Q: Father, I am still unclear about the difference between vocal and mental prayer? I keep trying to do mental prayer without words, but words keep coming. Am I doing something wrong?
A: As we have seen, the major distinction between vocal and mental prayer isn’t that one uses words and the other doesn’t, rather it comes from whose words are being used. When we use someone else’s words – a poem or a prayer composed by someone else, written down, and passed on, we are doing vocal prayer (even if we only recite it silently, in our heart). This can even be a hymn or a passage from the Bible. But when we enter into God’s presence in order to meditate on his goodness, listen to what he has to say to us, and then respond in the depths of our hearts with our own words, spontaneously, we are engaging in mental prayer. So you shouldn’t be worried that “words keep coming” – that’s great!
This question provides an opportunity for going a bit deeper into the importance of vocal prayer. We tend to think of mental prayer as more advanced than vocal prayer. But the Catechism is very clear about the need of both vocal and mental prayer for a mature life of prayer (see CCC 2700-2704). In fact, they often overlap. We don’t somehow grow out of vocal prayer – Pope John Paul II’s favorite prayer, for example, was the Rosary, even through the end of his life. In vocal prayer, we align our minds and hearts with the meaning (the intention, sentiment, desire, attitude…) of the words, whereas in mental prayer we formulate words to fit our felt meaning. Vocal prayer is valuable, then, for keeping the ideal of our
Two other points are worth mentioning.
- We should always remember that prayer of any kind requires intentionality. We have to be aware of what we are doing, who we are speaking to, what we are saying or seeking. Just going through the motions is falling into the trap of routine, eloquently deplored by the prophet Jeremiah: “You [God] are always on their lips, but far from their hearts.” It takes significant self-discipline and ascetical effort to pray familiar prayers from our heart, to mean what we say, to savor the words and give them the value they deserve. Vocal prayer is not just for kids. I once heard about a Protestant visiting a Catholic Church. He was deeply impressed by his Catholic friend, who knelt down as he arrived to his pew, made the sign of the cross, and then stayed kneeling in silence for a full minute. Afterwards, the Protestant asked what his Catholic friend was praying for so solemnly. “Oh,” the Catholic answered, “I just kneel quietly and count to fifty – it’s how I used to keep the nuns off my back.” The Protestant was, sadly, confirmed in his erroneous conviction that Catholicism was all about empty ritualism, not a relationship with
- When we draw the words for our vocal prayer from the Bible, God’s inspired Word, they have even more value. The late Vietnamese Cardinal Nguyen van Thuan spent 13 years in prison after the violently anti-
Christian, communist regime occupied . Nine of those years were in solitary confinement. Some of his time was spent under house arrest, some was in re-education camps, some was in small, dark, and dank prison cells. He underwent physical and psychological torture as they tried to break down his faith. There were times when the only prayer he was able to utter was the slow repetition of a favorite phrase from the Gospel, “Father, forgive them… They have no wine… Jesus, you know everything, you know that I love you…” Here is how he later described his experience of this biblical-based vocal prayer: “I who am weak and mediocre, I love these short prayers... The more I repeat them, the more I am penetrated by them.” South Vietnam
That’s a testimony to the transforming power of vocal prayer.
Yours in Christ, Fr John Bartunek, LC