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The Ordinary Process of Mental Prayer

  • FATHER EDWARD LEEN, C.S.SP.

Mental Prayer is an ascent or approach of the mind to God. 

"I am the way; no one cometh to the Father but by Me." John xiv. 6.

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It is nothing else than a communing of spirit with spirit, a communing of the created intelligence with the uncreated.  To pray, therefore, it is necessary to be present with God.  When we wish to enter into conversation with our friends on earth, we leave the place in which we are and transport ourselves to where they are or make use of those means of communication invented by science.  No use of a medium of communication or change of position on our part would seem to be necessary when it is question of coming into the presence of God, since He is everywhere, and in Him we live, move and have our being.  Yet, strange to say, though we are surrounded by, and, as it were, enveloped in God, still we can fail to have Him present to us.  For a spirit makes other beings to be present to it not by local movement but by its acts.  Our soul has present to it only those objects about which its faculties are engaged.  We can be said to be present only there, where our thoughts, affections or imaginings are.  It is in the very same way we are present with God.  We are in God's presence only during the time when the faculties of our soul are exercised about Him or His attributes or in something that has a bearing on our relations with Him.  The meaning therefore, of having placed ourselves in God's presence — of our mind having ascended to Him — is that God has become for us an object of loving, or at least interested, thought.  This imports as its correlative aspect, the withdrawal of our imagination and our senses, our will and our intellect, with the acts that flow from them, from all objects other than God.[1]

We are in a real sense present where that object is which occupies our imagination — more truly present where it is than where we may happen to be locally.  A familiar illustration may be drawn from a too common experience in a teacher's life.  The indifferent and distracted student is bodily present in the class-room, but his surroundings and the teacher's words make no impression on him as he allows his thoughts and interests to wander to the joys of home or the excitement of the playing fields.  He is, in a human sense, more present where his thoughts and affections are than where he is in body.

God is a pure spirit — and we are not.  We cannot come into His presence as an angel can.  All the acts of our intellect depend on the senses and on the imagination.  We must have some imaginative image of a thing in order to be able to think on it.  It is difficult for us to form an image of the Divinity and therefore difficult for us to be present with God.  At least it would be very difficult for us, had not God in His kindness, found a way by which access to Him, by aid of the imagination, might be made easy for men.  That way was the Incarnation.

The Divinity is made present visibly and tangibly to us in the Humanity of Our Lord:  "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the word of life; for the life was manifested; and we have seen and do bear witness and declare unto you the life eternal, which was with the Father, and hath appeared to us."[2]  Our Lord shadows forth in a visible manner the perfection of God — His goodness, His benignity, His holiness, His mercy.  Those attributes in a pure spirit we should have found very difficult to imagine or conceive.  As clothed in, and expressing themselves through the Sacred Humanity these attributes of God are become accessible to human imagination as well as to human thought.  Jesus is the spotless mirror of the Divinity.  Therefore, the study of the life of Jesus and His works — the contemplation of His humanity — forms the imaginative ground-work from which the soul forms to itself the spiritual concept of God.  "Everything in Jesus is not only saintly but sanctifying also, and imprints itself on the souls which apply themselves to the consideration of it, if they do so with good dispositions.  His humility makes us humble; His purity purifies us; His poverty, His patience, His sweetness and His other virtues imprint themselves on those who contemplate them.  This may take place without our reflecting at all upon ourselves, but simply by our viewing these virtues in Jesus with esteem, admiration, respect, love and complacency."[3]

Hence it is that our communion with God, the presence of our spirit with His, is accomplished through the Sacred Humanity.  Therefore, the ordinary way of mental prayer or meditation[4]  is the reviewing in our imagination and in our intelligence the life and words of Jesus.

This however is only one part of prayer — it does not end with considerations or reflections, for prayer in its essence is not a mere reflection on a subject belonging to the order of divine things.  "It is a supernatural attitude of the soul before its Creator in which it directs itself towards God and unites itself with Him, for the purpose of rendering Him what is due to Him from His creatures, receiving in turn His communications and rendering itself pleasing in His sight."[5]  The considerations — that is, the meditation strictly so called — have an ultimate purpose.  That purpose is to create in our minds a form or an ideal of life and action, an ideal which is presented by our intelligence to our will, as our highest good.  Our considerations, therefore, must tend to form, deepen and strengthen the conviction that the life of the Man-God is the good life for us, that His way of acting and thinking is what Is most deserving of our imitation.  Meditation has for its object to fill our minds with the conviction that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, that is to say, to fill us with the conviction that our life is a false and vain one in so far as it does not conform to the spirit of His; that His values of human things are the only true values; that to attain the goal of existence we must follow the path He has traced and be guided by His principles; and finally, that it is only by making His modes of thought, affection, and action our own that we shall enjoy the life that is truly life.[6]  The will necessarily moves with love towards that which the intelligence presents to it as its good.  The study of the attractiveness of Jesus creates in the will the desire of conformity with Him and the practice of the virtues exemplified in His life.

There is only one humanity that is united of itself to the Divinity; that is the Humanity of Jesus, for it is united hypostatically.  If w e are to be united intimately with the Divinity it is necessary for us to prepare the way for that union by becoming assimilated to that Humanity.  How is this done ?  By assimilating ourselves to Jesus in thought, in affections, in principles and in ideals — i.e.  by reproducing in our life the features of His human Life.  This paves the way for vital union with the Divinity that is in Jesus.  This union with the Divinity grows in proportion to the increase of sanctifying grace in the soul.  The ordinary channel for the communication of this grace of Christ is the Sacraments.  These confer greater or lesser grace as the dispositions of the soul resemble to a greater or lesser degree the dispositions of the soul of Jesus of Nazareth.  Therefore our considerations in prayer are meant to set before our will as an object to venerate, to admire, to love and to imitate, the ideal of human life portrayed in the life of Jesus on earth.  Our prayer must inspire us with the desire to shape our actions after the model set up by the Savior as the means to union with God.  We must be attracted to the loveliness of God by the loveliness of Jesus.  God is the supreme and ultimate good, and everything else, even virtue, is good only in as much as it leads to the possession of Him.

Of course God reveals Himself to us in the works of creation, and from the contemplation of these, we can acquire a certain knowledge of the greatness, of the power, of the beauty and perfection of God, and with the light of revelation to help we could develop in ourselves a kind of personal regard for the Author of all created things.  But this drawing towards God could with difficulty attain to the nature of love; it would remain strongly impregnated with fear and awe:  its most perfect expression would be reverence — the reverence of the creature devoted to its Creator.  Hence it was that those who lived under the old dispensation scarcely knew God as a Father; for all created things are limited and imperfect, and therefore generate but a very imperfect notion of God; they tend to generate even a false one on account of the weakness of will and intellect that followed on the fall.  This was the reason why even the chosen people had such a proneness to idolatry — a thing which many find very difficult to understand.  But in our Lord's life the attributes of God are reflected without the slightest shadow of imperfection and in all their lovableness.  His sacred Humanity reveals God to us in a most attractive form and it becomes possible for us to love God and desire to be united with Him, this being the end of prayer, as it is the end of all our relations with God.

There can be union only between beings that are alike; to be united with God we must be like Him, assimilated to Him, conformed in the passions and affections of our humanity to the passions and affections of that Humanity which He made His own.  That Humanity is the bridge of union between Him and us.  The function of mental prayer, then, as an act of our mind, is to study and contemplate the features of the life of Jesus Christ with a view to reproducing the traits of that life in ourselves and so disposing ourselves to growth in the divine life of grace.  When we have made progress in this contemplation it is possible for us to fix our gaze on created things, on the world itself and the events that take place in it — and that without danger to ourselves.  For the Sacred Humanity has rectified our ideas about all created things and in Its light we can study creatures without fear of being led astray by them.  When the mind has attained the view-point of Jesus Christ, distraction in prayer does not normally turn the soul from God, for every object that comes before the mind, every work, every event, is instinctively reviewed in the relation in which it stands to Him, and all will therefore (though at times insensibly) lead the mind back to God.

So far there has been question only of the soul's acts in prayer.  These, however, do not constitute the whole of this exercise.  Prayer has been defined as a familiar intercourse or conversation with God.  It is a being present with God and associating with Him, as we associate with those we love on earth.  Now two spirits cannot be present to each other, since such presence is by means of acts, without strongly influencing each other.  In this intercourse the activity is not all one sided; it is not wholly on our side.  The Divine Spirit is operative as well as the human.  God incessantly plays His part and this is an active one.  A conversation is not a speech delivered before a person, it involves an interchange of thought; and as our thought is directed towards God, so God's thought is directed towards us.

God is intensely operative and if the soul has willed to draw near to God, He on His side, tends to draw near to it.  The effect of the contact of two spirits is one of assimilation, i.e.  one is made like the other.  The soul by its activity cannot assimilate God to itself, for God cannot change; the activity of God therefore is directed towards assimilating the soul to Himself.  God therefore takes up the soul and assimilates it to Himself, and this in proportion as the soul by its own acts, helped by grace, abdicates itself and lives the life of God by acting habitually and intensely under a motive of faith and of charity.  When the soul attains to the point of practically always acting not merely under a habitual or virtual, but an actual motive of faith,[7]  it has already arrived at an advanced stage in the life of ordinary prayer; for this conscious assumption of all its activities under a rule or principle of faith makes its prayer continuous, uninterrupted and unceasing.  The actuality and vividness of the faith clears the soul's activity of the influence of self, and accordingly God's influence enters to an ever higher degree into such activities.  Persons who live this life of faith in a sustained manner carry about with them an air of the divine easily perceptible by those with whom they come in contact.  There is nothing which helps more to foster and develop this life of faith than the habit of seeing the will of God in all things even the most insignificant, in the petty trials, disappointments, checks and even in the pleasures and satisfactions that come our way.

The considerations — that is, the meditation strictly so called — have an ultimate purpose.  That purpose is to create in our minds a form or an ideal of life and action, an ideal which is presented by our intelligence to our will, as our highest good.

Thus habitual prayer demands an habitual sense of God's presence — demands, which is more accurate, God being continually present to us.  Now there are different and varying degrees of presence of persons, one with another.  In a social gathering many people are assembled in the same room within easy reach of one another.  All are bodily present in the same place.  As is often the case, those who are assembled together in great social gatherings come as strangers one to another.  The vast majority of them meet, perhaps, for the first time.  What happens is that each looks around in the assembly for the few with whom he is on terms of acquaintanceship or friendship, and engages in conversation with these.  For the group thus formed the others are as if they were not there at all.  The friends that meet and converse are present to one another; they are present to themselves but not to the others, and this presence deepens in the degree in which their conversation springs from a common interest or causes a deepening of mutual understanding.  The more their mutual interests and tastes lead to an active interchange of thoughts and views and to a strengthening of the bonds that bind them together, the deeper grows the presence.  If again one of the guests takes the lead in the conversation and all the others dominated by his personality cease to speak and give themselves to the task of listening, the speaker becomes present to everybody in the room, but not everybody to him — those only are present to him who have led him on to conversation, and interest in whom, incites him to speak.

So it is, in a measure, in our relations with God.  We have already seen that mere bodily presence before the tabernacle, or mere recitation of formulae does not constitute God present to us; for that, it is needful that the powers of our soul be occupied with God and with the things of God.  Now in prayer there is reciprocal action, prayer is a conversation.  It is as essential a part of mental prayer that God should address Himself to us, as that we should address our- selves to Him.[8]  He speaks to us through the deepening of our faith, through the illumination He supplies to our intelligence, to the penetration into the mysteries of our religion that He grants us, and through the impulse to good that He gives to our wills.  He speaks to us above all, by the life and actions of Jesus Christ — these are "His Word" to us — His Own "Word." "God Who, at sundry times and in divers manners, spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets, last of all, in these days, hath spoken to us by His Son, Whom He hath appointed Heir of all things, by whom also He made the World, Who being the brightness of His glory, and the figure of His substance, sitteth on the right hand of the majesty on High."[9]  We become present with God by having present in thoughts, affection and in imagination the life of Jesus.  We associate with and converse with God by associating and conversing in spirit with Jesus.  He Himself said:  "Philip, he that seeth me, seeth the Father also."[10]  God on His side mingles familiarly with our life and its concerns, through and in the life of His Word on earth.  He communicates His light and His Life to us through Him.  Jesus is the channel of the communication of divine grace.  Prayer consists in living with and conversing with Jesus with a view to becoming like to Him.  Prayer is literally the instrument of a transforming process by which we leave our own form and put on the form of The Son of Man.  The function of prayer consists in stripping us of earthly desires:  "Stripping yourselves of the old man with his deeds, and putting on the new, him who is renewed unto knowledge, according to the image of him that created him."[11]  The following words from the autobiography of St. Teresa form a fitting conclusion to the chapter.  "By thought we can put ourselves in the presence of Christ, set ourselves gradually aflame by a great love for the Sacred Humanity, keep company with Him at all times, speak to Him, recommend our needs to Him, seek compassion from Him in our trials, rejoice with Him in our consolations, keep ourselves from forgetting Him in times of prosperity.  Let us not seek to make beautiful speeches to Him; but rather speak simply to express our desires and wants.  This is an excellent method and makes us advance in a very short time.  The person who studies how to live in this precious company and draws there- from a genuine love for the Master who has showered so many benefits upon us, that person, I assert, has gone forward in the way of prayer.  So that we must not grow disconsolate, as I have already said, if the feeling of devotion is lacking.  Let us rather give thanks to Our Lord, Who despite the imperfections in our works, keeps alive within us the desire of pleasing Him.

"This method of prayer, which consists in keeping oneself in the company of the Savior, is profitable at every stage.  It is a very certain means of progressing in the first degree of prayer and of reaching the second in a short time.  And in the last stages it serves as a protection against the temptations of the devil.''[12] 

Endnotes:

  1. Ven.  Libermann, Ecrits Spirituels, p. 82. no. 2.
  2. I Jonn I. 1-2.
  3. Faber.  Bethlehem, chap. I. Quoted from Rigoleuc L'Homme d'Oraison p. 35.
  4. The word "meditation" is used to designate that kind of mental prayer in which the considerations of the mind are very prominent and prolonged, in this case the name of the first and most salient part is given to the whole.
  5. Ven.  Libermann, Ecrits Spirituels, p. 294.
  6. I Tim.  vi. 19.
  7. This means an actual intention at the beginning of each small series of acts.
  8. St. Francis de Sales says:  "Prayer is a colloquy, a discourse or a conversation of the soul with God, by it we speak to God and He again speaks to us; we aspire to Him and breathe in Him, and He reciprocally inspires us and breathes in us." (Treatise on Love of God, Vl.)
    St. Vincent de Paul says:  " Prayer is a conversation of the soul with God, an intercourse of the spirit in which God teaches it in an interior way what it should know and do and in which the soul says to God what He Himself teaches it to ask for." (Conf.  on Prayer, 1648.)
    Abbot Marmion, speaking of prayer says:  "In a conversation one both listens and speaks.  The soul gives itself up to God and God communicates Himself to the soul." (Christ the life of the Soul. c. x, Part II.)
  9. Heb.  I. 1-3.
  10. St. John xiv. 9.
  11. St. Paul, Col.  iii 9-10.
  12. Life by Henelj, Ch.  xii.

Progress Through Mental Prayer
by Edward Leen, C.S.Sp.

Part I
The Nature of Prayer

                  Introduction
Chapter 1 - The Aim of Mental Prayer
Chapter 2 - Perseverance in Prayer
Chapter 3 - Vocal Prayer
Chapter 4 - The Ordinary Process of Mental Prayer
Chapter 5 - The Transforming Effect of Mental Prayer
Chapter 6 - The First Stage in the Transformation
Chapter 7 - The Second Stage in the Transformation
Chapter 8 - The Third Stage in the Transformation
Chapter 9 - Mount Thabor

Part II
Method in Mental Prayer Considered
in its Fundamental Principles

Chapter 10 - The Vision of Faith Purified by Mental Prayer
Chapter 11 - The Preliminary Acts in Mental Prayer
Chapter 12 - The Body of Mental Prayer
Chapter 13 - Progress in Mental Prayer: Its Effect on Method

Part III
Elements that make for
Progress in Mental Prayer

Chapter 14 - Dispositions Requisite for Mental Prayer
Chapter 15 - Spiritual Reading
Chapter 16 - Mortification: A Condition of Life
Chapter 17 - Silence: A Means to Recollection


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Acknowledgement

Father Edward Leen, C.S.SP. "The Ordinary Process of Mental Prayer." chapter 4 from Progress Through Mental Prayer (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1937) 46-57.

Progress Through Mental Prayer is in the public domain.

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The Author

Father Edward Leen, C.S.SP. was born in Ireland in 1885 and entered the Holy Ghost Fathers being ordained in 1914. He was president of Blackrock College in Ireland from 1925 to 1931 and then became professor of philosophy at Kimmage Manor, Dublin. During this time he gave many retreats and conferences, especially to religious communities and he became widely known as a master of spiritual matters. His conference and lecture notes became the basis for his many books on prayer and the spiritual life. He visited the United States once in 1939. He died in 1944 in Dublin. He is the author of Progress Through Mental Prayer, The Holy Spirit, Why the Cross?, In the Likeness of Christ, The Voice of a Priest, and In the Likeness of Christ.

Copyright © Father Edward Leen, C.S.SP.
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