Interior, conversational prayer with God—which the Catholic spiritual tradition customarily terms “mental prayer” to distinguish it from “vocal prayer,” which is recited audibly—is a key spiritual discipline without which there is little prospect for growth in holiness for the baptized believer. Therefore, catechesis about the role of mental prayer in the spiritual life and the techniques or methods of mental prayer is an urgent necessity in our age and every age.
The Meaning and Importance of “Mental Prayer”
The term “mental prayer” is traditional but can be misunderstood in contemporary discourse because the term “mental” can suggest “rational,” “speculative,” or “intellectual.” But that is not the meaning at all. Mental prayer is the prayer of our heart, our soul. It is interior conversation, communion with God in the center of our being. The traditional idea of mental prayer corresponds closely to what the Catechism calls “meditation” (2705–2708) but with practice and spiritual maturity can grow into “contemplation” or “contemplative prayer” as well (2709–2719). “Mental” only denotes external silence as opposed to vocal recitation; “meditation” and “contemplation” are different interior acts of the mind and soul that take place in such silent prayer.
Many great saints and spiritual writers have emphasized the importance of mental prayer. St. Ignatius of Loyola is reputed to have quipped, “Holiness is impossible without it.” St. Teresa of Ávila is well known for her emphasis on mental prayer, as most of her Autobiography is devoted to discussing the stages and challenges of such prayer and her own experience of growth in it. For Teresa, such prayer was a nonnegotiable of the Christian life: “He who neglects mental prayer needs no devil to carry him to hell. He brings himself there with his own hands.” Such a statement may seem harsh, but Teresa is not saying that God punishes the person who neglects prayer by sending them to hell. Rather, prayer maintains and grows the love of God in one’s heart, without which our love of God grows cold and we lose the desire to choose heaven—which is the fullness of God’s love—and we begin to desire God’s absence, which is hell. St. Josemaría Escrivá with his characteristic pithiness writes: “A saint, without prayer? I don’t believe in such sanctity. If you are not a man of prayer, I don't believe in the sincerity of your intentions when you say that you work for Christ.” And “If you abandon prayer, you may at first live on spiritual reserves . . . and after that, by cheating.”
Challenges to the Practice of Mental Prayer
Nonetheless, even many Christians who are convinced that mental prayer is a necessity of the Christian life do not find the practice easy. Distraction and wandering thoughts constitute a major problem, as many find that as soon as they enter into the period of quiet that they have set aside to speak to God, their mental discourse gets attracted to problems and stresses anticipated in the rest of the day, and five or ten minutes quickly speed by without any real conversation taking place with God. Common solutions for distraction include bringing a spiritual book to one’s time of prayer and using it as food for conversation with God: reading a few sentences, then speaking about them to God for a few moments, and returning to the book whenever thoughts wander. Journaling, too, is a frequently recommended practice, as the act of “writing a letter to God” can often help to focus one’s thoughts. In the remainder of this essay, however, I wish to share a very simple method for mental prayer that I have used frequently over the past twenty years. I have found it very helpful to combat distraction and persevere in prayer, even in situations where such perseverance may be necessary, due to family and work obligations and the pressures of the day, to pray in distracting circumstances, like driving or riding in a plane.
The Rosary Beads: An Aid to Mental Prayer
The method I recommend makes use of the beads of a standard rosary to help keep one’s thoughts focused and progressing through the different postures of conversational prayer. It has long been recognized that there are certain modes of discoursing with God, and four of these encompass most of the interior acts that make up mental prayer: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. This order is easy to remember as it forms the acronym ACTS. Furthermore, there is a spiritual logic to it: as we enter God’s presence, it makes sense to first acknowledge his greatness (adoration) and then our own unworthiness (confession). Then we strengthen our faith by recollection of God’s goodness toward us (thanksgiving), which prepares our soul to ask in faith for that which we (and others) still need (supplication).
The beads of the rosary are used to stay recollected, remember one’s place in the stages of prayer, and help ensure a balance of time between these four different interior acts, all of which are important for a “balanced diet,” so to speak, of mental prayer.
The Prayers for Each “Decade”
On the first decade of the rosary, one formulates ten aspirations of adoration to God. There are many things that may inspire these aspirations: the beauty of nature, the awe-inspiring attributes of God in himself, God’s self-gift in the sacraments, and the mighty deeds of God in salvation history are all suitable for inspiring the heart. It should be remembered, though, that adoration is praise of God for who he is, and thus distinct from thanksgiving, which is praise of God for what he has done. There is a connection and overlap between the two, but nonetheless it is worth attempting to keep the distinction. By our term “adoration” we are encompassing the elements the Catechism distinguishes as blessing, adoration, and praise (see 2626–28, 2639–43). It is important to acknowledge that the excellence, virtues, and perfections of God inspire us to praise him for and in himself, quite apart from anything he has done for us.
On the second decade of the rosary, we can formulate ten acts of confession. Confession is a subset of what the Catechism describes as “petition” (2629–33)—it is the petition for forgiveness. Confession is an essential component of prayer, and there are several famous examples of prayers of confession in Scripture, notably Ezra 9, Daniel 9, and Psalm 51. This decade gives us the opportunity to perform a brief examination of conscience, asking the Holy Spirit to help us to recognize and acknowledge where, when, and how we have failed to love and obey God, as well as other areas of weakness or failing that may not constitute sin—because they lacked our conscious consent—but put us in danger of sin or made us less effective in fulfilling our vocation and duties of state. Usually, it is not difficult for me to think of ten sins to confess! But on rare occasions when I get stuck, I find it helpful to identify moral weakness or need and ask God for extra grace to overcome those challenges.
On the third decade of the rosary, one can formulate ten acts of thanksgiving, one on each bead. Thanksgiving is an often-neglected aspect of mental prayer, but scriptural teaching on prayer stresses the need for it (see CCC 2637–38). St. Paul says, “In everything, by prayer and supplication—with thanksgiving—let your requests be made known to God” (Phil 4:6; cf. Eph 5:20) and the Psalmist urges, “Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving” (Ps 95:2; cf. 100:4; 107:1; etc.). Indeed, thanksgiving for God’s saving acts in the lives of individual believers (Ps 107) and his people as a whole (Ps 136) make up the content of many important Psalms, which are the “school of prayer” for God’s people. Not only is thanksgiving to God an act of justice—because we owe him a debt of thanks for all his blessings—but it also strengthens and encourages our faith as we remind ourselves of the various unmerited blessings and answers to prayer God has given us. Just thanking God for the gift of my spouse and each of my children could easily take up this entire decade, so I intentionally vary my thanksgivings also to include smaller, more recent and specific ways that God has demonstrated his goodness to me. This decade always goes by very quickly!
The final two decades can be spent on supplications. Supplications are requests for God’s help (see CCC 2629–33). This is certainly a necessary and legitimate aspect of prayer, and the Lord’s Prayer itself teaches us that our most basic and humble needs are legitimate subjects for prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread” (Mt 6:11). But supplication can also tend to dominate our prayer, especially when we are young in the interior life, which is a reflection of our natural self-focus. That is why it is good to reserve supplication to the end of the process of prayer, after we have adored, confessed to, and thanked God.
It is possible to formulate twenty acts of supplication, or one can divide the two decades into requests for one’s own needs and then intercessions for others (CCC 2634-36). Our needs as well as the needs of the Church and the world tend to be so great and numerous that is never difficult to fulfill these twenty aspirations!
Making Mental Prayer Part of Our Lifestyle
My own experience has been that using the rosary beads to guide my mental prayer in this way typically consumes fifteen to twenty minutes. Again, I find it helpful when it is necessary to do my prayer in the car or when traveling, because distractions arise (a crying child, an erratic driver), but after the distraction passes, the physical presence of the rosary in my hand reminds me to continue praying, and the position of my fingers on the beads helps me resume in the place where I left off.
A good target for laity can be to practice mental prayer twice a day, in the morning and afternoon, for fifteen minutes each. I would not recommend using this rosary-bead method for more than one of these sessions—one’s other time of mental prayer during the day could be free conversation, meditation on a book, journaling, or quiet listening. There are, after all, other things that need to take place in mental prayer besides the movements summarized by ACTS. Sometimes a particular challenge or issue in one’s interior life requires one’s focus for one or more entire sessions of mental prayer, as one “talks it out” in the presence of God. Also, listening, being attentive to the movements of the Holy Spirit within one’s heart, is an important aspect of prayer (the Catechism classifies this under “contemplative prayer”), and the rosary-bead method does not explicitly devote time specifically to this, although my own experience has been that movements of the Holy Spirit do come in my soul as I am formulating the aspirations that make up each decade, and sometimes these movements inspire a “digression” in prayer as I am led to converse with God about a particular topic. However, when that “digression” is over, the beads are still there to enable me to continue through the other dispositions of prayer, ensuring that I have a “well-balanced diet” in the interior life—not omitting thanksgiving while over-emphasizing supplication, or spending the whole time in adoration to the neglect of confession, etc.
Prayer is, of course, not ultimately a matter of technique or method but a relationship with God. No one method suits all people and all situations, and within our own life of prayer it is good to foster variety and participate in the many forms offered to the Christian believer: liturgical prayer, vocal prayer, and various forms of meditation and contemplation. Keeping all that in mind, with a clear conscience I recommend to you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, this humble method using the beads of the rosary that I have found so helpful as a lay person seeking to maintain an interior conversation with God on a daily basis in the midst of all the distractions of family life and other obligations. My hope and prayer is that you, too, will find it helpful!
Dr. John Bergsma has taught Scripture at Franciscan University of Steubenville since 2004. He has written over a dozen books on the Catholic faith and Scripture, including Bible Basics for Catholics: A New Picture of Salvation History (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 2012). He and his wife Dawn reside in Steubenville, OH, with their eight children.