Brookline Carmel Bulletin
June 18, 1961
Liturgical Prayer has such dignity and efficacy that the Church encourages us to enter into it and make it our own. For most of the faithful, attendance at the Holy Sacrifice is the extent of the participation in the Liturgy that their circumstances permit. So to make up for the rest they have to rely upon personal, private prayer. For that matter, Clerics and those Religious who are commissioned by the Church to pray the Divine Office in the name of the faithful must also supplement their liturgical prayer with private prayer, for they too are individuals with private needs and objectives.
Private prayer is of two kinds: Vocal and Mental. We must not look for the distinguishing element of these two kinds of prayer in the native meaning of the words. Use of lips and vocal chords is not the essential note of vocal prayer, nor is all silent prayer necessarily mental prayer. Instead, we call that prayer Vocal that is made using prepared formulas, whereas Mental Prayer is that which wells up spontaneously from the depths of the heart. Actually, Mental Prayer is something very broad and very rich. It includes every act proper to friendship. It is like a fabric intricately woven out of many threads: understanding and appreciation of the many ties that bind us to God, an insight into His attributes and perfections, the memory of past benefits and proofs of His love, the sentiments that these evoke, the decisions and resolutions to serve Him more faithfully in daily life. But Mental Prayer also includes listening, i.e., silencing the interior voice of thought and resting content and expectantly in the presence of God. (We need the advice of our confessor in this last, however). For there are times when forcing ourselves to think and speak and make use of memory and imagination robs our soul of peace and tranquility because it disturbs its joyful abiding in the Love of God. Mental Prayer is, then, a dialogue, a loving conversation with God, whom we know loves us. Vocal prayer is more a monologue. It may be compared to the speech a bright schoolboy memorizes and delivers in honor of some visiting civil or ecclesiastical dignitary.
But for all that, Vocal Prayer is still valuable and necessary. We are not always in the mood for Mental Prayer, and yet there are certain objective facts based upon our relationship to God as His creatures and as His adopted sons that ought to be acknowledged at stated times during every day, e.g., morning and evening, before and after meals. There are also spiritual and material difficulties that might assail us at any time of day and night and which must be countered by – among other things – prayer. Formulas of prayer suited to every need can be found in any good prayer book and committed to memory for instant use.
None of us has to be told that Mental Prayer brings with it certain psychological difficulties that are normal and natural. But we don’t always remember that Vocal Prayer gives rise to some quite naturally, too, and which sooner or later we must all contend with. Therefore, they need not cause distress or anxiety. They are inherent in the recitation of every prayer we know by heart and which we recite or read frequently. An excellent example of a Vocal Prayer that is especially difficult for some is the Rosary. To understand those difficulties we need to know that there are three kinds of attention we can give to Vocal Prayer.
Moralists distinguish superficial, literal and spiritual attention. Our attention is superficial when we are principally concerned with the correct and distinct pronunciation of each word. It is literal when we are chiefly interested in the meaning conveyed by the words. We call that attention spiritual in which the mind is centered primarily on God and divine things. All three are good, but the last named is the best of them. Yet it causes distress among the pious faithful because the attention given to God is one of Faith, which by its nature is obscure and indistinct, and the recitation becomes more or less mechanical while at the same time the one praying does not know what he has said. The conclusion a devout person draws is that his Vocal prayer is a failure, but the truth is quite otherwise. This ought to console those who recite the Little Office and the Rosary plagued with distractions. (Indeliberate distractions are not incompatible with the general gaze of Faith).
Evolution from superficial to spiritual attention is altogether normal and at times proceeds rather rapidly. In the process the mind is successively liberated for higher pursuits. Attending to thought content is higher than attention to mechanics of pronunciation. Attention to God is higher still. At times, though, a completely new formula of prayer brings weariness and fatigue at the first reading. This could easily mean that our souls are already thoroughly imbued with the sentiments they express and thus ingest nothing new. To force ourselves to read such a prayer with superficial attention would be a regression rather than an advancement. If we choose our vocal prayers carefully and imbibe their sentiments so well that they become our very own, they spring up, eventually, spontaneously and become the point of departure for Mental Prayer and contemplation.
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