Mental Prayer | How it Works | The Method of St. Alphonsus

The following document on mental prayer, also called meditation, and in this case, ‘active meditation,’ is taken from the compiled works titled, Articles and Manuscripts of Dominic Farrell.

Mental Prayer

What is Mental Prayer and Why Should I Practice it?

Mental Prayer is a means to stay in the state of grace, encounter God within your soul, obtain extraordinary graces, grow in His love and to acquire and grow in all the Christian virtues. In mental prayer a soul is able to communicate with God in such a way that it is enlightened and can see clearly what should be done in order to be saved, to grow in holiness and in conformity to the will of God.

It disposes the human heart to devotion, piety, humility and kindness. The flesh can be brought into subjection to the law of the spirit and the prayerful soul can attain to the great blessing of a peaceful conscience. When the mind and heart are raised up to God, to the truths of eternity and to holy and supernatural things, this becomes real prayer.

Vocal prayer accompanies and facilitates mental prayer. But by itself, it cannot do us any good nor please God, nor is it true prayer, so long as it is only lip-service and void of the heart’s devotion and the mind’s attention. The most important element is the devotion, fervour or love which accompanies prayer. It matters little if the mind is distracted, so long as there is devotion in the heart or at least honest efforts to create it.

As long as the will is static, prayer is but an illusion. It neither honours God, nor brings us any closer to Him. We have to love in order to speak to God in a way that will please Him and sanctify us. For after all He is Love and to engage Him in prayer without love is incompatible with growing in holiness.

Mental prayer then, places us in the presence of God so that He can communicate Himself to us by His grace and thus transform us, with our generous cooperation into living images of Jesus Christ. Union with God through Charity is the essence of Christian Perfection. The further a person advances towards this ideal, the happier he becomes and this is why mental prayer is a great defense against sadness and gloomy spirits. True and lasting happiness is inseparable from holiness.

Hence, the reasons for practicing mental prayer are chiefly twofold: firstly, in order to reach eternal Salvation and secondly, to acquire holiness through conformity to the Divine Will.

To reach Salvation there is need not only for ordinary grace but also for extraordinary grace. It is morally impossible to be saved with just the bare minimum of grace. Even the heretics and the enemies of God have this. But it does not suffice as a general rule, by itself and in order to be saved, one must keep praying while living in the world and must pray with humility, confidence and perseverance.

One who does not practice mental prayer will most likely not pray as he should. He will be ignorant of the defects of his soul, of the dangers of his Salvation and so will probably become heard-hearted and in the end will go to hell. He who does make mental prayer however, will most likely abandon sin and grow in sanctity until he dies and thus goes to heaven. All the Saints have become Saints by mental prayer.

Those who are saved are usually saved because of prayer. On the other hand, those who are lost, are lost as a general rule, because of a failure to pray, or at least to pray as they should.

Those seeking a closer union with God will find it impossible to reach Him without the habit of mental prayer. They will never come to any profound feeling and understanding of Him so long as their spiritual eyes are so blind. To know God in a way that will elevate and sanctify the soul requires an intensively active interior life.

The key to this is mental prayer. It opens the spiritual eyes of the soul which are blinded by the effects of sin and arouses the inner man to pursue health of soul. This health of soul is spiritual reformation, whereby a soul is made holy and pleasing to God. Now there can be no sanctifying knowledge of the divine without knowledge of self.

The light of self-knowledge is communicated only to those who practice mental prayer. By knowing ourselves, we acquire holy self-contempt, a perception and love of God and a desire to become more like Jesus Christ, which is the only way to please God Our Heavenly Father. As Christ is the Way to the Father, so the way to Christ is through mental prayer (and devotion to His Blessed Mother).

Getting Started

In order to pray in such a way as will give you an experimental knowledge of God, you must learn the art of conversing with God through the habit of devoutly recollecting yourself in His presence. To begin this practice, it is a good thing to take a minute or two to simply kneel down, make an effort to banish distractions, focus on God and wait until you feel inwardly calm and ready to pray. Once you have taken this step, there are various ways in which you may either prolong your preparation, meditate or get right into active prayer.

Making a good start will enable you to gather the greatest possible fruit from your exercise of prayer. It is well to briefly invoke the Holy Ghost, Our Lady, St. Joseph, one’s guardian angel and patron Saints. This may be done by a ‘Veni Sancte Spiritus,’ a few Hail Mary’s or in one’s own words. Our Lady and the Hail Mary are very powerful sources of grace and the greater one’s devotion to Her is, the better off one is sure to be in spiritual matters. Many great Saints and masters of the spiritual life give testimony to this fact.

Your aim must in the first place be to honour God and in the second place to dispose yourself to receive the graces that He is willing to freely give you. The point of prayer is not to inform God of what you want so much as to let Him give you what He knows you need. Prayer is the means by which freely given grace comes to the soul.

Attentive Consideration

To make a meditation, one must have a pre-prepared subject for consideration and once one has made a preparation to pray, the next step is to present to the mind the point for meditation. For example, one may read a few passages from a meditation book or from the Holy Scriptures, or from some other devout book, or even just think about something appealing and conjure up some vivid imagination of some Truth of Faith.

In the case of some souls, usually somewhat advanced in the spiritual life, God will simply put various meditations into their hearts and hence, they don’t have to do much, besides keep quiet and avoid willful distraction. But beginners must usually make more personal effort in order to savour the things of God and profit from meditation.

There are endless subjects for meditation and each has its own special fruit to give to the soul. For instance; the thought of God’s perfections purifies a soul’s affections, the thought of hell and purgatory produce in the soul a greater fear of offending God and a more perfect detachment from sin.

The thought of eternity causes a soul to understand better the vanity of the world, which will all pass away. The thought of Christ in His crib inspires humility and the thought of His bitter and heart-rending passion or the sorrows of His Mother produce in the soul fruits of holy compunction and an increase in divine love. The thought of heaven urges a soul on to suffer all things cheerfully and detaches it from creatures.

The thought of death awakens a soul’s fervour and shakes off sloth… and so forth. The particular subject should be mulled over in the mind and the reason should act and be applied in such a way as will help to take in the reality of what is being pondered. Some meditations are more abstract than others. Generally, the best meditations are those which present to us the Sacred Humanity of Jesus Christ, especially during His Passion and Death.

This includes the memory of His Blessed Mother, the Sorrowful Virgin. Such meditations, more than any others, inspire the sinner with repentance, the lukewarm with fervour, the pious with desire for perfection and the saintly with greater love. The reason and imagination must work together in the consideration. Reason must ask ‘who is suffering? How great and good is the one suffering? What and how much is being suffered? For whom? Why? What are his ends and what am I supposed to do on my part?’

Meanwhile, the imagination must present to us scenes, such as the sweat of blood in the garden, the betrayal of Judas, the denial of Peter, the flight of the disciples, the insults, the terrible scourging of Christ’s Body, His Crown of Thorns, the ascent to Calvary, His hanging on the Cross etc. This is how the consideration should be made.

But what is the reason for all this mental exercise? To move the heart: meditation should enkindle in the soul the love of God and the desire to imitate Jesus Christ. As we have said, the will must be stirred towards what is good and holy if prayer is to have its intended effect. But if we cannot seem to move it and excite the affections by any means, thus enduring spiritual aridity, we shall still have done very well to have done what is in our power.

At least we shall have progressed a little further in humility, self-knowledge and patience. If the will and affection are softened and moved towards God and to virtue, then is the best time to pour forth prayer to God. This is usually to be done in the from of affections, petitions and resolutions. After this comes the conclusion of the meditation. We shall now go on to speak of each of these parts of mental prayer separately.

Acts of Love and Affection

Acts of divine love unite the soul to God. They send forth fiery darts which give pleasure to God and which are returned as wholesome and saving wounds. They are of great and hidden power. We should, as we have said, do all we can to get the heart into action. God quickly hears the prayer of love and the more a soul exercises itself in loving, the closer it comes to union with God and His Holy Will.

Acts of divine love and of pious affection should be at times brief and rapidly repeated. At other times they should simply be self-made expressions, address and sentiments from the inmost heart.

One should say such things to God and in such ways as prove most to enkindle the soul with the ardour of love. This is doing holy violence to God and wins for us great peace as well as all kinds of graces and blessings from Him.

Acts of Petition

To be saved and to grow in holiness, we must pray, that is ask for grace. Hence petitions are an essential part of mental prayer. But, as we have seen, if these petitions are made without light and fervour and without humility and trust, they are both displeasing to God and useless to ourselves.

What do we ask? Ask whatever you feel inclined to ask when your will and affection have been stirred to devotion with the aid of grace and the point chosen for meditation. For example a greater humility, charity, meekness, purity, patience, recollection, mortification, conformity to God’s will, desire for perfection and suchlike.

You may also recommend to God the souls of others and lay before Him your temporal cares and troubles. ‘Ask and you shall receive,’ says the Lord. But ask with humility, constancy and trust, lest you ask amiss.


To abandon sin and bad habits and to grow in the ways of grace and Salvation, it is needful to resolve on particular things now and then, so as to overcome our sins and faults bit by bit. Our sessions of mental prayer provide the best time to make such resolves.

They may be resolutions to abandon certain occasions of sin, to mortify some inordinate desire, to be more recollected throughout the day, to show greater kindness, meekness or submission, to make greater efforts to control the tongue and to be more faithful to the inspirations of grace etc.

If we often resolve well, we are sure to make solid progress in the narrow way of eternal life. It is well also to follow the method of the holy Doctor, St. Alphonsus (who’s method of meditation we have hereto been speaking about) which is to resolve also to save oneself and to save oneself as a saint.

The Conclusion

End your meditation with some devout acts of thanks-giving, reparation and petition on behalf of sinners, the just and the souls in purgatory. The thanks is for graces and lights received and the reparation is for the faults you have fallen into during your meditation, which is an audience with God Who’s dwelling is in the heaven of your soul. Also, recommend to God and to the Blessed Mother the resolutions you have made and ask for the grace to be faithful to them.

Here you have the whole meditation, which we may also term mental prayer. It consists of the preparation, the consideration, the body, which is made up of affections, petitions and resolutions, and the conclusion. Fifteen minutes to half an hour will suffice to make a true meditation. The time best suited for it is in the morning so that your day may be well spent. But afternoon and evening are also of great benefit. ‘Blessed is the man who shall meditate day and night’ says the Holy Ghost.

Fruits of Mental Prayer

Saints and spiritual writers agree that the habit of grave sin and meditation cannot co-exist together; a man will either give up sin or give up meditation. Hence one immense fruit of mental prayer is to persevere in grace unto Salvation.

The way to the science of the Saints is through mental prayer. God is the giver of true wisdom and ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,’ as the Psalmist says. Now as we have seen, the fear of God comes through meditation, in which we consider in the heart, and without which we are blind, foolish and almost sure to perish eternally. God gives His wisdom to those who fear Him and only those who meditate dwell constantly in the fear of the Lord.

The wisdom of God is a wisdom which despises the carnal prudence and wisdom of the world and which makes us think and act in accordance with the dictates of Faith, reason and grace. It causes us to have eternity in view and makes us savour divine things and do all for the greater glory of God.

Hence another fruit of mental prayer is that noble and spiritual wisdom which is found in Christ and His Saints. Those who possess this grace know the art of praying always, at all times and in all things. They have the spirit of continual prayer.

The crowning fruit of mental prayer is the attainment of Christian Perfection, in which the passions are subdued, and God and the soul are united in the friendship of divine Charity.

This secures for the soul the greatest possible peace and happiness which can be found on earth and gives it a direct passage to the enjoyment of the Beatific Vision in heaven at the termination of the present life.

You may now ask; can all this be true? Try it Christian soul, keep it up and indeed you will find out for yourself. You have one life, one soul to save and one chance to become a saint. God be with you!

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