I have been struggling with mental prayer for the past week. I don’t suffer from a wandering mind, as most people who are new to mental prayer do. My problem is different: I had been doing Buddhist meditation for years before coming back to the Catholic Church. In Buddhist meditation, you empty your mind. You are not supposed to think about anything. In mental prayer, you focus on a specific text in the gospels and turn it over again and again in your mind; or you apply your imagination to an event in the gospels (example: the Visitation of Our Lady to Saint Elizabeth) and you immerse yourself in it. The one thing you don’t do, which I tend to do, is to sit on your ass with an empty headspace.
So, I decided to pray to Our Lady for guidance during mental prayer. I sat for 2 days, 15 minutes at a time, turning over in my mind, a sentence in the New Testament. One day it was this: “I am the vine and you are the branches.” The next day it was this: “I am the good shepherd.” I decided I was going to relax about this instead of being uptight and worried about whether any magic thing was going to happen, whether I was going to obtain some kind of inspired divine insight as I was meditating.
This is what I learned. You don’t necessarily receive any amazing insights while you are meditating. When you end the meditation, you get on with your day. However, the next day and the days after that, I was surprised to discover that these two meditations were seared into my memory and I found myself thinking about them while hiking and doing my chores, and deriving profound insights. Better yet, as the week wore on, it became easier for me to sit down and simply turn over a sentence from the day’s Gospel reading in my mind.
My advice to people who are getting started with mental prayer: pray to Our Lady for guidance, relax, don’t expect an earth-shattering experience, just follow the mental prayer instructions (you can find videos and articles on the Internet about mental prayer) and be patient.