Beginning to pray from the heart
When we pray our simple vocal prayers well, we begin to feel a tug toward something deeper, a more heartfelt conversation with God. We desire to address him in our own words, in a more personal and particular way. Traditionally, this prayer from the heart has been called "mental prayer." Unlike the vocal prayer that we frequently pray with others, mental prayer is prayed in solitude, often without our saying anything aloud.
People sometimes ask me how they can stay focused in mental prayer. Just starting out, they sit down to pray and can’t think of anything to say to God. Their vocal prayers have been so rewarding, but when they try mental prayer, they find it dry and difficult.
When speaking of the three expressions of prayer in the Christian life, the Catechism of the Catholic Church doesn’t mention mental prayer. Instead, after vocal prayer, it lists meditation. The church wants us to understand that mental prayer, in order to be fruitful, should have some kind of format.
We should not just ramble at God, nor rattle off a string of requests. The best mental prayer for beginners is meditation. The word "meditation" can confuse people, however. Buddhists, Hindus, New Agers and others also use the word meditation, but their practice is different than the Christian one.
Let’s return to our definition of prayer from my first column. Following St. Teresa of Avila, we said that prayer is "friendly converse with God." The purpose of prayer is an intimate, loving union with God. From this definition, we can see that Christian meditation is not the same as meditation in other religions.
Buddhists, for example, do not converse with anyone during their meditation. They do not seek a union of love with God. They seek freedom from suffering, and ultimately an annihilation of the self. For them, the question of whether God exists is ultimately a meaningless one. Clearly then, Buddhist practices could not be called Christian prayer. Nor should we expect Christian prayer to resemble Buddhist meditation in more than a superficial way.
Christian meditation does not involve altered states of consciousness. It is not primarily about awareness. It is not primarily about detachment. Christian prayer is about union with God through Jesus Christ. It is conversation with him.
The catechism calls meditation "prayerful reflection" (no. 2708). We read a holy book, especially the Gospels, and prayerfully consider what the Lord is saying to us through it. Then we respond to his word by asking him for the help we need to live in better accordance with it, examining our conscience, repenting of our sins, praising him and thanking him – all in the light of what we have just read.
The catechism explains: "Meditation is above all a quest. The mind seeks to understand the why and how of the Christian life, in order to adhere and respond to what the Lord is asking ... . To meditate on what we read helps us to make it our own by confronting it with ourselves ... . Meditation engages thought, imagination, emotion, and desire. This mobilization of the faculties is necessary to deepen our convictions of faith, prompt the conversion of our heart, and strengthen our will to follow Christ. Christian prayer tries above all to meditate on the mysteries of Christ, as in lectio divina or the rosary" (nos. 2705-2708).
There are dozens of ways we can engage in Christian meditation, using our hearts, minds and own choice of words to grow closer to Christ. We will consider one such method next time.
Connie Rossini is a member of St. Peter Parish in Omaha. She is co-author of The Contemplative Rosary just released by EWTN Publishing and author of four other books on Catholic spirituality.