God, enlightens us, moves our heart to love God, and strengthens our will in the path of duty, for God becomes therein our teacher: “Blessed is the man, whom Thou, O Lord, shalt instruct.” (Psalm 93:12) Mental prayer renders us watchful over ourselves, mistrustful of self and full of confidence in God. He who daily makes mental prayer, discovers the wants of his soul, and learns how to pray to God to grant them. Moreover, like a fiery furnace, it heats and softens the cold and hard iron of our heart, and renders it malleable in the hands of God. He who faithfully practises mental prayer and perseveres in it cannot be lost, for mortal sin and mental prayer cannot abide together. A sinner who begins to make mental prayer will soon be compelled either to give up sin altogether, or to cease making mental prayer; and, however deeply rooted his habits may be, if he persists in this holy exercise, it will soon enable him to make all the sacrifices necessary to give up the habit of sin entirely. In mental prayer the soul is filled with holy thoughts, holy affections, desires and resolutions and with divine love and thereby strengthened to give up every evil habit and sacrifice all her passions.”

7. One of the best preparations for mental prayer is the practice of frequently raising our mind and heart to God during the day by means of ejaculatory prayers or of renewing our good intention. This will be a great help for keeping recollected and making petitions during this holy exercise. When about to begin mental prayer let us place ourselves in as lively a manner as possible in the presence of God with whom we are to converse. Then let us pray to the Holy Ghost to enlighten us, that we may learn our obligations, discover our shortcomings and the means of correcting them and to give us grace and strength to make and keep appropriate resolutions. Let us then add a Hail Mary to the Blessed Virgin Mary and a brief request to our guardian angel for their help in making our mental prayer profitable to our soul. We then read the subject of the mental prayer from a book or recall some pious thoughts drawn from the sight of the crucifix or some other holy object, and seriously reflect thereon. What we do not seriously reflect on makes but a slight impression which is easily effaced from our mind and does not excite us to any serious or earnest efforts, and cannot therefore produce fruit in us. Our reflections must be practical, that is, not only be on the subject chosen, but be applied to ourselves in connection with the subject, otherwise they would be a mere study without connection with mental prayer, without any bearing on our spiritual wants. Where fore we must apply to ourselves, to our conduct the reflections we make in mental prayer. We can do this by asking ourselves this question: “What profit can I derive from this subject?” or, “How can I apply this to myself?” A few moments reflection will indicate the desired answer. For in stance, you have read the following passage: “As an inducement to practise patience in trials consider Jesus Christ hanging on the cross. All around Him insulted Him, mocked Him and His pains. He bore all in silence. A true Christian strives to imitate Him in His patience. For says Saint Peter (I Peter 2:21-23), unto this you are called; because also Christ suffered for us, leaving you an example, that you should follow His steps. He did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth; when He was reviled, He did not revile.'” You choose this passage as your practical lesson and examine how you have in the past taken Jesus Christ as your Model in the practice of patience, and find out how you have in several ways failed in imitating the Saviour’s patience; this will induce you to make a sincere act of contrition. A few moments of further reflection will cause you to discover how the imitation of the patience of Jesus will enable you to avoid sin, to keep peace with your neighbor, and to gain merit for heaven, and then you will easily feel inspired to firmly resolve with God’s grace to bear in patience and silence all injuries, contempt and contradictions from your neighbor, especially from those persons who are wont to try your patience. Now is the time to address a number of fervent petitions to God to bless your resolution and to give you the necessary strength and grace to keep it faithfully. Add now short aspirations of divine love, of confidence in God, and some invocations of the Blessed Virgin and the saints for their help in carrying out your resolution. Then gather from the reflections you have made the thought that impressed you the most, so as to be able to recall it now and then during the day, and have it as a reminder of your resolution. You may now conclude your mental prayer by reciting in honor of the Blessed Virgin the Hail, holy Queen for the grace of perseverance and an Our Father and a Hail Mary for the conversion of sinners, or for some other object. You should bear well in mind that in mental prayer your subject, your reflections, your application thereof to yourself, your self-examination, your resolution, your petitions must be practically and intimately connected together as one whole, and that it behooves you at once to proceed to carry out your resolution. This entails on your part special watching over yourself, your thoughts and your words, and to be on your guard when you are about to meet with persons or occasions that have previously caused you to commit faults opposed to your present resolution. Remember that you are weak and liable to break your resolution, that you need God’s help to enable you to keep it, and that it behooves you to pray for His help, but that you cannot expect His help unless you have the good and earnest will to do your share, to exert yourself and make even sacrifices in order to remain faithful to your resolution.

8. Frequent pious reading is a great help to making mental prayer well. We should, therefore, read the “Lives of the Saints,” books on the truths and mysteries of our holy religion, on the duties and virtues of a true Christian, on the eternal truths, and especially the holy Gospels. By such reading we can in the course of time not only acquire a relish for spiritual things, but also gather an abundance of good and holy thoughts which will prove a great help to facilitate our mental prayer and increase its fruits. Spiritual reading is spiritual food for the mind. But to be benefited by it, we should imitate those who take their corporal nourishment properly. They eat slowly, not greedily; moderately, not excessively; they masticate it well and swallow it. In like manner, we should make spiritual reading slowly and attentively, not through curiosity; not too many books; we should carefully reflect on what we read, apply the matter to ourselves, to our conduct, and make it our own by putting it into practice. By reading spiritual books in this manner, and interspersing their reading with pious reflections, a little self-examination and a good resolution with a few brief petitions for divine grace to practise it, beginners will learn gradually how to make mental prayer. The most practical and best teachers of mental prayer are the works of Saint Alphonsus, especially those on the Passion and on the Incarnation of our divine Saviour, and the book entitled “Preparation for Death.” These books will inspire you with a horror of sin and with the most tender love for Jesus and Mary and with a relish for prayer. The same may be said of Bronchain’s Meditations for every day in the year. The very best subject for mental prayer is the Passion of Jesus Christ. Saint Paul urges us to meditate thereon, saying: “Looking on Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith, who, having joy set before Him, endured the cross, despising the shame . . . Think diligently upon Him that endured such opposition from sinners against Himself” (Hebrews 12:2,3). We Catholics should never let a day pass without recalling the love of the Son of God for us in suffering the ignominy and torments of His passion in order to save us. “As for myself,” says Saint Alphonsus, who prescribed to the members of his Congregation a daily meditation on the passion, and wrote such beautiful and touching meditations thereon, ” I can never be satiated with meditating on the passion. In this subject I find every thing, for it teaches us every virtue.” Saint Augustine declares that there is nothing more profitable to us, nothing more reliable for leading us to eternal salvation, than to reflect daily on the torments Jesus Christ endured for our sake. “O God,” exclaims Saint Alphonsus, “can he who has faith reflect seriously on the sufferings and ignominies Jesus Christ endured for us, and not burn with love for Him and take the firm resolution to avoid sin and save his soul, so as not to prove ungrateful to so loving a God!” When reflecting on the passion, we seem to hear a mysterious voice saying to us: “Behold how much I have loved thee!” In fact, our sweet Saviour suffered such great torments in order to induce us to think on them; and this we cannot do without feeling urged by His boundless love for us, wretched sinners, to love Him ardently in return. Why are the souls really enamored of Jesus Christ, comparatively few? Because not very many reflect seriously on the torments and death He endured for mankind. Those, however, who meditate on them earnestly, cannot but ardently love Jesus who suffered such great torments in order to be loved by them. Hence Saint Paul proclaimed: “I judged not myself to know anything among you but Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (I Corinthians 2:2). And, in fact, whence can we more easily draw the science of the saints, which consists in knowing how to love God, than from Jesus crucified? To a certain holy person our divine Saviour Himself revealed that meditation on His passion is the most effective means of acquiring perfect divine love. According to both Saint Bonaventure and Saint Alphonsus, meditation on the passion of Christ is the best, the easiest and quickest means of attaining salvation and perfection. What a touching and eloquent spectacle to behold the Man-God, innocent and holy, infinitely perfect, enduring all kinds of torments and ignominy, as if He were the most vile and perverse of mankind. Jesus Christ crucified should be our love, our treasure, our life. Our hearts should remain constantly attached to His sacred feet, so that we may be able to say with Saint Paul: “With Christ I am nailed to the cross; and I live, now not I, but Christ lives in me. And that I live now in the flesh, I live in the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Him self for me” (Galatians 2:19,20). Let us often repeat this beautiful prayer of Saint Augustine: “O my most loving Saviour, deign to engrave deeply in my heart Thy sacred wounds, that I may always read therein Thy pains and Thy love; Thy pains, that I may patiently bear every pain for Thy sake; Thy love, that I may despise every other love, so that I may love Thee only.” Our divine Saviour one day said to the saintly Mother Agnes of Langeac: “I am love itself, as I have proved by My passion. Oh! blessed are those who meditate there on!”