The science of prayer is the science of the conversation of man with God. Prayer itself is the unfolding of our mind before the Most High and in His presence. It begins by a desire on the part of the soul to put itself in the presence of its Creator; in its development, it tends to become an interchange of thought and affection between the soul and God.
This unfolding of our mind before the Almighty is not an idle and egoistic self-analysis. It is the exposition of one’s sentiments, needs, and aspirations. It is prompted by a desire that God should supply the soul’s needs: it is sustained by the firm confidence that God is disposed to give the soul all that the soul is created to obtain from God, the Author of its being.
The ultimate end of the relationship established between the soul and God in prayer is that the soul should, by His help, abandon its own natural earthly way of thinking and willing and should enter into God’s views and affections, judge things as God judges them, and therefore conform its thoughts and desires to the thoughts and desires of God. This conformity of thought and affection between God and the soul is effected by the soul’s conformity in thoughts and affections with Jesus Christ, the God-Man. There is a significance in the injunction of St. Paul: “For let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5).
The final end of prayer, considered as a potent means for the development of God’s life in the soul, is to emancipate us from natural habits of thought and affection and elevate us to a supernatural manner of thinking and willing, to change our natural outlook on life and things and to make it supernatural. The function of prayer, therefore (and especially of mental prayer), is to transform our minds and, through the transformation of our minds, to effect a change in our dispositions and in our hearts. This mental conversion is not as simple as it is usually taken to be; normally it does not take place in a day or in a year; it involves a process that demands a long time for its completion.
It is not generally realized to what an extent our modes of thought—even when we are leading Christian lives—are alien to the modes of thought of God. To think “Christianly” is not an easy matter. God warns us of this through the prophet Isaiah:
Prayer is mental when the thoughts and affections of the soul are not expressed in a previously determined formula. All prayer ought to participate, to some extent, in the nature of mental prayer because acts of mind and will are always necessary. The ideas touched on in this paragraph are developed in The Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena, vol. 1, chap. 36. (Ed. Hurtaud).
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are exalted above the earth, so are my ways exalted above your ways, and my thoughts above your thoughts” (Isa. 55:8–9). Prayer aims at bridging this infinite gulf; it aims at enabling us to enter into the mind of God and, from that point of vantage, to contemplate all created things and the mysteries of faith. To arrive at this view of reality, it is necessary that it be not the spirit of human wisdom or prudence that should shed light upon the objects of our thought or should reveal what are to be the worthy objects of affection. It is needful that the light of merely human understanding be replaced by the illumination of the Spirit of God.
The things also that are of God no man knoweth, but the spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of this world, but the Spirit that is of God: that we may know the things that are given us from God. . . . But the sensual man perceiveth not these things that are of the Spirit of God; for it is foolishness to him, and he cannot understand because it is spiritually examined. But the spiritual man judgeth all things. . . . For who hath known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Cor. 2:11–16)
To the extent that we remain insensible to the promptings of the Spirit of God within us, to the degree in which we have failed to come under the influence of God’s divine communication of Himself to us, to that extent we are what the apostle calls “sensual.” At the beginning of our “conversion” we are almost entirely “sensual” in our ways of judging and understanding; we are unable to probe the inner meaning and penetrate to the spirit of the mysteries of our Faith.
We hold them as true; our knowledge is a knowledge of “possession” and not of “use.” These mysteries remain, in a sense, external to us. We know that they are true. Their outward features—that is, the formulae in which they are expressed—are familiar to us, but we have little apprehension of their inner meaning; hence, they exercise little or no power on the affections of our hearts or on the direction of our lives. For us, the vital meanings pent up like life-giving waters within these formulae, and containing in themselves the power to transform and transfigure our human life, have not broken loose and flooded our souls with their refreshing streams. The habit of prayer, and that alone, can correct all this, for it makes us cease to judge sensually and enables us to acquire the art of judging all things spiritually.
The religious state of the average soul at the beginning of its conversion and prior to its initiation into the interior life, is aptly set forth in the following passage from John Henry Newman:
In our condition as average Christians . .. we know that God’s service is perfect freedom, not a servitude, but this it is in the case of those who have long served Him; at first it is a kind of servitude, it is a task till our likings and tastes come to be in union with those which God has sanctioned…. “The servant knoweth not what his lord doth” (John xv. 15). The servant is not in his lord’s confidence, does not understand what he is aiming at, or why he commands this and forbids that. . . . Such is the state of those who begin religious obedience. They do not see anything come of their devotional or penitential exercises, nor do they take pleasure in them; they are obliged to defer to God’s word simply because it is His word. . . . We must begin religion with what looks like a form. Our fault will be, not in beginning it as a form, but in continuing as a form. It is our duty to be ever striving and praying to enter into the real spirit of our services, and in proportion as we understand them, they will cease to be a form and a task and will be
The concluding words of St. Paul in the text cited above—namely, “we have the mind of Christ”—perfectly express the result aimed at by the process of mental prayer. In all the varied forms that our conversation with God necessarily assumes, the desire to acquire this mentality, the mentality of Jesus Christ, must act as a guiding and unifying principle.