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Mental Prayer is for Everyone

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Many people have never heard about mental prayer and among those who have, many could not explain what it is; and among those who could accurately describe mental prayer not all could put it into practice. Even among those who practice mental prayer not all of them, I am sure, profit from its use as well as they could.

For all these reasons it seems worthwhile to look at mental prayer as closely as we can so that we might better appreciate what a treasure it really is and appreciating its value might engage in what some saints, like St. Teresa of Avila, have said is absolutely necessary to achieve sanctity. No mental prayer, no holiness. And I would add it is necessary not only to achieve sanctity, but sometimes even to preserve one’s sanity.

What then is mental prayer? Mental prayer can be simply defined. It is the prayer in which the sentiments we express are our own and not those of someone else. Thus understood, mental prayer is actually the heart and substance of all prayer worthy of the name, because even when, as generally happens, the words we use in vocal prayer are those of someone else—of the psalmist, or even of Christ or the Church—we must still somehow make these words our own, appropriate them, and identify ourselves with what we are saying. Otherwise we would be merely pronouncing syllables and not really praying at all. So all vocal prayer must, at least to some extent, also be mental prayer.

However, the prayer of which we are here speaking is something more refined. It is that form of prayer in which we ourselves under the impulse of grace make up the words we use as expressions of what is already in our hearts. The degree of this internal expression of our sentiments is a matter of taste or temperament. In essence, however, mental prayer is interior prayer. We interiorly vocalize what is inside of us in such language as we may use to tell God what is in our hearts.

Conversation with the Unseen

All prayer from the highest raptures of mysticism to the lowly fingering of the beads is a conversation with the invisible world of God, His angels and the saints. As conversation, it is therefore a communion of mind with mind, and of spirit with the spirit world that is unseen by the senses, but ever so seen by the eyes of faith. Whoever said the unseen was unreal? Only the unbeliever!

In mental prayer this conversation has certain qualities that make it distinctive. The conversation with the invisible world is my conversation. I do not as such go elsewhere to think of what to say but say what is on my mind and in the depths of my soul. Clearly, this kind of prayer is abso­lutely distinctive for each person. The conversation is spontaneous. It arises by a kind of heavenly instinct in words and terms of thought that are quite unrehearsed. In mental prayer we are not exactly making a speech to God. Moreover, the conversation is a real dialogue between myself speaking and my invisible Auditor listening.

Mental prayer is not, if it is for real, a monologue. It presumes that as I pray mentally I am both active and passive, both talker and hearer. When I finish any given period of mental prayer, I am to go away enriched in mind and inspired in heart. Mental prayer is a two-way process, from us to the real world of faith, where God and those in His glory abide, and from Him and them back to us who so desperately need their guidance and inspiration. Needless to say, we should give God a chance to talk back. The art of listening in prayer is a fine art.

An Experience

Finally, conversation in mental prayer is to be an experience. I do not say we must feel in any sensible way the communication between ourselves and the invisible world, but it should be an experience. In mental prayer we are to be, as it were, immersed in what we are doing and involved in our whole being, depending on the degree of intensity we put into prayer and especially on the grace that God gives us when we are in contact with Him and with those who behold Him face to face. It’s like asking them, “How does God look?” They should be able to tell us and we should be the wiser for the dialogue.

Mental prayer, we might say, is total prayer where the whole of us and not only part of us is consciously and deliberately conversing with God and His friends in glory. You may do other things thoughtlessly or casually but you do not pray mentally without realizing what you are about. We might compare it with the intense conversation we sometimes have with some person about matters that deeply concern either or both of us. There is such a thing as being lost in conversation or of forgetting the passage of time, so intent can we be on what we are saying to the other person and what he or she is saying to us.

Again the depth of this intimacy in mental prayer depends mainly on God’s grace. But it also depends on us, so much so that we can safely say if we do not more often pray this way the fault is our own. Why our fault? Because being lost in conversation with God in prayer has to be merited. This means it has to be worked at; it means making the effort to concentrate on whom we are speaking with when we pray rather than on ourselves as doing the praying even when as so often happens, the object of our prayer is our own grave needs.

Who Needs It?

Who needs mental prayer? There is an easy answer to the question, “Who needs mental prayer?” Everybody needs it! Men, women and children need it, the young and the old, the rich and the poor, people in every profession and situation. They need it not occasionally, or only when faced with some overwhelming decision or crisis. They need it always—daily. Depending on their lot in life they may need it often during the day. I speak as one who thinks he needs it often during the day.

In order to make clearer this universal need for mental prayer, let me subdivide the faithful into certain categories—pretty much as the Second Vatican Council classified the People of God in urging all to respond to the universal call to holiness. What are we talking about? We are talking about mental prayer as the indispensible means of reaching sanctity in all the major states of life to which God calls those whom He has sealed in baptism and signed with the confession of the true faith. No two states of life are quite the same. The needs of one are not the needs of another, and the responsibilities of one are not precisely those of another.

One of the pities of our age is that so many people are trying to live other people’s lives. Call it role-playing or personality-substitution or dissatisfaction with one’s state of life. Whatever the name, it is a phenomenon that should be given more attention than it is getting with all sorts of shifting of life’s goals until Western society is writhing with a massive confusion which this instability has created. It is almost as though there were no states of life. Everybody seems to want to be somebody else. So many women behaving as though they wanted to be men; men as though they were women; husbands as though they were not married; and wives as though they had no husbands or families; priests as though they were businessmen, politicians or social activists; and religious as though they were secular men and women in the world. Consequently, when we speak of everyone needing mental prayer, this means that everyone needs a certain amount of regular reflection in God’s presence and in conversation with Him in order to be what God wants him or her to be.

Five States of Life

The subject we are entering, and we shall soon have to leave it, is a panoramic one but at least we can take a bird’s eye view of what this concretely means. There are in the main, five states of life recognized by the Church as being distinct. One is not the other, even when some person may perchance span more than one of these states in their lifetime.

There are, then, five states of life—each a special calling from God. And each calls for its measure of mental prayer from the person who wishes to live out his or her vocation and not someone else’s according to the will of God. There are bishops and priests and religious and the married and the single, whether married before or not. Each has been established by the all-wise Governor of the human family. Each has its own corresponding duties that in God’s Providence cannot be adequately fulfilled or even lived up to unless each according to his respective vocation practices daily mental prayer. The content of their mental prayer will be different for the simple reason that their vocations are not the same.

Suppose we briefly identify in a quick glance the principal duties of these five principal states of life. Clarity here is necessary if the graces that God intends to give each will be given according to each one’s needs. We shall obtain what we ask for, so we had better ask for what we need—underline, block off, “what we need,” which implies that we know what we are supposed to be and do according to our call from God. In every case we shall single out only two distinctive duties for each divine vocation, while recognizing that every state of life has many other duties besides.


What are the principal duties of bishops in the Catholic Church? The principal duties of bishops in the Catholic Church are to teach the faithful the truths of revelation and to lead the people in the ways of God. Every bishop should be a teacher and leader of the People of God. There is no single greater need in the Church today.


What are the principal duties of priests? The principal duties of priests are to sanctify the faithful by their consecration of the Holy Eucharist and to mediate God’s mercy through the forgiveness of people’s sins. Every priest, therefore, should be Christ’s instrument in bringing the Eucharist among the faithful and in reconciling them with an offended God. No priests—no Eucharist! If we have grave sins, God wants us to submit them, as we say, to the “power of the keys” in sacramental confession. And if we wish to grow in sanctity, even though we do not have grave sins, we must frequently use this sacrament, strange to say it, of sanctification which only priests can administer.


What are the principal duties of religious? The principal duties of religious are to witness to God’s holiness by their consecrated lives and to communicate God’s goodness by their service to mankind. The witness of sanctity and the generous meeting of people’s needs should characterize a true religious. Religious are to be professionals in professing sanctity. Because of their life of consecration they should be free both physically (in time and energy) and spiritually (in selfless detachment) to devote themselves entirely to the service of their neighbor.

The Married

What are the principal duties of the married? The principal duties of the married are to cooperate with the Creator in begetting children and training them to serve God, and to testify to God’s fidelity by their own unfailing love. Married people, therefore, are to bring new life into the world and nurture this life in body and mind. And they are to reflect the constancy of Christ’s love for His Church and of God’s love for the world by their own unswerving devotion to one another and to the offspring they may have.

There are many reasons why so many people have lost their faith in God. Among the reasons, I believe, is the fact that so many married people have so poorly reflected what should be present in their married lives. They do not see enough love and stability and generosity among God’s creatures to even reason to the fact that there is an all-loving, infinitely generous and unchangeable God. Our reason and faith must be supported in the world in which we live in order to continue strong in recognizing the attributes of God.

The Single

What are the principal duties of the single? The principal duties of single people are to use their independence and resources for the welfare of other people and to show by their chastity the power of grace over fallen human nature. Having a true vocation, single people in the world are to spend themselves for others in works of charity and they are to inspire the secular culture in which they live with the beauties of Christian chastity.

We All Need Mental Prayer

All of these responsibilities in the main states of life recognized by the Church must be sustained by assiduous mental prayer. Mental prayer is necessary even to recognize one’s own vocation as distinctive from that of others. It is necessary to maintain one’s commitment to a definite choice, once and for all made. It is necessary to remain faithful in one’s special calling from the Lord. How few—better, how none—who when they enter on a state of life could possibly foresee all contingencies that this life will bring. Mental prayer is necessary to resist the temptation to discouragement or to needless change, forgetting what St. Paul tells us, that the particular way in which the Spirit is given to each person is for a good purpose. But I must see that purpose. To resist the temptation to change from what I have been to what I might be, I need prayer.

There is no problem so grave in any state of life that cannot be resolved through humble mental prayer. But there is also no problem so small in every vocation that cannot become an impassable jungle in the absence of mental prayer. Mole hills become mountains or, as I watch the ants working along the pathway, ant hills become the Rockies, unless through daily mental prayer we keep our perspective.

“Holy Spirit,” we need pray, “teach me to pray in such a way that I shall find joy in my chosen way of life. Teach me to respond to the responsibilities of my vocation with a generous heart, seeing that there is a variety of gifts but always the same Spirit, that is, You.”

“There are all sorts of service to be done but always the same Lord working in all sorts of different ways in different people,” paraphrasing the Apostle quoting the Holy Spirit.

To know the particular way the Spirit wants to work in me and to have the courage to let Him do what He wills is the main purpose of mental prayer for everyone. It is also the surest means of achieving peace, when I know that I’m doing the will of God.

Vol. 26 - #1, January-March 1993, pp. 15-18

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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