A+ A A-

Mental Prayer and Spiritual Exercises


In "Fire From Above", Dr. Anthony Lilles, Academic Dean at St. John's Seminary in California, shows you how to put your whole life in conversation with the Risen Lord within the Catholic tradition of spirituality.

lilleslrg Contemplative prayer captures the heart in love and leaves it in a kind of speechless wonder that it does not understand.  Mental or contemplative prayer for Teresa of Ávila involves attentiveness to the presence of God.  In her efforts to be attentive to Him, she meditated on Christ within her or read a spiritual book to place herself in the presence of God.  These spiritual exercises dispose the heart for deeper kinds of contemplation.

While doing this, Teresa would oftentimes experience the Lord suddenly making Himself felt in such a way that she could no longer doubt that He was in her or that she was totally immersed in Him.  She sometimes even felt suspended outside herself in love unable to remember or think about anything but Him.  She explained that the only understanding of this she enjoyed was that she knew she understood nothing about it.  His presence was too immense, too beautiful, and too intimate to understand.  She identifies this experience as "mystical theology."

She recommends two kinds of spiritual exercises for disposing ourselves to the Lord's presence.  We can think about Jesus and various scenes of His life, or we can carefully examine our lives and search for His presence in our memories.  Both of these efforts to meditate open up moments of deep intimacy with the Lord.  This spiritual exercise of our imagination, understanding, and affectivity renders us mindful of Him.

During meditation, in very gentle and profound ways, sometimes noticed and sometimes not, He touches us when we try to exercise sincere and mindful devotion.  As we call to mind the Passion of Christ, the thought of Him who was pierced for our offenses can also pierce us.  As we call to mind His mercy in our lives, we find countless instances of His kindness for which the only proper response is sober gratitude and adoration.

Contemplative Prayer and Distractions

Contemplative prayer involves a determined effort to attend to the Lord and to allow the heart to rest in the things of God.  Saint Teresa's conversion involved ongoing dedication to this kind of prayer.  She strove to make her days begin with holy thoughts and desires worthy of the Lord.  She would baptize her imagination and her intellect by reading teachings on prayer and the wisdom of the saints.

Her effort was not to work herself up into an emotional state.  Compunction is evoked, not produced.  This holy sorrow is a gift, the response of the heart to something the Lord has to say.  Saint Teresa's effort to meditate was instead a matter of learning to listen.

For Saint Teresa, mental prayer is nothing other than a holy conversation with God.  Like any worthwhile conversation, in order to have something worthwhile to say, we must listen.  In the case of mental prayer, listening involves a special attentiveness to the mystery of God's presence with all the powers of our being.

In addition to thinking about the life of the Lord, we can also reflect on all the wonderful ways God is present in our lives. 

Mental prayer is the effort to render one's whole existence vulnerable to truths so unfathomable that they can only be received and accepted, but never fully grasped.  This kind of prayer does not aim at achieving a spiritual or psychic state.  It is not primarily ordered toward attaining enlightened consciousness.  It is a simple and humble movement of trust, a seeking of the truth in love.  The proper use of spiritual exercises in this kind of prayer consists, therefore, in the humble effort to welcome the truth.

We can be pierced to the heart only when we learn to listen with this kind of obedience.  Such attentiveness is a radical availability to the will of God over and above the projections of our own ego and personal projects.  Beyond any scheme for self-improvement, this obedient readiness to respond to God requires a prayerful receptivity.  This total availability of a listening heart "sees" or "contemplates" God because nothing in such a heart obscures His self-disclosure.

How do we discipline ourselves to listen to God rightly?  We return to Saint Teresa's image of prayerful meditation as drawing water from a well.  We need to embrace spiritual exercises that turn our attention to the Lord anew.  As we noted at the beginning of this discussion, this means pondering the mysteries of Christ's life or mystery of Christ revealed in our own life story.

When our minds are scattered on unholy and frivolous things before prayer, a simple firm decision to attend to the presence of God is a good first step.  Sometimes we need to be determined not to allow our minds to wander into problem solving or into entertaining fantasies.  Instead, out of love for the Lord, we resolve that this time that we have set aside for God belongs to Him alone.

Fire from Above

A holy picture or the Bible or a good book on prayer can help us renounce these distractions.  Gazing on an icon or a crucifix helps dispose our senses and imagination to this conversation with God.  Thoughtfully repeating a Scripture verse or recounting moments in the life of the Lord opens our minds to this contemplative work.  Then, closing our eyes, we can also think about holy things until we are filled with wonder.  Perseverance in this effort, even when peppered with distraction, is already the beginning of mental prayer.

In addition to thinking about the life of the Lord, we can also reflect on all the wonderful ways God is present in our lives.  Saint Augustine's Confessions, a work very dear to Teresa of Ávila, is filled with this kind of prayer.  He looks back and sees all that the Lord has done in the face of his own sin.  He confesses the folly of his pride to help us see the righteousness of God.  He confesses his sexual struggles and weakness so that we might understand the greatness of purity and God's strength in us.  His journey into prayer became a journey into truth, goodness, beauty, and life — and he witnesses in all of this that the Lord spoke to him personally, not with human speech, but with words that pierced the very marrow of his being.

During meditation, in very gentle and profound ways, sometimes noticed and sometimes not, He touches us when we try to exercise sincere and mindful devotion.

In many ways, Saint Teresa of Ávila's autobiographical work, La Vida, is the same kind of work that the Confessions represents.  Like Augustine, we find her recounting events from her past life and marveling at the ways God was so close to her even when she was very far from God.  This goes beyond a mere autobiography.  It is a personal witness to what happens when a soul finally listens to the Lord.

Personal reflection on her own life was a moment of prayer for her.  This gave her a new occasion to submit all her memories and struggles to the Lord all over again and to discover in deeper ways the beautiful work that He was accomplishing in her.  Like these saints, we have so much to be thankful for, and we are so little aware of all that God has done.

This kind of mental prayer is almost always possible when we are honest with ourselves.  This is true even when our hearts do not seem to feel what they should when we think about holy things.  Whether we contemplate Christ dying for us on the Cross or whether we turn our attention to the Lord's mysterious presence in our neighbor, this raising of our mind to God and the things of God is already the threshold of prayer.

Cultivating a Love for Silence

Saint Teresa learned that, although in the beginning drawing up this spiritual water took a lot of effort and determination, at a certain stage it became easier and easier for her to rest in the loving awareness of God's presence.  She called this ability to rest in God's presence the prayer of quiet.

Such prayer is the holy recollection of the powers of our soul in Christ, a silent stillness before the mystery of His presence, and an adoring openness to His generous love.  It is like standing at the threshold of heaven.  In her reflection on the Lord's Prayer, Saint Teresa turns our attention to the immanent presence of our heavenly Father — a reality she insists that we must not only believe but also understand by lived experience:

Withdraw into solitude and look for Him within.  Do not neglect so good a Guest.  With great humility, instead, speak to Him as to a father.  Tell Him about your trials, ask Him for help, and realize that you are not worthy.

Along the same lines Saint John of the Cross encourages:

Rejoice and enjoy your interior recollection with Him, for He is so close to you.  Desire Him within, adore Him there.



lilles Anthony Lilles, S.T.D. "Mental Prayer and Spiritual Exercises." from Fire from Above: Christian Contemplation and Mystical Wisdom (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2016): 161-166.

Reprinted with permission of Sophia Institute Press and the author.

The Author

lilles1 lilles2 Anthony Lilles, S.T.D. is the Academic Dean and Associate Professor of Theology, St. John's Seminary, Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and Academic Advisor at Juan Diego House, House of Formation for Seminarians. He holds both the ecclesiastical licentiate and doctorate in spiritual theology from the Angelicum. He was a founding faculty member of Saint John Vianney Seminary in Denver where he also served as academic dean, department chair, director of liturgy and coordinator of spiritual formation for the permanent deacon program. He is the author of Fire from Above: Christian Contemplation and Mystical Wisdom, Hidden Mountain, Secret Garden: A Theological Contemplation on Prayer, and co-authored with Dan Burke 30 Days with Teresa of Avila. He blogs at and

Copyright © 2016 Sophia Institute Press
back to top