If your spiritual life is to grow properly, you must understand how to meditate — the basics of meditation. A great deal can be said about meditation, but we’ll have to limit ourselves to some basic points. I’d like to approach it by sharing something of my own experience.
Formal Prayer vs. Mental Prayer
First, mental prayer (also known as the prayer of the mind) usually develops naturally from formal prayer (or the prayer of the lips). A comparison between these two types of prayer can be useful. Recall St. John Damascene’s famous definition of prayer as “the raising of the mind and the heart to God.” Informal prayer, when we focus on the words of the prayer with our minds, the heart is then moved to love God with the sentiments contained in those words.
For instance, if we recite an “Act of Faith,” the words prayed would logically stir up feelings or sentiments of faith in our hearts as we say something such as this: “God, You are all-knowing, and You show to us what we need to know and do to get to heaven. I believe in all that You have shown to us! Please grant me a strong faith so that I will always believe what You teach us through Your Church.”
In mental prayer, moreover, the focus is not restricted by the words of a prayer formula. Rather, the focus of meditation is usually on a story, such as an event from the life of Jesus; or a teaching He gave, such as a parable; or something from the life of a saint, such as St. Thérèse; or something contained in a good spiritual book. My mind isn’t limited to the words but moves through various information of the story or ideas contained in the teaching.
The mind, by reflecting on these details, can produce a far wider range of insights, which then stir more sentiments in the heart. The mind is freer to roam through this spiritual landscape. Thus the distinction between formal prayer and the meditation of mental prayer is like the difference between reciting a poem, where each particular word is already given and telling a story freely in your own words.
The Rewards of Meditation
Meditation as a form of mental prayer has many rewards. One is a greater understanding and clarity regarding the teachings of our Catholic faith. By meditating, we go deeper into these realities and discover many valuable new insights that weren’t obvious at first sight.
St. John of the Cross used the image of mining for precious metals to explain this spiritual activity. If “there’s gold in them thar hills,” then the more you mine, the more you’ll find! The treasures of the Sacred Scriptures and other truths of our faith aren’t always obvious on the surface, but they’re limitless for those who bother to search for them.
Another reward, as we’ve seen, is that our reflections stir up the vital sentiments of the heart so needed for loving and serving the Lord faithfully. These sentiments are really the most significant fruit of mental prayer. They lead us to talk to God!
In fact, without these sentiments, we’d end up with a purely intellectual practice, a mere reasoning process. Prayer entails talking with God, and that requires the sentiments.
In such manner, we should mention that beginners practicing mental petition typically do much more reasoning or reflecting in the mind than speaking from the heart. But as time goes on, less reflection is needed to produce more sentiments. It resembles the growth of a human relationship.
When friends first meet, they need to ask lots of questions and share lots of facts about themselves to get to know each other better. After the friendship has grown, moreover, there are fewer questions but a deeper knowledge and more intense love for each other. In other words, when the reasoning in prayer becomes significantly less and the sentiments in the heart start to predominate, it’s usually a sign that we’ve come to the third state or kind or prayer, called affective prayer (or the prayer of the heart).
Lastly, the meditation of mental prayer assists us to form the resolutions we need to progress in the love of God and our neighbor by a more active and consistent practice of the Christian virtues. Our meditations, in the light of the Holy Spirit and with the help of His grace, give us insights into how to apply the values of the Gospel, Church teachings, and the wisdom of the saints to our own daily lives. For all these reasons, the meditation that gives a foundation for mental prayer is a must for growth in Christian holiness!