A+ A A-

Mental Prayer


If mental prayer, is a gift, freely given, what are we to do? It is simple. We watch and wait and cooperate as best we can. Our task is to be like the wise virgins who kept their lamps ready.


The contemplative life tramples on all cares and longs to see the face of its Creator.

-St. Gregory the Great (Hom. xiv in Ezech)

Through the centuries, abundant words have been written about mental prayer, providing the reader with steps, techniques, routines, systems and procedures for attaining union with God. Giugo II, a Carthusian, presented four steps. John Wessel Gansfort came up with 23. St. Teresa schemed out a celestial castle. Saints Francis de Sales, St. Alphonsus de Liguori, and Fr. Olier, among others, have all bequeathed us their opus operandi.

Which method should we choose? Actually, no method guarantees absolute success.

Mental prayer is not something that we can somehow buy with our efforts. It is a free gift from God. A union with Him. It happens so easily that an old man living in an alley, who has never in his life read a book on prayer, can experience it. It happens anywhere. In New York city rush hour traffic, in an army tank on a battlefield, in front of a high school locker: wherever God says, in His own splendid way, Im here. And, in a moment of grace, the soul rushes to Him.

Mental prayer is not as complicated as people think. Once the Cure of Ars asked a farm laborer, who spent hours gazing at the tabernacle, what he was doing. The man replied, I look at him, and he looks at me. [1]

No one really knows

St. Paul once wrote, We do not know how to pray as we ought [2] and, when it comes down to it, in all honesty, he is right. We have not a clue. Trying to achieve the pleasure of mental prayer, some spend hours reciting one vocal prayer after the next, as if each formal word somehow fashioned a step on the laborious stairway to heaven. Others waste time trying to create the proper environment. Is there enough light in the room? Should it happen outdoors? Would it be best if one went into a cave? Such controlling attitudes hinder progress, since the best state for mental prayer is the state of humility. That being the case, it usually happens when we think we are least capable, when we are least prepared.

God calls and we respond

Probably most who read this article have already experienced mental prayer, and more than once. The question is, how do we get it again. Can it be obtained on demand?

We are not the ones who initiate mental prayer. God is. He starts by calling us. Every second. Every minute. Every hour. Always. He desires us. He thirsts for us. We need to realize that He is very near us, standing at the well. If only you knew what God is offering and who it is that is saying to you: give me a drink. [3] When we recognize that Jesus is close, we sense his thirst for us which, at first, is delicate and almost imperceptible. At those moments, we are just a breath away from union. We need only to respond by yielding to Gods grace, ceasing whatever activity that occupies us, if charity allows.

There are no words in true mental prayer; it is characterized more often as the satisfaction of eager longing. St. John of the Cross refers to it as silent love. [4] St. Catherine of Siena, a Doctor of the Church, describes it as the minds being drawn and raised by desire and further says that ... perfect prayer is not attained to through many words, but through affection of desire ... [5]


Where there is love, God is present. Because of this, it is common that when a person, by Gods grace, performs a true act of charity, not only the giver, but also the receiver experiences union with God, i.e., mental prayer. Recently, a Dominican sister in a third-world country found the half-naked body of a woman, covered with lice, on the front seat of her car. Others were watching. As that sister, out of love, bent down to caress and care for that woman, not only did she experience Gods love but also the witnesses did as well. How many people who read this article can recall having an acute experience of God, while either performing, witnessing or receiving an act of charity? Obviously, mental prayer is not isolated from action; it does not happen in a vacuum.


One of the highest degrees of mental prayer is reached at moments of conversion, the points in time when the agonized soul in animi cruciatus (affliction of spirit) turns toward God and hopes in His Mercy, crying out in a way that could never be put in words, God, be merciful to me a sinner! [6] In these moments, the soul realizes its weakness and, like the prodigal son, journeys back to God, who, seeing him in the distance, runs to him, kisses him tenderly, gives him a robe, a ring, and a banquet. [7] To hope in Gods mercy is a form of mental prayer.

What are we to do?

If mental prayer, is a gift, freely given, what are we to do? It is simple. We watch and wait and cooperate as best we can. Our task is to be like the wise virgins who kept their lamps ready.

God is always there, waiting for us to respond to His desire. But, barriers come between us and cause us to forget His presence. What are the barriers? Of course, there is sin, which can hinder our cooperation with grace. There is Satan, who tempts us. There is our own weak will, laziness, dullness, and the distractions of the material world. There is pride.

To overcome these barriers, we should persevere in the faithful reception of the Sacraments of Eucharist and Penance, which are direct meetings with Christ. We should develop the habit of saying vocal prayers in the morning and before we retire. The daily recitation of the Most Holy Rosary, is an excellent way of keeping the life of Jesus and Mary in mind. We should also try to read Holy Scripture. In this way, though we may not penetrate the wall that impedes our delight in mental prayer, we are, nevertheless, inclining ourselves toward God.

During these kinds of practices, however, we should always remember, that, if at any time during vocal prayer and exterior piety, we feel Gods thirst for us, we should cease whatever occupies us and immediately yield our souls to Him. St. Catherine explains, ... the moment she feels her mind disposed by My visitation, in the many ways I have told you, she should abandon vocal prayer ... she will thus arrive from the vocal imperfect prayer, exercised with perseverance, at perfect mental prayer. [8]


  1. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2715. Back to text.
  2. Romans 8:26. Back to text.
  3. John 4:10. Back to text.
  4. Maxims and Counsels, p. 678. Back to text.
  5. St. Catherine, Dialogues, Vocal to Mental Prayer (see Back to text.
  6. Luke 18:9-14. Back to text.
  7. Luke 15:11-24 Back to text.
  8. St. Catherine, Dialogues, Vocal to Mental Prayer (see Back to text.


Sullivan, Sister Mary Ann. Mental Prayer. Catholic Faith (November/December 1996).

Reprinted by permission of The Catholic Faith. The Catholic Faith is published bi-monthly and may be ordered from Ignatius Press, P.O. Box 591090, San Francisco, CA 94159-1090. 1-800-651-1531.

The Author

Sister Mary Ann Sullivan, O.P. is a Dominican religious and a writer.

Copyright © 1996 TheCatholicFaith
back to top