When I was first learning about the Catholic Church I was taught about three kinds of prayer: vocal prayer, mental prayer, and contemplative prayer. Whether or not you have learned these particular names, I think they name ideas that most Catholics today have about prayer. And I think those ideas are very wrong.
I hope I don’t take too strong a stance here, but I’ll try to explain.
Vocal prayer is prayer with your voice. Mental prayer is prayer with your mind. Contemplative prayer is some sort of mystical prayer of union. Those definitions I think are correct.
What is incorrect is that we tend to think of these as things we do at different times.
So someone who prays the Liturgy of the Hours might think that saying those words is vocal prayer. But then he needs to set aside some time for mental prayer, by which he means some sort of spiritual exercise, probably using the imagination. And then if he’s really serious, he’ll set aside some more time for contemplation. I was taught about “the prayer of silence,” where you just sit and do nothing, and that’s contemplation.
Someone who prays the rosary might consider all the Hail Mary’s as vocal prayer, but then you have to add mental prayer. The mental prayer might mean that before you say the Hail Mary’s, you spend some time imagining the mysteries. It might also mean that while your mouth says the Hail Mary’s, your mind does a separate kind of prayer, imagining the mysteries while ignoring what the mouth is saying. And then if you’re really spiritual, maybe when the rosary is over you can just be silent and “contemplate.”
Many serious Catholics today think this is how the life of prayer works. I think they are missing the Catholic tradition’s deepest insights about prayer.
To the contrary, I think if you read the doctors of the Church and understand the traditional ways of prayer, these three things are supposed to happen at the same time. St. Benedict’s adage is, “let your mind be in harmony with your voice.” Mental prayer means that as you say your vocal prayers – the Liturgy of the Hours, the rosary, the Our Father, the Mass, whatever – you actually think about what you’re saying. Not about something else, but about what you’re saying.
If you read traditional masters of prayer – for example, I’ve been reading St. Catherine of Siena and St. Teresa of Avila, who are doctors of the Church because of their teaching on prayer – when they say that mental prayer is necessary, they don’t mean, “after you say your vocal prayers, set aside time to do something else.” What they mean, I think, is “pay attention to the words you’re saying.”
The words are there for a reason. We don’t say all those Hail Mary’s, or all the prayers of the Mass, or the Psalms, so that we can ignore them.
I call this “verbal prayer.” Words are something we say with our voice – and understand with our mind. Mooing or screaming are “vocal” activities that are not words – but the Church teaches us to pray with words, which engage our mind. Groaning is not the traditional Catholic way to pray.
Contemplation, it seems, is something that happens now and then while we are doing verbal prayer. Now and then we catch glimpses, we feel stabs of love. That’s something that happens while we are saying our vocal prayers with our minds attuned to our voices.
Teresa of Avila is insistent that contemplation is always a gift, “infused” not “acquired.” What she means, I think, is that it is foolish to set aside time for contemplation. Contemplation is something divine that happens while we are doing human kinds of prayer – verbal prayer.
She insists that we focus on the humanity of Christ. I think what she means – please, read her at greater length – is that we have to pray in human ways. Humans use words. The Psalms are the divine made human. The Gospels are the divine made human. Jesus is the divine made human.
When we separate contemplation from vocal and mental prayer, we separate the divine from the human. The whole point of Jesus – and of the Bible and the sacraments – is that we can come to God through human things. Do not separate the humanity from the divinity!
And she insists that she never prays without a book. That’s Teresa – but it’s even more in the rest of the tradition. Catholic prayer is verbal prayer.
Finally, prayer is not merely an act of will. The verbal prayer I am describing passes through our understanding: we catch contemplative glimpses when we understand the words that we say.
To make prayer into merely an act of will is to separate our intellect from our will. Christ does not carve up the human person. Our will and intellect are engaged together. We pray with our will by also praying with our intellect – and vice versa.
And to make prayer into merely an act of will is to separate humanity from divinity. At its root – historically, philosophically, and theologically – the idea that prayer is merely effort is really the idea that we encounter God by leaving our humanity behind, by leaving our understanding and our affections and just pushing. That might sound very heroic, but it is not the Catholic tradition. Human prayer – the prayer the saints describe – is humble; we attain God through the humanity of Christ, we do not leap into the heavens.
The Catholic tradition does lectio divina: reading and understanding and so contemplating. The Catholic tradition does liturgy: the most sublime prayer is prayer using words – words that we can understand. It is valuable – don’t get me wrong – to set aside time for silence and for various spiritual exercises. But these are not the highest forms of prayer – they are only preparations to pray better with words.
Where do words fit in your prayer life?