The Church teaches us as a dogmatic fact that at the end of earthly life, each soul is conducted to its final judgement, from which there is neither escape nor appeal. All that the soul has done and left undone will be revealed and assessed. The soul outside of grace will go to hell, to burn in rage forever. The soul in a state of grace will go to purgatory, to burn with love and sorrow in expiation for sins; or it will go straight to heaven, to burn with love and joy, consummating there and then what has begun here and now.
You and I have a choice. We are going to burn: that is a fact. But we have a choice as to where and how. God is love and the Gospel is Good News, not condemnation, and the Good News is that God has offered us the way out, the way of prayer that leads to fruitfulness, peace, and joy.
Mental prayer is the furnace of love on this earth. The Church’s liturgy — Mass, Divine Office, liturgical devotions–, with lectio divina, the Holy Rosary, and personal devotions, all prepare us for the great personal encounter with Christ in our prayer. Mental prayer left undone means our earthly work is incomplete, and our salvation is in jeopardy. St. Teresa of Avila, Doctor of the Church, taught that fifteen minutes of mental prayer daily would assure the soul of heaven. Fifteen minutes! Surely you and I can find the time.
The challenge of course is how to use that time. When we begin in prayer, we tell the Lord everything on our hearts and minds and the torrent of words seems to go on forever. Exhausted, we stop, and realize that we’ve prayed about two or three minutes. Now what do we do? This is when the prayer really begins.
There are many schools of prayer that teach us how. A Benedictine approach might be to extend the lectio divina into a formal time of mental prayer. St. Peter of Alcantara wrote a treatise on prayer that focused one set of meditations on the principal Christian doctrines, and the other on the Lord’s Passion, and it reflects the deep affectivity of the Franciscan charism. Divine Intimacy, a 20th-century Carmelite manual of prayer, sets forth the Teresian method and provides meditations for each day of the liturgical year. The Jesuit tradition is to enter into the text, to become one more character present in the account, and to converse with the Lord from within it. Two contemporary approaches, Opus Dei’s multivolume In Conversation with God and Fr. Bartunek’s The Better Part, focus on the day’s Gospel and offer several points of meditation that can serve as a springboard to prayer.
The point is to find a style that works for you, and to be mastered by it.
I like to structure my mental prayer following the schema for Mass. Mass is the perfect prayer, and so it makes sense to me to imitate its pattern. I begin with a confession of sin. Then I bless God, praising Him for his greatness and his goodness. I follow this up with reading – the Mass texts of the day, perhaps, or some other passage of Scripture, or perhaps a meditation manual based on the days’ readings or some other program I may be following. Then comes the “sermon”: God’s time to speak with me, to point out things He’d like me to address, to show me ways in which I’ve grown, to give me direction about what lies before me, to console, perhaps, or to challenge. The agenda is His: this is the key to mental prayer, and to the entire Christian life. Then comes my response to the Lord’s sermon to me: confession of faith, declaration of obedience to direction received, prayer and intercession. Finally is the time of communion: He and I together, alone. Perhaps we say nothing, just enjoying each other’s company. Perhaps we converse quietly some more. Usually what happens is that, just at Holy Communion, grace comes into the soul in that quiet, peaceful flood. All the other stages of mental prayer are preparatory for this moment. While the Lord can grant true contemplatio at any point, those times I have experienced it are usually at this moment of prayer.
The point of all this is to enter into the furnace of the Heart of Christ, which leads us in turn to the furnace of the Father’s love. There, sin and its effects are forgiven and consumed. There, defects are corrected, graces of all kinds are given, love is given and received. There, we are made into new men and women: we are made into Christ himself, and He is the one praying to the Father through us. There, we discover the Father’s utter delight in us, despite our unworthiness. The wonder cannot be expressed.
There’s a famous book amongst contemporary traditional archers entitled Become the Arrow. It has taught me much about archery, and it has taught me this about prayer. Our goal here is to become the prayer, to point ourselves directly to the Heart of Christ, and to enter it: The Kingdom of Heaven is taken by force, after all, the Gospel tells us. This requires practice. We become the arrow of prayer through proper stance, or attitude – humility, wonder, love, and awe; through proper technique – following the sequence of recollection, confession, reading, consideration and prayer; and through proper execution – focusing on the target, finding the way to enter the Heart, letting go of ourselves, our preoccupations, our worries and concerns, all of them surrendered in preparation for the encounter, then flying, with determination, focus, and ease, to our target. There, in that Heart, burning with love, we find everything we need and more, and like the burning bush, we too burn and are not consumed, the light of that love shining in our darkness and outward to a world in need.
David Carradini is a Knight of Malta, of the Holy Sepulchre, and of the Constantinian Order. He is a graduate of Dartmouth College, Yale Divinity School, and the University of Navarre, and resides with his wife in Virginia.