Mental Prayer; Meditation and Contemplation
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Mental Prayer: Meditation and Contemplation

"Mental prayer," says St. Alphonsus Liguori, "is morally necessary for salvation." In other words, we can say that it will be impossible to save ourselves unless we practice some form of mental prayer. For this reason the importance of learning exactly both what mental prayer is and how to practice it simply cannot be overestimated.


Now there are two basic forms of mental prayer and these are meditation and contemplation. Meditation merely means to think about and to ponder deeply some truth about the faith or the spiritual life. In other words, when we meditate we think about some mystery of the faith; some incident in the life of Jesus, Mary or the saints; or how we can get some virtue we need, or how we can get rid of some vice that is causing us to sin.

It is helpful here - for our understanding of the meaning of the term - if we know that the English word "meditation" comes from the Latin verb "meditari" which means to reflect, to muse, to consider or to give attention to.

Now it is important to be aware that before we can even begin to think about meditation a certain amount of remote preparation must take place. And this consists in leading a life of self-denial, self-discipline and detachment from worldly pleasures. For we will not be able to meditate well, or even at all, if we spend a lot of time watching TV, listening to the radio, reading newspapers and magazines, and trying to keep up with the latest fads and pleasures. For as Fr. Dubay points out, "the best preparation for successful prayer comes from the life we have lived prior to prayer." And this is because, as St. Augustine says, "to pray well, we must live well."

The key to remote preparation is to attain a spirit of recollection. The necessity of recollection, says Fr. Faber, is "so great that nothing in the whole of the spiritual life, love excepted, is more necessary, for without it we will not make progress." And he adds here, "the greatest help is to act slowly. Eagerness, anxiety, indeliberation, precipitancy, these are fatal to recollection." Let us, therefore, he stresses, "do everything leisurely, measuredly and slowly, and we will soon be recollected."

We will not, however, achieve a spirit of recollection unless we practice silence. For silence is the language of God, and if we are always talking to other people, then God cannot talk to us. The words and insights of Pope Paul VI are very appropriate here. He once noted, "commotion, sin, feverish activity and the crowd all threaten man's inner awareness. He lacks silence, with its genuine voice speaking in the depths of his being; he lacks order, he lacks prayer, he lacks peace, he lacks himself."

Further, St. Alphonus Liguori, stresses in the strongest possible terms why we need silence to pray. He states, "where there is no silence, there is no recollection, and where there is no recollection, there is nothing but disturbance and sin."

Besides the practice of silence a good program of spiritual reading is necessary before we can meditate well. For this reason, the reading of spiritual books is considered an essential element of the remote preparation. We need to fill our minds with good thoughts from good books. Otherwise our minds can easily become a cage for every unclean bird, as the Book of Revelation puts it.

Now many spiritual writers recommend that we try to spend at least 15 minutes every day in spiritual reading. But if this is not possible - as a very minimum - we should read at least one page from some good spiritual book every day. And so we should always have at hand a Bible or a book about the lives of the saints or the teaching of the Church, so that we can do some spiritual reading whenever we get the chance. The importance of doing this simply cannot be overestimated. For St. Alphonsus Ligouri states that "without good spiritual books and spiritual reading, it will be morally impossible to save our souls."

The final stage of the remote preparation is to establish for ourselves the time, place and the posture that we will use for our meditation. The time, ideally, should be one full hour or one-half hour every day. But if this is not possible, we should try to meditate for at least 15 minutes. The early morning hours are usually best. It is important to be aware, however, when selecting the length of time that we will meditate, or the time that we will rise to begin meditation - that it is a principle of the spiritual life, as C. S. Lewis has pointed out - that what we can do sometimes, we cannot do all the time. So, for many people, a holy hour will be possible for them only once a week.

Now the best place to meditate is, of course, before the tabernacle in a church. But if we cannot do our meditation in a church every day, it is a good practice to set aside a special room where we can pray in silence and solitude.

Regarding posture: no set position or stance is required. In other words, it is not necessary to always kneel during our meditation. Ultimately, then, the posture we select should be the one in which we can pray best and with a minimum of distractions. And so our own personal preference will determine whether we sit, stand, kneel or even walk while we meditate. Whatever posture we select, however, it goes without saying that it must be assumed reverently.

Next comes the proximate preparation. And this consists in choosing the subject for the meditation itself. It can be anything from the Gospel, the Liturgy, the Creed, the Sacraments, the Commandments or the Catechism.

Finally, comes the immediate preparation for the meditation. All that is required now is that we kneel down and put ourselves in the presence of God. We can do this by making an act of contrition, and then asking our guardian angel to help us meditate well.

Now we are ready to begin meditating on the subject we have selected. The first phase of the meditation is what is called the "consideration." This is when we think about and ponder deeply the truth that we have selected. We use our memory, imagination, intellect and will to look at the truth from all angles in order to penetrate and appreciate its meaning and significance.

St. Ignatius of Loyola, in his meditation about hell in his Spiritual Exercises, gives us a very good example of how we can use all of our faculties to meditate. First, with our memory and imagination, he says, we should try to see the length, breadth and depth of hell and the vast fires that are there; to smell the smoke, the sulfur, the filth and corruption; and to taste the bitterness of the tears and sadness of the damned; to feel the flames which envelop and burn the souls; and to hear the wailing, groaning and screaming.

Next with our minds we should consider that some people are in hell because they refused to believe in Christ, while others are there because they believed in Christ, but still refused to keep the commandments. Then we should thank God that he has not ended our lives and sent us to hell.

Finally with our wills we should beg God for a deep sense of the pain which the damned suffer, and also a sense for a fear of these punishments, so that we do not fall into sin. St. Ignatius meditation on hell, then, can serve as an excellent model of how we can use all our faculties and senses to examine many mysteries and truths of the faith.

Now, after we have considered the selected truth of our meditation in detail we must make an act of love with our will. Indeed, this is the most important element in the meditation. For as St. Teresa of Avila points out, meditation consists not so much in thinking a great deal but in loving a great deal.

"But a meditation is not completed," as Fr. Jordan Aumann stresses, "by arousing love for the supernatural truth on which one has speculated since any meditation that is properly made should terminate in a practical resolution for the future. Love cannot be idle; by its very nature it urges us to action. When the meditation, then, has passed through the steps of consideration and acts of love, charity impels us to put love into action." In other words, we must make a practical, specific resolution to put into practice what we have learned to love in meditation.

The resolution, therefore, should not be too general, for example, to avoid sin or to become a better Christian. Rather the resolution should be practical and particular, for example, to avoid this or that sin, or to cultivate this or that virtue, or to be more charitable or obedient to some particular person. And this same resolution should be repeated daily until we see that we are actually making some progress in carrying it out.

Now two points in particular must be stressed when making a resolution. First off, "the resolution must not be made rashly or off-handedly and secondly the resolution should be below what we might reasonably hope to accomplish." We must be very careful, then, when we decide on what our resolution will be. For failure to make good resolutions, as Fr. Aumann stresses, is the main "reason why many souls who practice daily meditation get little or no practical benefit from it."


And so if we are faithful to the practice of daily meditation we should be able to progress to the so called prayer of natural or acquired contemplation. Contemplation in the widest sense can be defined as "gazing at something that causes delight and admiration."

Now this gaze can be directed either at God himself or the truth and beauty and goodness that is reflected in: 1) nature; or 2) in art, architecture, painting, sculpture, poetry and music; or 3) in science and mathematics.

A good example of how we can "gaze" at something overwhelmingly beautiful with delight and admiration was given to us by Pope John Paul II when he visited the mountains near Lorenzago, Italy. His description is a little long but it is worth quoting at length because he explains to us how we can discover God's truth and beauty and goodness in the world around us.

The joyful feeling aroused by the marvelous panorama before us makes us think of God's first glance at creation and with the satisfaction he must have felt with the work of his own hands. So how could we not feel surrounded by the love of God who opens before us the book of nature and invites us to read there the signs of his presence and tenderness? For in these delightful mountains, we have the opportunity to rediscover the grandeur of God and man in the beauty of creation. And we can achieve a fuller harmony with the Maker of the universe.

Now if we are faithful to the practice of meditation and "gazing" as well as the practice of the virtues that is, if we lead a good Christian life, we may receive the grace of supernatural or infused contemplation. It must be stressed here, however, that the grace of infused contemplation does not depend solely on the faithful practice of meditation. For "true contemplation comes more in relation to spiritual generosity and less in relation to meditational proficiency."

Supernatural contemplation, then, is a special gift from God. It is not something we do. But rather it is something God does to us. It has been described as the total immersion in God that takes place when the soul is mystically invaded, so to speak, by the Holy Spirit. For in contemplative prayer we become "filled with the fullness of God" and come to know something of the "breadth and length and depth and height" of Christ's love (Eph 3:18-19).

Now it must be noted here in passing that the collaboration of the "angels in meditation and contemplation is essentially distinct. In meditation they work with the sense faculties and affections while in contemplation the light is infused directly into the soul." The role that the angels play in prayer and our spiritual life is necessarily a broad topic and so it will be covered in more detail in a later formation letter.

Further, it should be noted here that everyone is called to reach contemplation though contemplation may not be within the reach of everyone! We are all called to be contemplatives and mystics just like we are called to be saints. For there is, as Fr. Dubay is fond of pointing out, a universal call to contemplation just like there is a universal call to holiness. However, it must be stressed that we will become neither saints nor contemplatives unless we lead a good Christian life and strive for perfection.

We must be aware, therefore, that no matter what our state in life may be, we can still receive the highest graces of prayer if we are resolved to seek perfection no matter what the cost. The Catechism gives us some encouraging advice on this point: "One does not undertake contemplative prayer only when one has the time. Rather one makes time for the Lord, with the firm determination not to give up, no matter what trials and dryness one may encounter."

The stakes, then, in the spiritual battles of prayer are high. As a bishop from Brazil once put it, we have only two real choices in life: either contemplation or condemnation. To reach the joys of contemplative prayer, therefore, will be no mere child's play. For we will have to fight a fierce battle against - not only distractions and dryness but also against the devil as well. In fact, as a devout man of prayer once pointed out, "anyone who devotes himself with special intensity to prayer is assaied by fearsome and savage temptations."

The best strategy, however, for dealing with distractions is simply to ignore them. For as the Catechism tells us "to set about hunting them down would be to fall into their trap, when all that is necessary is to turn back to our heart." It is important to understand, then, that the cause of most of our distractions is not the devil - but ourselves. And so because of this we must always bear in mind, as Fr. Faber points out, "that prayer time is God's punishment time. And that it is then that venial sins, little infidelities, inordinate friendships and worldly attachments rise up and complain to us."

Now the Rosary can be a great help to those who are struggling with dryness and distractions in their prayer life. For it can serve as a bridge to help us pass from the labors of meditation to the joys of contemplation. Indeed, it has been called a "school of contemplation." "We must remember," then, as Fr. Osende notes, "that contemplation is a work of divine love and not the product of meditation... For this reason the rosary meditations do not have to be prolonged, formal meditations, but merely a simple and attentive glance at the specific mystery. And if this is repeated enough, it will produce the same effect as a formal meditation." In other words, we can say that rosary is one of the shortest and quickest roads to contemplation.

The rosary, then, is an invaluable aid to help us receive the grace of contemplative prayer. And "devotion to the holy angels is also a great help, not only because it is they who mediate the light of grace in prayer, but it is also they who admonish and strengthen us in the implementation of our resolutions, without which we would not advance to deeper contemplation." For St. John of the Cross tells us that infused contemplation, "the fire of love," comes to us through the angels. And specifically, he stresses that the contemplative life is not possible without the ministry of angels.


With all the helps available there should be more contemplative souls than there are. The reason for their scarcity is that there are too few people who want to make the necessary sacrifices needed to detach themselves from the pleasures of the world. We must be emptied of self so that God can fill us with himself. "To prepare yourself for prayer," says St. John Climacus, "put off your own will." And so "to prepare ourselves well for meditation, we must renounce self-will, and say to God, Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening" (1 Sam 3:10). Let us, then, ask the Blessed Mother and our guardian angel for the light and strength we need to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Christ to the joys of contemplation.

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