When praying, there can be a temptation to think that the more prayers we say, the better. For instance, it is a common assumption that when praying a rosary that it is more pleasing to God that we finish all five decades no matter what kind of inspirations we receive. But according to the Saints, this is far from the case. In fact, the value of prayer is to be measured not so much by quantity or duration but rather by its depth. The same applies to spiritual progress. Drawing closer to Christ is more about the intensity of our love for him than it is accumulating spiritual experiences or doing a lot of spiritual exercises.
In the great spiritual classic, “The Dialogue,” God the Father engages in a dialogue with St. Catherine of Sienna in much the same way Jesus does with St. Faustina in “The Diary of Divine Mercy.” The Lord gives St. Catherine an invaluable lesson on prayer. There, he instructs her on the importance of vocal prayer, mental prayer (or meditation) and how they serve each other.
In praying out loud or using vocal prayer, it is important that the soul doesn’t hurry to finish the prayers for the sake of completing them. Rather, she should be mindful of the “inspirations” or “visitations” she may receive from the Holy Spirit. And if it should happen that the person who is praying be enlightened on any particular aspect of the prayer or that some thought about Christ should come to mind, then the intention to finish the prayer or prayers (i.e. if it is a rosary or Scripture reading) should give way to this “inspiration” or “visitation”. In other words, vocal prayer should stop and mental prayer (i.e. thinking about what God inspired you with) should begin. When speaking to St. Catherine of Sienna, God put it this way:
“If the soul looks only to the completion of her tally of prayers, or if she abandons mental prayer for vocal prayer, she will never advance. A soul may set herself to say a certain number of oral prayers. But I may visit her spirit in one way or another, sometimes with a flash of self-knowledge and contrition for her sinfulness, sometimes in the greatness of my love setting before her mind the presence of my Truth [his Son] in different ways, depending on my pleasure or her longings. And sometimes the soul will be so foolish as to abandon my visitation, which she senses within her spirit, in order to complete her tally…This is not the way she should act.”
It is important, therefore, that vocal prayer serve as an instrument in bringing about mental prayer in which the depth of God’s mysteries is pondered. Mental prayer, after all, is nothing but thinking – or daydreaming – about Christ or some aspect of the Gospel. This is the purpose of the rosary. This is how change of heart and mind comes about. And just as important, this is what leads to meaningful resolutions and sincere repentance.
Keep in mind that we are not talking about anything extraordinary or sensationalist such as visions or ecstasies. These visitations from God are the ordinary means by which his grace inspires certain thoughts. For instance, when we are reading a passage from the New Testament, and some idea or word jumps out at us, it might be God saying: “Hey! Stop in your tracks. Take a closer look at this. There is something in this passage that you need to meditate on.” In fact, God instructed St. Catherine on what to do if this should happen:
“As soon as she senses her spirit ready for my visitation, she ought to abandon vocal prayer. Then, after mental prayer, if she has time, she can resume what she had set herself to say…As far as concerns any other prayer the soul might begin, she ought to begin vocally as a way to reach mental prayer. When she senses that her spirit is ready she should abandon vocal prayer with this intent. Such prayer made in the way I told you, will bring the soul to perfection.”
From these visitations during mental prayer, what eventually comes to fore is a holy desire to please God in all that we do. Not only that, the soul desires to be mindful of his presence throughout the day. This is why St. Paul exhorted us to “pray always!” Prayer, for the Apostle, was not so much a litany of prayers to be said – although it certainly may include that – but rather it is a loving desire to seek God’s will in everyday life. This is how, according to “The Dialogue,” continual prayer is possible: “Perfect prayer is not achieved with many words but with loving desire, when the soul rises up to me with knowledge of herself…This is why I told you that holy desire, that is, having a good and holy will, is continual prayer.”
Thankfully, we do not have to go far to pray. The Lord said to St. Catherine that the vocation to pray is adaptable to every situation in life: “The principle of a holy will means that each of you must work for the salvation of souls according to your situation.” Given that our situation is the content of God’s will for us, the most pleasing prayer to God, therefore, is to thank him for our situation, whatever it may be. But in order to get to that point – the point of recognizing that the circumstances of each day is the manifestation of God’s will for us – it is essential that we suspend the natural routine of prayer when God visits the soul.