You may have come across the quote attributed to St Francis de Sales: “Everyone of us needs half an hour of prayer every day, except when we are busy—then we need an hour.” Now, I’m sure that 15 minutes in a busy day is fantastic, but you get the point—make time for prayer!
A few times I’ve mentioned this and some close Catholic friends confided that they didn’t know where to begin with mental prayer—they’re sure they’re hopeless at it—which is an awful thing to think.
Take the first idea of mental prayer, personified in Fr Faber’s hymn:
O Mother, I could weep for mirth,
Joy fills my heart so fast;
My soul today is heaven on earth,
Oh, may the transport last !
I think of thee, and what thou art,
Thy majesty, thy state—-
And I keep singing in my heart;
Immaculate ! Immaculate !
In this idea, you kneel down, open your heart and you are transported to seventh heaven where consolation and bliss fills your soul.
Now, I’m not going to say that’s impossible, but it is certainly not the ordinary experience. With this sort of expectation you are likely to be disappointed and feel like a failure—just like my friends related. But this is not practising mental prayer! This is like sitting at the piano for the first time and wondering why you can’t play Liebestraum.
On the other hand, take St Thomas Aquinas via Gerard Manley Hopkins:
Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore,
Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more,
See, Lord, at thy service low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.
There – you kneel down and contemplate God. You acknowledge your own unworthiness – not to feel bad about yourself, but to reflect the reality of the amazing love of God for us.
There are many, many, many methods of mental prayer available. Just like a piano method they require some patience and repetition before prayer starts coming naturally. Just like learning the piano, if it doesn’t seem to be working you can turn to someone for advice. That’s what spiritual directors are for.
Maybe a good way to start is to take this from the new Enchridion of Indulgences:
A partial indulgence is granted to that individual among the faithful who, in carrying out his duties and bearing with the trials of life, raises his mind in humble trust to God, adding—even mentally—some pious invocation.
A little each day for 2016!