The Active Work of Meditation

Photography by John Neff | Shutterstock


“Prayer involves our mind, heart, and will. It involves our intellect, memory, imagination, and emotions.”


Last week, we looked at the importance of making a plan if we are going to cultivate a prayer life. Cultivating an active, healthy prayer life is difficult – not because it is against our nature, but because we are fallen human beings. We know we are supposed to pray, but it can be easy to get overwhelmed. Do you ever feel like you don’t know how to pray? Well, if you want any consolation that you’re not alone in that thought, just check out St Paul: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).

So do not get frustrated if you find it hard to pray or you don’t know where to start.  It doesn’t mean you are bad, it means you are normal fallen human being. Our communion with God was ruptured in the Fall. So while we may feel at times like God is hiding from us, it’s the reverse. We hide from God.

So begin your prayer time by praying to the Holy Spirit, who prays for us when we do not know how.

In this post, we are going to look at the idea of mental prayer and meditation. There are three expressions of prayer: vocal, meditative, and contemplative. Vocal prayer probably comes most naturally to you. Even if not said out loud, vocal prayers include things like the Rosary, the Liturgy of the Hours, novenas, and litanies. We were created body and soul, and vocal prayer involves the senses in our prayer.

It’s also important to unite our minds and intellect with our prayer. It’s not enough to say the words – we have to enter into mental prayer, too. St. Alphonsus Ligouri wrote, “And by experience we see that many persons who recite a great number of vocal prayers, the Office and the Rosary, fall into sin, and continue to live in sin. But he who attends to mental prayer scarcely ever falls into sin, and should he have the misfortune of falling into it, he will hardly continue to live in so miserable a state; he will either give up mental prayer or renounce sin.  Meditation and sin cannot stand together.  However abandoned a soul may be, if she perseveres in meditation, God will bring her to salvation.”

You cannot dialogue with Christ while continuing to choose things in your life that separate you from Him (sin). You cannot speak to God daily without it impacting your life. You’ll either stop talking to Him or stop choosing sin. So what is this practice of meditation or mental prayer? 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that meditation is “above all a quest” (CCC 2705). This is an important reminder and image. Prayer is active. God meets us in prayer, but He does not spoon feed us. We receive the Spirit, we open ourselves to receiving the gifts He has for us, and we enter into silence… but that does not mean prayer is passive. Our relationship with God is not passive. Docile, sure. Vulnerable and receptive, yes. But not passive. 

Prayer is active. Prayer involves our mind, heart, and will. It involves our intellect, memory, imagination, and emotions. After all, God created us with an imagination. He gave us an intellect. He wants us to use them in prayer. “The mind seeks to understand the why and how of the Christian life, in order to adhere and respond to what the Lord is asking” (CCC 2705).

When we enter into a time of mental prayer, we are going to be asking questions. We are going to be using our imagination and stirring up emotion and desire. We are actively pursuing a conversation with God. “Meditation engages thought, imagination, emotion, and desire. This mobilization of faculties is necessary in order to deepen our convictions of faith, prompt the conversion of our heart, and strengthen our will to follow Christ” (CCC 2708).

Notice that meditation is not an emptying of the mind or heart. Christian meditation is not about letting thoughts pass away or making oneself empty. Rather, Christian meditation is about filling one’s heart with Christ and centering one’s thoughts on Him. We should be wary of any prayer exercise that tells us to put aside the world and our senses in order to “ascend to the sphere of the divine.” This is not Christian meditation (for more on this, the CDF published a helpful letter that can be found here.

Since we are material beings, it is helpful to use material tools to help us pray. Next week, we will look at using Scripture to pray in more detail. But other tools of mental prayer include spiritual reading, the writings of the Fathers of the Church, or the texts of the liturgy.

Perhaps you take a small excerpt from a writing of a saint (I would recommend Christopher Blum’s beautiful compilation of the writings of St Francis de Sales, Roses Among Thorns). Read a few lines, then stop. What is the saint saying? Read it again. Does it pertain to your life situation right now? Sit in silence with it for awhile. Is there some aspect of your life that needs conversion? Is there a resolution that can be made? If your mind wanders, bring it back. Or if perhaps the wandering is part of the prayer – did someone come to mind that could use prayer? Did you remember something that you need to ask forgiveness for? Dialogue with Christ. That means speaking to Him about what is on your mind… and sitting in silence in case He wants to speak.

We could also use sacred art, icons, or sacred music to help us enter into mental prayer. Sit with Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee. What do you see? How are the disciples reacting? How would you react? Close your eyes, and imagine being in that situation. What does the sea smell like? What does the boat feel like? If Jesus is sleeping, what are your thoughts? What do you do? What storms are you facing today? Have you brought them to Jesus? Does it feel like He’s sleeping? Bring them to Him now. 

You can enter into mental prayer while observing a beautiful sunset or sitting by a creek. You can use a variety of things- whatever stirs your mind and heart; the most important thing is the conversation with God. Am I actively exercising the gifts He has given me (my intellect, my imagination, my desires)?

When drawing up your plan of life, do not neglect times of silence when you can enter into mental prayer. This type of prayer has to be a regular exercise for us if we are going to deepen our relationship with God. 

Keep in mind, however, that your plan of life has to reflect your state in life. Most of us cannot spend hours every day in mental prayer. This does not mean we do not do it at all. 

St. Francis de Sales reminds us, “There is a different practice of devotion for the gentleman and the mechanic; for the prince and the servant; for the wife, the maiden, and the widow; and still further, the practice of devotion must be adapted to the capabilities, the engagements, and the duties of each individual.”

Remember – the first step is to show up. Next week, we will look at a way to use Scripture in this exercise of mental prayer in an ancient way of praying called Lectio Divina.


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About the Author

Joannie Watson

Joan Watson was born and raised in Lafayette, Indiana, but college and graduate school took her to Virginia, Ohio, and Rome. After graduating from Christendom College with a B.A. in History and Franciscan University with a M.A. in Theology, she moved to Nashville, Tennessee to be part of the explosion of Catholic culture in the middle of the Bible Belt.

She has been blessed to work for Dr. Scott Hahn at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia at Aquinas College, and the Diocese of Nashville. She is currently a full-time Catholic speaker and writer. She also serves as the Associate Editor of Integrated Catholic Life.

When she’s not testing the culinary exploits of new restaurants or catching up on the latest BBC miniseries, she’s FaceTiming with her nine nephews and nieces and enjoying her role as coolest aunt. She likes gelato, bourbon, and the color orange.

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