‘Seek in reading and you will find in meditating; knock in mental prayer and it will be opened to you by contemplation.’ (CCC 2654)
Last year I realized my prayer life needed a boost, that I needed to draw closer to God. A few good priests I know suggested mental prayer.
I had tried this before, but my very busy brain refused to cooperate. I ran out of patience and gave up. Impatience is not one of my better qualities.
It was also suggested I read Time for God by Father Jacques Philippe. On the first page, Father Philippe seemed to address me directly, noting what a shame it was to get discouraged and quit.
“It’s a pity, because perseverance in mental prayer … is the narrow gate that opens the Kingdom of Heaven to us,” Father Philippe wrote.
Time for God is easy to read. I sensed that Father Philippe understood that many of us would need some handholding on the way to mental prayer. I certainly fit that category.
I had found many of his other books helpful, so I decided to trust him on this and try again. After all, who wouldn’t want to open those narrow gates to the Kingdom?
Just to be clear, I already had what I thought to be a rich prayer life.
I do the morning and evening Liturgy of the Hours, the Rosary at night and various novenas on occasion. I make sure to read the daily missal to pray with the Church. I even try to keep conscious during the day that all I see is from God and that he sustains all I see.
That seemed to me like a lot, but thinking that way was the problem.
Thinking about prayer in quantity is the equivalent of wearing a spiritual pedometer. It’s easy to get caught up on volume over quality. Also, and I know I’m not unique in this, such prayers as the Rosary can end up becoming mechanical. As much as I try to keep Mary and Jesus close, I still find myself distracted at times by worldly cares. I realized that suddenly wondering how my favorite baseball team was doing was the definition of distraction.
Here’s what I learned: Mental prayer is about becoming fully recollected, shutting out the noise, and placing oneself before God in an attitude of humility and love. Mental prayer is not a technique but, rather, a grace.
It’s important to have faith that God is real; to know that we pray because God wants us to; to recognize that there is no bad prayer and the importance of keeping a promise to meet God each day. It’s a chance to love God and feel his love.
From the outset, I began to worry that I didn’t love God as much as I should. Mental prayer brought that out.
Father Philippe assures readers that this is not uncommon, and there is a solution — if we are patient enough.
“God himself will give us the love with which we can love him,” he writes. “Strong, burning love for God does not come naturally. It is infused in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who will be given to us if we ask for him with persistence …”
So far, I’m being persistent. Every morning, for about 20 to 30 minutes, I practice mental prayer even when I don’t feel like it. It’s like a date with God, and I don’t want to stand him up. All the things I’ve been warned about that can make the road bumpy are there. I’ve been forewarned.
But at times, for a few precious moments, something happens. I can’t put it into words. It’s as if I’m being touched by something beyond me … yet familiar.
I find myself in those moments with tears falling down my face. And then it’s gone.
I still get frustrated. I forget why I started doing this in the first place.
But what made me think drawing closer to God was supposed to be easy?
The one clear bit of progress I’ve made is in persistence. I will keep at it, trusting in the Almighty that this is what God wants of me — of all of us.
The other night, I picked up one of my favorite spiritual books, The Power of Silence by Cardinal Robert Sarah. Reading it again, I realized a book about the importance of silence is also a book about prayer. It also encouraged me to persevere, no matter what, and to see I was blessed for trying.
“At the heart of man there is an innate silence, for God abides in the innermost part of every person,” Cardinal Sarah writes. “God is silence, and this divine silence dwells in man. In God we are inseparably bound up with silence.”