“How well do you pray?” To that question, the average Catholic probably would answer, “Not as well as I’d like to.” The better the Catholic, the more likely it is that such would be his answer. To those of us who are dissatisfied with our efforts at prayer, it is a comfort to remember that God asks of us only that we do our best. It may be that we are not praying as well as we might wish, but if we are praying as well as we can, we are praying well.
However, it is possible that some of us are more imperfect in prayer than we need to be, simply because we understand poorly the nature of prayer. We all learned in childhood that prayer is “the raising of our mind and heart to God.” In spite of having learned the definition, a surprising number of people think of prayer as “talking to God,” as though words were the important element in prayer.
Some of our best prayer is prayer in which we use no words at all. Silently, we turn our thoughts to God in a spirit of reverence. We think of Him, of His goodness and His mercy perhaps. Our heart moves in an act of gratitude to Him, or we experience a sense of shame and sorrow at not having done more for Him. We think of His lovableness and wish that we could love Him more ardently, and we perhaps resolve to try harder to deserve His love. All this is done—or can be done—without any words at all. This activity of mind and heart is called mental prayer, as distinct from vocal prayer.
To make more graphic the nature of mental prayer, let us imagine a father standing at a window watching his children playing in the yard. Wordlessly he gazes at the children, while his heart goes out to them in an act of love and protectiveness, with a determination, too, to be a good father to them. Similarly, in mental prayer we “look at” God, and our hearts go out to Him in an act of love. Perhaps with our love are mixed sentiments of gratitude, repentance, or renewed and more generous loyalty. This is a moment of prayer at its best.
If we wish to make progress in prayer, we have only to make room for more such moments in our lives. We can do it in church, with prayer book closed as we gaze at the tabernacle. We can do it in the privacy of our own room. We can do it on a solitary walk. We can do it on the bus, with eyes closed to the passing scene. There are many opportunities, if we watch for them.
The great advantage of mental prayer is that it gives God a chance to speak to us, and this is essential to fruitful prayer. I am not saying that vocal prayer is to be abandoned. There are times and places when vocal prayer is the best prayer—at Mass, for example, and in other public services when we pray together. There are times, too, when the mind is too distracted or tired to focus wordlessly upon God, and there are times when we wish to gain the indulgences attached to certain vocal prayers. The point I am making is that prayer is (or ought to be) an interchange with God. It is an occasion of special and intimate union with God. If it is to be a true interchange, a genuine union, God must have His opportunity. There must be moments of silent contemplation when God can speak (wordlessly, as we have spoken) in His turn to our heart.
These moments will come more easily if we try, habitually, to live our lives in union with God. This means that we begin our day with a whole-hearted offering of our day to God—all our thoughts, words, actions, joys, and sufferings. Following our morning offering, our day becomes one great prayer, with every moment a source of eternal merit. Our mind will not consciously be on God all the time, for we must give attention to our work and other activities. However, the thought of God will never be far below the surface. We shall find it easy to cast Him, now and then, a quick glance of love.