A Beginner's Guide to
Catholic Mental Prayer
Christian meditation "engages thought, imagination, emotion, and desire" in prayer. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2708)
It is also known as mental prayer.
This article is a detailed, "how to" guide to Christian meditation. You can develop a strong prayer life!
Christian meditation is essential
Every Christian needs to practice mental prayer. Every day.
Your faith cannot live without prayer, the "vital and personal relationship with the living and true God." (Catechism, 2744 & 2558)
Recall the basic truths about prayer from this site's how to pray article:
Prayer is essential to the Christian life
It is compatible with everyday life
Prayer will nurture with even the smallest faith
It's easy to learn the basics of prayer
Your good habits of daily Catholic prayer and the presence of God will help you make a strong start in Christian meditation.
Those habits make it easy for you to start mental prayer. In fact, they'll make it an absolute pleasure!
With your habit of daily Catholic prayer, you're already doing the most basic action of mental prayer: speaking with God.
Now you need to learn to listen to him, too. Christian meditation is the way to do that.
Not your everyday "meditation"
Don't let the word "meditation" fool you. Mental prayer is very different from Eastern meditation practices.
Non-Christian meditation practices aim at emptying the mind.
Christian meditation engages the mind in prayer.
Catholic meditation seeks use the faculties of the mind to know the Lord, understand his love for us, and to move into deep union with him. Use of the mind "is necessary in order to deepen our convictions of faith, prompt the conversion of our heart, and strengthen our will to follow Christ." (Catechism, 2708)
Put simply, our goal is to to answer the basic human question: "Lord, what do you want me to do?" (Catechism, 2706)
Christian meditation must immerse us in the Trinity: we surrender ourselves to the Holy Spirit, the master of prayer, so that he can unite us to Christ and perfect our prayer to the Father.
"Because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!'"
(If you want to know more about the differences between non-Christian and Christian meditation, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) wrote a paper on the topic. It's pretty dense reading! But it's worth a look if you're interested in the topic. See the CDF's "Some Aspects of Christian Meditation" for more (opens a new browser window).)
What you'll need
You only need a few simple things to start a lifetime of rich Christian meditation:
A small amount of time
A quiet place
Start by taking just 5 or 10 minutes, alone and in quiet. Early in the day is best, but if that's not possible for you, find another time.
Give yourself a set time, and stick to it. Consistency is very important: don't cut prayer short if you're "dry" one day, and likewise don't prolong it if you're feeling wonderful.
You also need to find some written or visual material to use as the basis of your Christian meditation. The Gospels are the best choice. Pick one and read a part each day, or just use the daily Mass readings. You can read the daily Gospel passage in your Bible, subscribe to a monthly booklet like Magnificat, or read them online.
The daily readings are good because they're brief. You're reading for depth here, not length.
You can use many things as the source material for Christian meditation: Scripture, especially the Gospels, spiritual writings, liturgical texts, and even the "fingerprints of God" visible in the natural world itself.
Pick your reading beforehand, so you don't waste your prayer time finding a suitable passage in the Bible.
Of course, the eBook Following Christ Through The Gospels is a terrific resource for learning to pray with Scripture. This classic by renowned priest Father Bernard Basset is a step-by-step guide to praying with the Gospels.
It was written specifically to help people develop a solid prayer life, as well as gain a deep understanding of the Gospels. This is available through the Catholic Spiritual Treasures program.
Bible passages to get you started
I know — it's a little intimidating to have to find a good place in the Bible to start.
Here's a small set of Scripture passages to get you started. I'm deliberately not including the text itself here, so you'll get comfortable working with your Bible. You'll thank me later. (You're quite welcome; don't mention it!)
These passages vary in length quite a bit. The first one, in particular, is very long. Pick just a few verses at a time from the longer readings. Remember, you'll be reading for depth in Christian meditation, so shorter is better.
Matthew chapters 5-7 (The Sermon on the Mount — this is one of the most essential parts of the Gospels to get to know.)
Matthew 13:1-24 (The parable of the sower)
Matthew 13:44-50 (Parables: hidden treasure, pearl of great price)
Matthew 18:1-6 (Becoming like children)
Matthew 18:21-35 (The unforgiving servant)
Matthew 19:16-30 (The rich young man)
Mark 1:14-15 (The proclamation of the Kingdom)
Mark 1:40-45 (The healing of the leper)
Mark 5:24-34 (The healing of the woman with the hemorrhage)
Luke 1:46-55 (The Magnificat)
Luke 15:1-10 (Parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin)
Luke 15:11-32 (The prodigal son)
Luke 17:5-10 (Faith; attitude of service)
John 2:1-11 (Wedding at Cana)
John 8:23-32 ("The truth will make you free")
John 15:1-11 (The vine & branches)
John 15:12-17 ("Love one another")
Naturally, the Bible is full of outstanding material for Christian meditation! These suggestions are just some good places to start.
Prayer time: preparation
Again, two things are very important in Christian meditation:
Consistency in time of prayer
Consistency in duration
This consistency is so critical because of what's called the "battle of prayer". As you grow in prayer, you'll overcome many things: tiredness, distractions, boredom, the feeling that you're not getting anything out of Christian meditation, etc. All of these things conspire to tempt you into stopping your prayer life.
The stakes here are very high indeed. Your spiritual life depends upon persisting in prayer! That's why it's called a battle.
Realize that this battle starts before you even sit down to pray — it starts with simply making and keeping the appointed time for Christian meditation. Choose to fight this first battle the strongest. Keep to your chosen time! It's easy to do, and you'll find it makes it easier to fight the other battles, also.
Once you're ready to start, sit down and quiet your mind.
Place yourself in the presence of God and ask for his help with a quick prayer. You can use your own words, or a written prayer. I use this one:
My Lord and my God, I firmly believe that you are here, that you see me, that you hear me. I adore you with profound reverence, I ask your pardon for my sins, and the grace to make this time of prayer fruitful. My immaculate Mother, Saint Joseph my father and lord, my guardian angel, intercede for me.
(From Handbook of Prayers, James Socias, ed.)
The basic structure of prayer time
Your Christian meditation session should generally follow this basic outline:
Read your source material for the day (the Gospel passage, or whatever you're using). Read it two or three times, slowly, and let it sink in.
If a part of the reading grabs your attention, stay with it.
Meditate on the reading, or on the part that catches your attention. The next sections are a detailed guide to doing this!
This is the heart of your prayer time. You'll spend most of the time on this point.
If your thoughts drift, regain focus with the words of the passage.
Form some specific resolutions based on your meditation. Know how you are going to apply these thoughts to your life, today.
End with a quick prayer of thanks.
Christian meditation itself
The meditation itself is the heart of your prayer time.
Let the passage provide material for a conversation with God: ask him questions, tell him things. Above all, listen to him, both in the words of Scripture and in how those words guide your thoughts.
If you need help with this part of Christian meditation, try something like:
Pretend that God wrote these words just to you, right now, to tell you something important. What is it? How will it affect your life?
Imagine the scene in the reading. Picture yourself there, hearing the words, seeing the action. Follow the Lord, watch him, listen. What is he teaching you?
What does the passage tell you about God? What is he like? What does he value? What does the passage say about you?
Does the reading's message, or a part of it, describe you, for good or bad? What specific things should you change in your life to be closer to the Gospel message you're reading?
The goal of Christian meditation is closer union with Christ.
You don't want to reduce mental prayer to a simple reflection on the passage you're reading. You should get to know Christ better, and love him more. You should learn of his boundless love for you, so you can grow closer to him. You should see how he acts and loves and gives his very life for you, so you can become more like him. You should see how he seeks and does the will of the Father, so you can, too.
The goal of Christian meditation is not just to think good thoughts about the passage. What counts is how we apply those thoughts to our lives.
God communicates with us through our thoughts. We must take those thoughts, form resolutions, and act on them.
"What? God talks to us
through our thoughts?"
In prayer, God most often affects our thoughts to communicate with us. Often it's a gentle, normal movement of thought. Occasionally it may be a sudden and strong realization.
You also sense God's voice through your conscience, imagination, and even your heart and feelings. Christian meditation can use all of these.
Of course, other things besides God affect your thoughts & emotions! Not all of them are good. Make sure that the message you're hearing in Christian meditation is consistent with the truths found in Scripture, the teachings of the Church, and general "good living."
Don't be afraid to put the ball back in God's court if you're not sure: "Lord, I'm not sure if this is from you or not. If it is, please tell me more clearly at some other time. Until then, I won't act on it."
Check out any relevant Church teachings. The Holy Spirit guides and forms the Church — he never asks us to act contrary to its genuine teachings! (Catechism 1783-5, 2039)
Ask a priest for help if you're still doubtful about something, or if you think God is asking you to make unusual changes in your life. Most priests will be delighted to help you advance in prayer.
When your thoughts drift during prayer, regain focus with the words of the passage.
And don't forget: Form some specific resolutions based on your Christian meditation. Know how you are going to apply these thoughts to your life, today.
"What should I think about?"
Your thoughts during prayer will be as unique as you are.
Still, most people find that their thoughts in Christian meditation centers on some of the big themes found in Scripture:
Love God more
Seek to do the Father's will, not your own
Increase your faith
Follow Christ more closely
Turn from sin
Rely on God's mercy and love
It's not surprising that these are such common themes in prayer: God has repeated them over & over in his Revelation to us for thousands of years! (Why haven't we gotten the message yet?)
The key to prayer in Christian meditation is to move beyond seeing only the general themes, and to see how they affect you and call you to change your life.
In other words...
...form specific resolutions!
I'll tell you plainly: forming and keeping specific resolutions is one of the more challenging parts of Christian meditation, and prayer in general. It's a challenge because it calls us to change our lives. And most of us resist doing that.
I've found that using a prayer book can be a tremendous help in this area.
I use a series of prayer books called In Conversation with God by Francis Fernandez. I use it every day, and it's outstanding. There are three reflections for each day (which is why they need several volumes for a whole year). Each reflection help me focus on a main theme in the daily Scripture readings. (My mind tends to wander off easily otherwise during Christian meditation.)
But beyond that, I think the most valuable thing about this series of books is that they deliberately guide you in making those resolutions, and in understanding the specifics of how to grow in faith and virtue.
Each reflection also contains a little lesson on how to live something taken from the Scripture reading. Something like:
What humility is and how to grow in it
How to get to know the Holy Spirit in your daily life
What specific good disposition is shown by a Scripture reading, and how to apply it to your life today
When I first started using the In Conversation with God books a few years ago, I was surprised at how much I had been missing in my daily prayer — I was badly lacking in specific resolutions. Those books have been an outstanding fuel for growth in my prayer life, and in my faith in general.
Highly recommended! I've found it to be essential in learning how to pray.
Ending your time of prayer
When it's time to end your Christian meditation, recall your specific resolutions. (You didn't forget to make them, did you?)
Then end with a quick prayer of thanks. Something like:
I thank you, my God, for the good resolutions, affections and inspirations that you have communicated to me in this meditation. I ask your help to put them into effect. My immaculate Mother, Saint Joseph my father and lord, my guardian angel, intercede for me.
(From Handbook of Prayers, James Socias, ed.)
Now, move on to the rest of your day!
Act on your resolutions as soon as possible. Recall them throughout the day. Keep asking God to help you remember them and put them into practice.
Repeat the next day!
Christian meditation is not hard. You can do this!
People can get intimidated by thinking they have to have profound, deep thoughts about the passages they're meditating on.
You don't have to.
God wants you to become a great saint for him — in your ordinary life! So it's natural that many of your thoughts and resolutions in Christian meditation will also be...
...about your ordinary life.
Of course, it helps to have more than this brief description of Christian meditation when you're learning how to pray. Besides the In Conversation with God series (above), there are two excellent books on this subject.
One is Amy Welborn's Prove It! Prayer, which I mention in some other articles here, too. If you're coming to mental prayer for the first time, start with Welborn's book. Again, don't be put off by the fact that its marketing spin says the book is aimed at teens: this book will give you a strong start in prayer.
Thomas Green's Opening to God is also terrific. It's an adult-oriented book, and goes a little deeper than Welborn's book. Green's also has some good examples in the latter chapter. Personally, I found those examples to be invaluable: they're a great model for learning about the common subject matter of prayer.
Those two books will give you a stronger background in prayer, and will help you to answer a lot of questions you probably have about Christian meditation. The In Conversation with God series goes one step better, with specific guidance for each day!
Begin that prayer life you've always wished for. It can be yours. It begins with the simple habits and steps for Christian meditation that you've just read in this article.
Don't put it off until tomorrow. Commit to doing what's needed for your faith. (Which reminds me of another great Gospel passage for prayer: Luke 12:16-21.)
At the end of the day, it is our union with Christ that saves us. Our work is just to respond to his invitation to union.
See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.
(1 John 3:1)
See the main article on How to Pray for more sound guidance for easily developing your prayer life. There's a separate section with lots of wonderful basic Catholic prayers.
See our home page for more articles for the beginning Catholic.
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