Vocal Prayer and Verbal Prayer

lauds1When 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?

Vatican II on Love of Scripture

The Second Vatican Council worked in various ways to strengthen the Church for the struggles of the modern world. One of its central strategies was to return to a traditional spirituality rooted in reading Scripture. This suffuses the document on the liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) and the entire approach of the documents on the Church (Lumen Gentium) and on the Church in the modern world (Gaudium et Spes).

The following quotations, from the concluding section of the document on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) reminds us of the centrality of sacred reading to the tradition – pointing out that this is why translations like the Greek Septuagint and the Vulgate existed in the first place. (Remember, the Vulgate was the central life work of the very St. Jerome who said, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.) It also gives a nicely concrete description of lectio divina: put yourself in touch with the sacred text itself!

MEETING DURING SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL FILE PHOTOEasy access to Sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful. That is why the Church from the very beginning accepted as her own that very ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament which is called the Septuagint; and she has always given a place of honor to other Eastern translations and Latin ones, especially the Latin translation known as the Vulgate.

But since the word of God should be accessible at all times, the Church by her authority and with maternal concern sees to it that suitable and correct translations are made into different languages, especially from the original texts of the sacred books. And should the opportunity arise and the Church authorities approve, if these translations are produced in cooperation with the separated brethren as well, all Christians will be able to use them. . . .

All the clergy must hold fast to the Sacred Scriptures through diligent sacred reading and careful study, especially the priests of Christ and others, such as deacons and catechists who are legitimately active in the ministry of the word. This is to be done so that none of them will become “an empty preacher of the word of God outwardly, who is not a listener to it inwardly” (St. Augustine) since they must share the abundant wealth of the divine word with the faithful committed to them, especially in the sacred liturgy.

The sacred synod also earnestly and especially urges all the Christian faithful, especially Religious, to learn by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures the “excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:8). “For ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” Therefore, they should gladly put themselves in touch with the sacred text itself, whether it be through the liturgy, rich in the divine word, or through devotional reading, or through instructions suitable for the purpose and other aids which, in our time, with approval and active support of the shepherds of the Church, are commendably spread everywhere.

And let them remember that prayer should accompany the reading of Sacred Scripture, so that God and man may talk together; for “we speak to Him when we pray; we hear Him when we read the divine saying” (St. Ambrose).

-Second Vatican Council, “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation,” Dei Verbum

Ordinary Time and Lectio Divina

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

What is “Lectio Divina”? Well, the words in Latin just mean, “divine reading.” I assume people who read a Web page like this are aware that it means something like, “prayerful reading of the Bible.”

You may also know that there is a popular four-step “technique” out there, explained especially in some of Pope Benedict XVI’s documents. Step one is “lectio”: read a passage of Scripture. Step two is “meditatio”: ponder what that passage says. Step three is “oratio”: once we have heard Christ speak to us, we speak to him in prayer. And step four is “contemplatio,” which Benedict describes as looking at our life from God’s perspective, and thus, he says, letting the Word convert us.

But there are other methods of lectio divina. Years ago some Benedictine monks taught me a simpler version of the same: read a short passage, pick out a short phrase that jumps out at you, and just chew on those couple of words – the early Church said a Christian chews on Scripture the way a cow chews its cud: sit with those words, see what they say.

Years later, I asked a friend who was a Benedictine monk (and is now an abbot) how he practiced lectio divina. He was a little confused by the question – because for the true monastic tradition, there is no technique. He said, “I just . . . read the Bible, prayerfully.”

In fact, the phrase “lectio divina” comes from chapter 48 of the Rule of St. Benedict, where Benedict says, “idleness is the enemy of the soul, so let the brothers spend some hours working with their hands, and the rest of the hours in lectione divina”: doing “divine reading.” He doesn’t mean, “practicing a certain technique of prayer.” He means, fill up your free time reading the Bible.


Pope Benedict’s four-step model, I think, just summarizes the medieval classic “The Ladder of Monks,” by Guigo II, a Carthusian writing around the year 1150. Carthusians are hermits, so even more than Benedict, Guigo’s central purpose is to talk about how you fill up the empty hours.

The “Ladder” is those four steps. But I think we get closer to what Guigo means – and probably what Pope Benedict means, too – if we keep the steps more closely united. We’re tempted to sort of leave our reading behind, and then take some “time for contemplation.” Guigo tells us that’s like pulling the ladder beneath us off of the ground – which doesn’t work very well!

Instead, we need to keep the bottom of the ladder firmly on the ground: keep our prayer rooted in reading. That’s the first part of his advice: the medieval tradition is insistent that we should never leave our reading behind. To them, any kind of “contemplation” that takes us away from the text for more than a few moments is probably more like spacing out than like real prayer. They strongly advise against that – as, interestingly, did the great Carmelite mystics, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.

“Contemplative time” is closer to the Buddhist tradition than to Catholic spirituality. Catholics read the Bible!

On the other hand, climb the ladder: read it prayerfully. Think about what you read. Pray about it. “Contemplate,” in the sense that you get your mind immersed enough in the reading that you really try to see what it sees. Or in other words: read, and read well.


Perhaps the best model for lectio divina, then, is just Ordinary Time. Ordinary Time, as we said on Monday, is about simply reading through the Scriptures. No tricks, no techniques. Reading the Scriptures is itself a great spiritual practice – the greatest, the one that we take even into the Mass itself, as the privileged way to prepare for communion.

We read the Scriptures prayerfully. Not in a class – though a class can help our lectio divina. Not hurriedly, though neither need we get bogged down. No, the perfect example of how to do lectio divina is when we actually read the Bible in the Mass: as part of our prayer, surrounded by prayer, drawing us into prayer. The Liturgy of the Word is the perfect example of lectio divina. That’s what we imitate in our own prayer.

And then we simply read. And as at Mass, our reading helps us gain familiarity with the stories, helps us learn what the Psalms and the Gospels are talking about. It “seasons” us, so that we learn to think the way the Bible talks. And it helps us to fall in love with the Biblical Word of God itself, to turn back again and again and simply meet Christ in his Word.

That is the heart of traditional Catholic spirituality: just to read.

How could you incorporate more Bible reading in your life?

A Lectio Divina Examination of Conscience

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

A practical idea for improving our prayer life.

On the one side, there is the Examination of Conscience. In theory, this is an important part of Catholic life. We have to do it to go to Confession. But more importantly, Confession is meant to teach us to have a sensitive conscience all the time, to be aware of the poor choices we make, our failures in love. A good examination of conscience helps us get beyond the question, “will I go to Hell for that?” and into the question, “does this action reflect who I want to be? Who Jesus wants me to be? Did it bring me closer to God? Did it help me to grow in love of my neighbor?”

In one sense, examination of conscience needs to be a constant thing: sensitivity of conscience. But in another sense, it’s important to have times of examining our conscience, to practice thinking through our actions and to take time to repent and start off in a new direction. We get better through practice.

The problem, I think, is that the examination can be a hassle. I think it is legitimate to make the following complaints:

-I don’t need “one more thing” when I’m already having trouble getting good times of prayer.

-I’d rather look at Jesus than at myself. Christianity really isn’t about navel-gazing.

-How do I know what to examine? There can be a circularity, where I only examine myself on the things I care about. But what if Jesus has other things I should be worrying about?


Another issue: Lectio Divina, the prayerful reading of Scripture. Scripture is the bread of the Christian’s life. The early Church described Christians as being like cows, chewing their cud. We are meant to be constantly grazing on Scripture, swallowing it, bringing it back up, chewing and chewing and chewing, internalizing, bringing it back up, chewing it again. This is the traditional spirituality of the Catholic Church, to which Vatican II urged us to return. (That it’s ecumenically friendly is a nice side effect.)

But again, how? The Bible’s confusing. It’s complicated. And it’s so big! Sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. And then what do we do?

There’s a popular theme out there, urged by Pope Benedict, that gives four steps to lectio divina. Step one: read. Step two: ponder (or meditate). Step three: pray, ask God to help you with what you’ve thought about. Step four: contemplate (whatever that means).

Okay. But frankly, to me, this feels a bit complicated. I think what it tries to describe is a much simpler process: not so much four steps as (1) reading (2) thoughtfully and (3) prayerfully, with (4) the occasional inspired glance upward as the Spirit moves us.

But whether we do the complicated four steps or the simple all-in-one, it can still be hard to get started. What should we read, and how do we know what it says?


So here’s an idea: examine your conscience with Scripture. Here’s how it works:

First, read a very short passage. Because we’re just looking for a bite, you don’t need this to be anything orderly. You can just open the Bible at random. Or you can go slowly – very slowly – through a Gospel. Or something else that sort of interests you. The Psalms are great, and this can help you pray them well in other contexts.

The point is, keep it really short, so you can keep it simple. Maybe a paragraph. Maybe a sentence, or less. For this exercise, give up trying to cover ground. You’re just looking for one little thing to think about right now.

Take from your reading a very short phrase. Just a couple words. One little image, one little phrase you can chew on.

Then, set aside a very short amount of time. Maybe five minutes. Maybe while you do the dishes, or pick up. (This can be a good excuse to do some picking up, as long as it’s mindless.) Maybe before you turn the radio on in the car. Doesn’t need to be long.

Next, examine your conscience with your phrase. The examination and the reading can help each other. Not sure what the reading means? Ask yourself the question, how does this accuse me? What is the challenge this phrase offers to me?

On the flip side, not sure how to examine your conscience? Let your very short phrase give you something particular to examine yourself on. Different every time, inspired every time, and a nice little challenge.

Just a small way to grow in intimacy with sacred Scripture.