The Three Kinds of PrayerMay 21st, 2010 | By Tom Riello | Category: Blog Posts
Being Catholic is a lot like being a child with many toys. In fact, he has so many that his parents will often rotate the toys in and out of the house so that when the toy is brought back out the child rediscovers the excitement of the toy all over again. There are so many “toys” in the house of the Church that one often does not know where to begin. The depth of the spiritual writing is a good example of this.
At the end of the day, the purpose of Theology is not to fill ourselves with lots of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but to encounter and experience a deeper intimacy and love for the living God in the face of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. The prologue of the Catechism of the Catholic Church opens by quoting the high priestly prayer of Jesus Christ, “Father, … this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:3) One of the ways that we experience this deeper intimacy with God is through prayer. While it is a truth that prayer is imperfect in which one is aware that one is praying1, it is helpful to know the different types of prayer that are available for the Christian to make use of in the living out of the faith.
The great spiritual doctor of the Church, St. Francis de Sales, writes, “The ancient Fathers note that there are three kinds of prayer, namely, vital prayer, mental prayer, and vocal prayer.” It is these three types of prayer that we shall briefly discuss. First, let us consider vocal prayer. Vocal prayer is the prayer that one prays with the mouth joined with the heart. St. Francis points out that this type of prayer is first conceived internally in the heart and then expressed with the lips. Just as there are three types of prayer, there are also three types of vocal prayer: Commanded, Recommended, and Optional. Commanded vocal prayers are the Our Father, the Creed and, if you are a priest or religious (a member of a religious order), the Divine Office. Recommended prayer is the Rosary, reciting of the Angelus and other spiritual devotions or, in the case of the laity, praying parts of the Divine Office. Optional prayer might be a prayer that you pray extemporaneously (e.g. I begin every class I teach with prayer, sometimes it might be a recommended prayer like the Our Father, Hail Mary or Glory Be, or it might be something that I express to God in the moment).
Next we turn our attention to Vital prayer. Vital prayer as the name suggests has to do with making our lives a prayer to God. It is very easy for us to compartmentalize our lives. We have our time for God, our time for work/study, for family, and for leisure. This breakdown of our day is unnecessary and can be disastrous. A priest once counseled me wisely in the confessional, “do not let your prayer become part of the ‘to do list’.” Father’s point: prayer is at the heart of who I am, not just some aspect or dimension of my life. Vital prayer is the making of everything we do, from work and study, to recreation with the family, household chores, changing diapers, yes, changing diapers, into a prayer to God. We need to heed the words of St. Paul, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31) For the Apostle it is possible to do such basic things and bring glory to God. Our Lord Jesus Christ tells us that if we give just a cup of water in his name we will not lose our reward (Mark 9:41).
The last kind of prayer that we will discuss is Mental prayer. Mental prayer flows forth from the wells of vocal and vital prayer. In fact, there is a connection between vital prayer and mental prayer in that both require us to be aware that we are always in the presence of God, as the Psalmist says, “where shall I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139:7). Father William Most writes, “To set the stage for any mental prayer, it is highly desirable to first try to recall the fact that we are, even though we are not always aware of it, in the presence of God our Father. If we could live in the constant realization of that presence, what a difference it would make in our lives!” St. Paul tells us to “pray constantly.” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) How can anyone pray constantly, or as the NASB puts it, “without ceasing”? We have things to do, chores to get done, people to see. I cannot pray without ceasing, or can I? Why does Paul say this and what does he mean? First, as we already stated concerning vital prayer, Paul believes such basic tasks as eating and drinking can bring glory to God because there is nothing hidden from God. Since God sees everything, he knows our thoughts as well, again it is the Psalmist who writes, “you discern my thoughts from afar.” (Psalm 139:2)
Mental prayer is the habit of engaging God with the mind. This type of prayer can be engaged in at all times. To give a concrete example of how this may work itself out in our lives, you might take a concept about God, for example, his holiness, and reflect on this throughout the day. St. Paul alludes to this practice when he writes, “be transformed by the renewal of your mind,” (Romans 12:2) and, “take every thought captive to obey Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:5) Mental prayer is an active engagement with the reality of God in the very deepest core of our being. We see this at play in the life of Mary, the Mother of God. St. Luke records for us that Mary pondered the things said of her Son in her heart (Luke 2:19; 51). This pondering of the Virgin Mother is nothing but mental prayer.
As we sojourn toward the heavenly city, may we set our minds on the things above and not the things of earth (Colossians 3:1-2). May we rise each day uniting ourselves, in the words of the morning offering, with the holy sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world. For the highest form of prayer that we can pray is the prayer of Christ as revealed in the Sacred Liturgy.