I’ve been writing about prayer here a good bit, which leads to practical questions such as, What prayers should I be praying? How do I pray?
While the Church offers us a whole banquet of prayers and types of prayer, I'd like to put in a plug for meditation.
Many saints strongly emphasize how crucial meditation is to the spiritual life. St. Teresa of Avila 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...” But on the other hand, “The devil knows that he has lost the soul that perseveringly practices mental prayer.” St. 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, three Rosaries, 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 roll off like water off a duck’s back. In such cases, one can not only fool one's neighbors with one's apparent piety, but can even fool oneself. I suppose it is theoretically possible to do the same with meditation, but it’s much harder. This is because meditation is a one-on-one conversation with God. It requires me to speak my own words, and—far more difficult—it 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 basically staying out of trouble, but never talks to his father other than to ask for a raise in his allowance or the latest new gizmo, what kind of relationship is that? How well will they know each other? And how long the son will continue in his minimal obedience? Our heavenly Father wants a real, personal relationship with each of us. We can't build that only through 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; it is 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. The crux of the matter is our intention and our efforts. If we want to pray from the heart, and keep trying to, the Lord will care more for that than for our success, which ultimately is a gift from Him anyway.
Rather, I am merely striving to echo St. Teresa of Avila, 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 St. Alphonsus of 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 Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, who said of mental prayer: “Holiness is impossible without it.”