What Mental Prayer is NotUnlike yoga or other Eastern spiritual practices, meditation, in a Catholic context, cannot be reduced to a technique. It is not like a gadget in which certain buttons are pushed so as to get a result. Neither can it be said that mental prayer is simply a methodology in which certain steps are carried out in order to produce a certain effect. No.
Christian meditation is deeply personal in that it largely depends on the spiritual and moral disposition of the Christian towards God. For instance, the person who is addicted to (a substance or practice) will not draw the same fruit from mental prayer as one who is faithful to the moral law. Holy desire, a repentant heart, the capacity to love and a virtuous life determines how much we get out of mental prayer.
Having said that, there are common principles of mental prayer which guide us along the way. The ones we will consider have been practiced among the Saints throughout the centuries. Faithfully and consistently applied, these principles of mental prayer will, as Fr. Edward Leen said, “prepare the soul for the action of the Blessed Eucharist.” The union between the soul and Christ is but the happy result.
Three Important PrinciplesMeditation is nothing other than thinking about Christ, an aspect of his life or some spiritual truth. When a diamond specialist examines a diamond, he looks at all of its facets and sides. Shimmering different colors from each angle, the diamond reveals something new about itself as it is manually rotated under the light.
Mental prayer essentially does the same thing. It considers some aspect of Christ's life or spiritual truth by looking at it and studying it. It then submits the many aspects of our life as we know it – with all of its disappointments and promises – to the Light of Christ so that the good and the bad may be seen for what they really are.
Nevertheless, the starting point or even the primary reason to meditate is not focus on the self but rather to immerse oneself in the life of Christ. It is only after his words and actions are considered do I move on to the contents of my own life. As such, the Christian who meditates accordingly has, within his possession, an unshakable standard by which to measure his life by. Incidentally, this leads us to the three principles or signposts of mental prayer:
First – ConsiderationsA consideration is a mental act in which the subject matter is “considered,” thought about or meditated on. The subject matter can be any part of Christ’s life, a Scripture passage or a spiritual truth taken up by a Saint. Of course, the most common expression of these spiritual considerations is when the rosary is prayed or when one reads Scripture.
Again, like a diamond specialist, the one who meditates on the life of Christ should use the imagination by placing oneself in the scene or by asking questions or by drawing parallels to previously read Scripture passages. Don't just think about it and move on. Study the mystery or spiritual truth at hand. Probe it! Delve into it! Ask God questions! Whatever you do, do not be passive.
As it pertains to spiritual reading, the content should be relatively short. One reads not only to learn but to assimilate and retain the truths at hand.
Second – AdmirationMeditation or spiritual reading has love for its purpose; not just knowledge. This is why it is important that the content of our meditation should lead us to admire Christ in a new and an inspiring way. This point cannot be overstated. Too many theologians or intellectual types within the Church become satisfied with mere knowledge. The more they know, the better off they are…so they think. No.
As the spiritual classic, Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, reminds us: "It is better to love the Holy Trinity than to know how to define it." Although meditation is a vehicle of learning – aided by the Spirit’s gifts of knowledge, understanding and wisdom – still, the greatest of all virtues is love.
Third – ResolutionThe inspiration to love God and neighbor must have some concrete application or else it will not take hold in our lives. Resolutions must accompany my meditation or spiritual reading. The question we should ask ourselves is this: In practical terms, how can I act on these spiritual considerations today?
Meditation without a resolution is like a soul without a body. It is nothing but a good thought or intention. Therefore, resolutions are the means through which spiritual truths become incarnate in our actions.
The Three Faculties of the SoulThe three principles mentioned above are general guidelines on how to have a productive meditation. Of course, there are other factors to consider such as the preparation phase. Nevertheless, if the Christian can manage to get the basics down, he or she will make progress in the spiritual life.
The Desert Fathers stated that meditation accommodates each of the three faculties of the soul. And the three faculties (or parts) of the soul are as such: the intellect – for seeing or perceiving God’s truth and goodness; the will – for obeying God’s will and carrying out his plan; and the memory – for remembering God’s truth and goodness. But with each purpose for good there is a corresponding vice.
Due to our fallen human nature, the intellect can be burdened with ignorance; the will, with laziness; and the memory, with forgetfulness. Meditation, according to the Desert Fathers, shores-up the three faculties of the soul by allowing the intellect to soak in the truth of God, the will to be inspired by and to act on God’s love, and the memory to recall the goodness God has bestowed on the individual.
With this, the Christian possesses a lasting awareness that God is near and ready to act on his behalf. This is the chief fruit when the seeker of Christ makes progress in mental prayer!
(Reprinted with permission from CNA [LINK: http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/column/your-progress-in-mental-prayer-2848/])