ANY one who has a real desire to be saved, and who believes that the opinion of St. Alphonsus, and all other spiritual teachers, that mortal sin and mental prayer can not live together, but are mutually destructive, is really true, must feel a desire to adopt so certain a means of salvation. But many are faint-hearted, and dread the little difficulty they feel in beginning a new exercise, and many more lack the courage and self-denial necessary to continue in it after the novelty has worn away, and the yoke of perseverance begins to gall. Blessed are they who courageously persevere, for their salvation is secure!
Those who find it difficult to begin, or are tempted to abandon this powerful means of salvation, must pluck up heart, and encourage themselves by remembering that mental prayer requires no learning, no special power of mind, no extraordinary grace, but only a resolute will and a desire to please God. In fact the hard matter is to convince people how easy and simple a matter mental prayer really is, and how the difficulty is far more imaginary than real. This difficulty often rises from not having grasped the true idea of what is meant by mental prayer, and the false idea of the exercise once formed, is often never corrected, the consequence being that the practice is either abandoned in disgust, or persevered in with extreme repugnance, and little fruit.
One common cause of misunderstanding, perhaps the most common of all, is the custom of calling the whole exercise by the name of one subordinate and not most important part that is meditation. From this, the idea arises that it is a prolonged spiritual study, drawn out at length with many divisions and much complicated process, and this notion frightens many good souls, and makes them fall back on vocal prayer alone. They imagine that the soul must preach a discourse to itself, and they feel no talent for preaching. Many, if they spoke their minds clearly, would say, "I can not meditate, but if I might be allowed to pray during that time instead, I could do very well!" This is no imaginary case, as any one who has had any experience will testify, and this miserable misunderstanding that so often holds souls back for years, is partly brought about by defective teaching, but partly also by the name meditation being used, instead of the more comprehensive one of mental prayer.
Mental prayer properly understood, will be found to be easy and within the power of all who desire salvation. Of course there are many degrees of prayer, and to pray perfectly is no doubt a matter of great difficulty, but to pray well and in a way very pleasing to God, and very profitable to the soul, is an easy and simple matter. If we remember how many thousands have excelled in mental prayer though not even able to read, we shall see that this holy exercise can not require any special power of mind or any degree of culture. St. Isidore, a farm laborer, is an example of a man utterly devoid of human learning, but rising, by God s grace, to the sublimest prayer.
In order to pray with fruit and without distraction, it is very useful and in most cases necessary, to spend some time in meditation or pious thought on some definite subject, and from this fact, as before stated, the whole exercise is often called meditation, instead of mental prayer. This often misleads people into imagining that meditation that is, the use of the intellect in thinking on a holy subject, is the main end to be aimed at, whereas in fact it is only a means to the end, which is prayer or conversation with God. Meditation furnishes us with the matter for conversation, but it is not itself prayer at all. When thinking and reflecting the soul speaks to itself, reasons with itself; in prayer it speaks to God.
Meditation in its wide sense is any kind of attentive and repeated thought upon any subject and with any intention, but in the more restricted sense in which it is understood as a part of mental prayer, it is, as St. Francis de Sales puts it, "an attentive thought, voluntarily repeated or entertained in the mind, to excite the will to holy and salutary reflections and resolutions." It differs from mere study in its object: we study to improve our minds and to store up information, we meditate to move the will to pray and to embrace good. We study that w may know, we meditate that we may pray.
We must then use the mind in thus thinking or pondering on a sacred subject for a few minutes, and in order to help the mind in this exercise, we must have some definite subject of thought upon which it is well to read either a text of Holy Scripture or a few lines out of some other holy book. St. Teresa tells us that she thus helped herself with a book for seventeen years. By this short reading, the mind is rendered attentive and is set on a train of thought. Further to help the mind you can ask yourself some such questions as the following: What does this mean? What lesson does it teach me? What have I done about this in the past? What shall I now do, and how?
Two remarks are here most important. The first is, that care must be taken not to read too much, but to stop when any thought strikes the mind. If the reading is prolonged, if, for example, in a short prayer of half an hour you were to read for ten minutes, the exercise would be changed into spiritual reading. The second remark is, that you must not be distressed if you find the mind torpid, and if only one or two very simple thoughts present themselves. It is by no means necessary to have many thoughts, or to indulge in deep and well arranged reflections. The object of mental prayer is not to preach a well prepared and eloquent sermon to yourself: the object is to pray. If one simple thought makes you pray, why distress yourself because you have not other and more elaborate thoughts? If you wanted to reach the top of a roof you would not trouble yourself because your ladder was a short one, provided it was long enough to land you safely on the roof. The end is gained. If one simple reflection enables you to pray, you would, in reality, be merely distracting yourself from prayer in order to occupy yourself with your own thoughts, if you were to go on developing a lengthy train of thought. This would be to mistake the means for the end, and it is a very common mistake and the cause of great discouragement. This mistake will be evident if you remember that while you are following out a line of thought, for instance, when you are answering the questions suggested above, you are conversing with yourself.
It is plain therefore that as your object is to converse with God, you should not remain too long in talking to yourself, and that, therefore, if you feel a difficulty in doing this, you need not be distressed. "The progress of a soul," says the enlightened St. Teresa, "does not consist in thinking much of God, but in loving Him ardently; and this love is gained by resolving to do a great deal for Him."
I have said that misunderstanding this point is the most fruitful source of discouragement, and one of the commonest reasons for abandoning mental prayer in disgust, and the reason is, because very few people are accustomed to prolonged or deep thought on any subject. Few indeed are capable of it. If, therefore, they imagine that prolonged, if not deep thought, is necessary for mental prayer, they are in constant trouble and discouragement, which ends in their abandoning the whole exercise in despair. "If I might only be allowed to pray," they will sigh to themselves, "how much easier it would be!"
Let such persons then clearly understand, that many thoughts are not necessary, that their reflections need not be deep and ought not, especially in a prayer of half an hour, to be long, lest prayer should be neglected and the exercise be changed into a study. "Meditation," says St. Alphonsus, "is the needle, which only passes through that it may draw after it the golden thread, which is composed of affections, petitions, and resolutions." The needle is only used in order to draw the thread after it. If then you were to meditate for an hour, and think out a subject in all its details, but without constant acts and petitions, you would be working hard with an un threaded needle.
Men s minds differ as much as their features, and some men, especially those employed in very distracting duties, need more thought before they can pray than others, but many, especially women, will find that the effort, after prolonged reflections, will generally defeat itself and end in distraction.
As soon, therefore, as you feel an impulse to pray, give way to it at once in the best way you can by acts and petitions, in other words, begin your conversation with God on the subject about which you have been thinking. Do not imagine, moreover, that it is necessary to wait for a great fire to burn up in your soul, but cherish the little spark that you have got. Above all, never give way to the mistaken notion that you must restrain your self from prayer in order to go through all the thoughts suggested by your book, or because your prayer does not appear to have a close connection with the subject of your meditation. This would simply be to turn from God to your own thoughts or to those of some other man.
To meditate means, in general, nothing else than to reflect seriously on some subject. Meditation, as mental prayer, is a serious reflection on some religious truth or event, united with reference and application to ourselves, in order thereby to excite in us certain pious sentiments such as contrition, humility, faith, hope, charity, etc. and to move our will to form good resolutions conformable to these pious sentiments. Such an exercise has naturally a beneficial influence on our soul and greatly conduces to enlighten our mind and to move our will to practice virtue.
"Meditation," writes Madame Cecilia, in her admirable work "At the Feet of Jesus," "consists in occupying ourselves mentally and prayerfully with some mystery of the faith. We call to mind the chief facts, ponder over them, and then stir up our will to regulate our conduct in consequence. Hence, meditation is an exercise of the faculties of our soul memory, understanding, and will. Some persons are also aided by the imagination; to others it is a hindrance. Do you complain that you can not meditate? Well, let me ask you: Have you ever received an affront that cut you to the quick? Then, perhaps, you did meditate; you thought over it for an hour or more. Memory recalled the facts, imagination supplied extra details and coloring, the intelligence discussed the motives, such as ingratitude, jealousy, pride; it considered the baseness and the unexpectedness of the insult; finally, the "will took a firm resolution to avoid that person. Now, what was all this but a meditation in which you employed all the powers of your soul? Moreover, it was probably made without a single distraction, which is of very rare occurrence when we meditate on a mystery of our holy faith.
"Unfortunately, the subject was not well chosen, but at least it may help you to understand that you are capable of making a meditation. Suppose that, instead of reflecting on a personal affront, you had chosen for subject the insults received by Our Lord at the court of Herod. You pictured out the scene, recalled the facts, pondered them over, weighed the motives, and then stirred up yourself to imitate your divine model. This would have been an excellent meditation. Now it is true that the Holy Ghost is the great Master Who teaches us how to pray, but this does not dispense us from means which He has placed at our disposal, for God helps those who help themselves, in this as in temporal enterprises. The masters of the spiritual life have traced out methods of mental prayer for their disciples. The one laid down by St. Ignatius, in his Spiritual Exercises, is perhaps the best known."
It consists of three parts: (1) preparation, (2) meditation proper, (3) exercise of the affections. Each of these parts is subdivided, and a few words on them may be useful to the reader.