Moving from the head to the heart in mental prayer
April 18, 2019
So far in my column when I have spoken of “meditation,” it has usually been what spiritual theologians call “discursive meditation.” Today I’d like to begin discussing a further development of prayer known as “affective prayer.”
The word “discursive” relates to “discourse.” In terms of prayer it denotes using our reasoning power to apply the Scriptures to our lives. We take a text, read it prayerfully, perhaps picture ourselves in the scene, and ponder what the Holy Spirit is saying to us through it. It involves lots of mental activity.
This is an important way to engage with the Scriptures. The Lord created our intellects so we could get to know him through them. As the Baltimore Catechism says, we were created “to know, love, and serve God.” Knowing him is the first step toward loving him.
When a friend introduces us to someone new, he or she might start by telling us facts: “This is Doug, who just moved in next door; this is Fran, who works in the office next to mine.” We use those facts as a starting place for conversation. If we ever hope to know Doug or Fran better, however, the relationship must move beyond facts.
Facts are a good place to start in our relationship with God, too. We must know who he is. But at some point, we desire to go deeper. What is the heart of God like? Can I share my heart with him?
St. Teresa of Avila writes, “For mental prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us. The important thing is not to think much but to love much and so do that which best stirs you to love” (“The Book of Her Life,” 8, 5). This is affective prayer.
When we read the Scriptures as part of prayer, details such as where Jerusalem is located, the occupations of the apostles or the number of people Jesus fed with the loaves and fish are not of great importance. At first, however, we may be drawn to meditate on facts such as these. Soon after we may find our focus moving to things like his tendency to spend time with sinners, his compassion for the sick, and his practice of going apart by himself to pray.
Meditation on these points might move our hearts toward a greater love for Jesus. We then find ourselves spontaneously worshipping him, telling him how much we love him. This is an important development in our prayer.
Prayer should transform us. Affective prayer aids our transformation. When we see the goodness of God in the Scriptures, we are moved to greater love of him. Loving him more, we find it easier to do his will. We realize that many things we have been attached to can’t help us grow closer to him. When we discover that some are actually keeping us from greater intimacy with him, we find the grace to set them aside.
Affective prayer comes sooner for some people than for others. We should not force it. But when we find ourselves spending more of our prayer time in loving conversation, rather than reading and reasoning, it signals a new depth to our relationship with God. We should follow this impulse and allow affective prayer to begin to change us.
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.