by Jeanette Flood
According to The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, “the technologies we use to find, store, and share information can literally reroute our neural pathways.” And the effects are not all positive: “We are becoming ever more adept at scanning and skimming,” reports author Nicholas Carr, “but what we are losing is our capacity for concentration, contemplation, and reflection.”
Of course, the internet is not the only challenge to deep thinking; a daily to-do list provides sufficient distraction. Back in the 1950s, long before the internet, Father Philip Dion wrote in The Handbook of Spiritual Perfection of the ease with which people can avoid ever thinking more deeply than on a surface level.
There’s a problem with that, and it’s not just intellectual.
As Father Dion puts it, “We judge things chiefly by their effects on our material welfare and our physical well-being. In other words, it is possible to live practically without thinking; it is possible to live a most superficial kind of animal existence without ever really tapping the resources of our spiritual mind, without ever becoming familiar with the whole thrilling world of spirit within us.”
The world of the spirit though more important can easily take a backseat in our lives because it’s invisible. Ironically, the things that last can’t be seen, and we’re distracted by the countless things we can see. But none of them last: “All things pass,” Saint Teresa of Ávila reminds us; “all shall pass.” (Only people pass into eternity, but all that we can see about them will pass away or be transformed.)
Because there are so many other things competing for our attention, we can easily forget the things we say we know or believe. We may know that someday we will die, but we don’t often think about it or act on the fact that it could happen any day. We may believe that we will have to render an account of our lives to our Creator on that day, but we don’t prepare for it. We say we understand that our actions and attitudes are not always pleasing to Him, but we don’t really try to change them. Instead, we act as if we’re guaranteed another fifty or sixty years and can work on that later.
What we assent to intellectually, what we know in our minds, has not made its way down to our hearts. This is why we can say we love God but neglect to spend time with Him. This is why when we go to church, we can sit there like we’re waiting for the bus instead of realizing that we are mystically present at the stable, Golgotha, and the empty tomb. Or why we can say we believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, yet file up to receive Him with as much excitement as when we get in line at the grocery store.
“Use it or lose it,” the gym advertisers warn. The same could be said for the powers of our mind and, even more frighteningly, of our spirit too.
So how can we realize that is, make real to ourselves what we know and believe?
It is in taking the time to think deeply about these things with the Holy Spirit that they sink into our hearts. It is in pondering these truths in prayer that they take root in our lives and grow and bear fruit. Think of Our Lady. Luke tells us that she pondered all these things all the mysteries she was witnessing in the life of Jesus in her heart.
While the Church offers us a whole banquet of types of prayer, many saints stress how crucial meditation is to the spiritual life. Saint Teresa of Ávila saw it as so vital as to be effectively the difference between heaven and hell: “He who neglects mental prayer needs no devil to carry him to hell, but he brings himself there,” she wrote. She also pointed out the flip side: “The devil knows that he has lost the soul that perseveringly practices mental prayer.”
Saint Alphonsus of Liguori explains: “It is impossible for him who perseveres in mental prayer to continue in sin: he will either give up meditation or renounce sin.”
I suspect another strength of mental prayer (or what today is more commonly called “meditation”) is that it is much less prone to Pharisaism than are other types of prayer. One can say a dozen devotions and attend Mass each day, but not have one’s mind engaged or heart involved. One can become so complacent or proud that one no longer tries to be present interiorly as well as exteriorly; then the graces are likely to roll right off. In such cases, one can not only fool one’s neighbors with one’s apparent piety, but one can even fool oneself. I suppose it is theoretically possible to do the same with meditation, but it would be much harder. Meditation is a one-on-one conversation with God that requires me to speak my own words, and far more difficult requires me to listen. That’s pretty hard to fake.
If a teenage son meets all his father’s minimum rules, like coming to Sunday dinner and staying out of serious trouble, but never talks to his father other than to ask for a raise in his allowance or for the latest new gizmo, what kind of relationship is that? How well will they know each other? And how long will the son continue in his minimal obedience? Our heavenly Father wants a real, personal relationship with each of us. We can’t build that through only rote or group prayer.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not at all disparaging vocal prayer or the Mass, both of which are very important and effective. Vocal prayers (those written by someone else) are fundamental many are the first we learn and the last we forget. They are so helpful too when we don’t know what to say or our own words seem so inadequate. And there can be no doubt that the Mass is the most powerful prayer. It is the prayer of Jesus, the re-presentation to the Father of Christ’s sacrifice. It is the prayer par excellence.
Nor am I saying that if our minds wander during any of these forms of prayer that our prayers are therefore worthless. If that were so, then I, Maj. Space Cadet, would be in big trouble. No, what matters is our intention and our efforts. If we want to pray from the heart, and keep trying, the Lord will care more for that than for our success, which is a gift from Him anyway.
Rather, I am merely echoing Saint Teresa of Ávila, who wrote: “It is then of the utmost importance to bear this truth in mind, that our Lord is within us, and that we ought to strive to be there with Him.”
... And Saint Alphonsus Liguori: “Mental prayer is the blessed furnace in which souls are inflamed with the love of God. All the saints have become saints by mental prayer.”
... And Archbishop Fulton Sheen, who explained: “When one meditates and fills the mind ... [each] day with thoughts and resolutions bearing on the love of God ... there is a gradual seepage of love down to the level of what is called the subconscious, and finally these good thoughts emerge, of themselves, in the form of effortless good actions.”
And Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, who said of mental prayer: “Holiness is impossible without it.”
What Is Meditation?
Here is Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s description in Go to Heaven:
Meditation is a little like a daydream or a reverie, but ... in meditation we do not think about the world or ourselves, but about God; and instead of using the imagination to build idle castles in Spain, we use the will to make resolutions that will draw us nearer to one of the Father’s mansions.
Meditation is a more advanced spiritual act than “saying prayers”; it may be likened to the attitude of a child who breaks into the presence of a mother saying: “I’ll not say a word, if you will just let me stay here and watch you.”
Meditation ... silences the ego with its clamorous demands, in order that it may hear the wishes of the divine heart. It uses our faculties ... to stir up our will to conform more perfectly with His will ... and strengthens our desire that all the good things we do shall be done for His honor and glory.
Prayer Is Not Always Easy or Fun
Beyond making the time for meditation, another difficulty often arises, namely, how hard it is. Sometimes, especially when people first discover God, He blesses their prayer times in ways they can feel, such as a sense of His presence or joy or even fervor. But we don’t always experience that, and it can be discouraging. It’s imperative to know what’s going on there. It’s not that we’ve failed, that we don’t have enough faith, that God isn’t real, or that He doesn’t hear us or care about us. Granted, sometimes prayer can falter when we put something ahead of God while denying it or pretending that it doesn’t matter. But even prayer done well and faithfully will become difficult.
Just as in my article on the types of prayer in the Michaelmas 2013 issue of Voices (“Prayer Nourishing the Soul,” wf-f.org/ 13-3Flood.html) images of sun and rain can help here too. We have sunny prayer times and rainy prayer times. In spiritual writings, the former are traditionally called “consolations” and the latter “desolations.” (Desolation has since taken on a darker connotation, calling to mind a condition near despair. That is not what is meant here, but something closer to “deprivation.”) Their Latin origins suggest that consolation is the act of comforting, of being with someone, and desolation is the condition of being deserted, abandoned. (Note, however, that with spiritual desolation, the Lord has not actually abandoned the soul; it only feels that way.)
Just as many prefer a sunny day to a rainy one, so also we naturally much prefer consolations in prayer to desolations. However, just as the plant needs both, so do our souls. A plant that received only the sun and no rain would wither up and die. A soul that received only consolations would also get “burnt”: would likely become complacent, would fail to grow, and might even die through falling into spiritual pride, the worst sin. Too much rain, on the other hand, would drown both the plant and the soul, and total deprivation of the sun would prevent any growth. So the Lord wisely sends us both sun and rain.
We can see why He sends us the sunny times. During them, we feel encouraged and eager to do His will and help our neighbor. We have new insights into the spiritual life and are on fire with love for Him. But why do we need those rainy desolations? Because they too are critical to our growth.
It is during times of desolation that we discover or re-discover how much we need God and how little we can do on our own. Thus we have the chance to deepen our humility and our dependence on God. And it is while we are enduring desolation that we can really grow in virtue. Do we build muscle when we’re being carted around? No. We build muscle when our muscles work, when they are challenged, as in resistance exercises. Similarly, our faith grows when it has to work, when it’s challenged, even resisted.
A saint once pointed out that when we feel close to God in our prayer time and ready to do anything for Him, that is His gift to us. When prayer is dry and dull and seems pointless, and we persevere in it anyway, that is our gift to Him. Mother Angelica, founder of Catholic television network EWTN, echoes this in Dawn on the Mountain: The Gift of Dryness in Prayer:
Only through the pain of dryness where we decrease and He increases can we begin to love God in the way He wishes us to love. When we pray we are doing so on our will power for our poor human nature receives no compensation for its efforts.
Faith tells us that God is present when we pray and Hope tells us He listens, but only Love makes us continue to pray when darkness, boredom and even disgust fill our souls to overflowing. Only a true love will persevere in praying despite darkness and confusion.
To get through the cold, rainy times, it’s important to use the sunny times well. Just as we shouldn’t just lounge around, but “make hay while the sun shines,” we need to gather the fruits of our sunny prayer times to save them up for the storms ahead. One effective way to do this is to record in a prayer journal the insights and gifts that God has given. Otherwise, it’s all too easy to forget them or misremember and spurn them when the feelings have gone.
We don’t know all the ways that God is working in us when we are faithful to prayer in times of desolation. Just as the rain is sinking into the earth to reach the plant’s roots, desolations are feeding our souls in unseen ways.
On the other hand, God sometimes lifts one to the heights of contemplation. The works of Saint Teresa of Ávila and Saint John of the Cross describe their profound experiences of God in prayer. True contemplation this supernatural union with God is not something we can cause; it is wholly a gift from God. We can not make it happen, but we should not give up hope of it ever happening. These Carmelite mystics both say that God desires everyone to enter into contemplation. And we can open ourselves to His bestowing it upon us by being faithful in seeking Him in meditation, for it is in meditation that God usually gives the gift of contemplation.
Growing in Holiness
All in all, meditation is a sure and simple (though challenging) means to growing in holiness, one that is available to everyone. Sometimes we can be like the Naaman the Syrian, seeking the extraordinary and disdaining the plain and unimpressive method that God offers.
But once one knows how vital meditation is, one can respond with Archbishop Fulton Sheen to the question “Why do you pray?” with “Why do you breathe?”
Jeanette Amestoy Flood, wife and mother of six, is a freelance writer and teacher. Her work has also appeared in Faith and Family, St. Austin Review, Franciscan Way, and OSV Weekly. She blogs at Where the Rubber Hits the Road: where-the-rubber-hits-the-road.blogspot.com.
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