Congratulations to Connie Rossini on her book The Q&A Guide to Mental Prayer, coming out on July 16! Prayer is a huge part of being a Catholic Christian, yet we all struggle with different aspects of prayer. I thank Connie for writing a book that could aid so many through answering questions, alleviating fears, and providing some direction.
Interview with the Author
What led you to become interested in the specific topic of prayer?
Prayer has changed my life. When I was in my mid-twenties I joined the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites (OCDS) and learned about St. Teresa of Avila’s teaching on prayer. I began trying harder to pray every day. I really thought I was more or less holy before I committed myself to prayer. The more I pray, the more I realize how far from holy I am, but also how wonderfully patient and merciful God is. Prayer transforms the inner person, helping you to love God and neighbor in ways that would be impossible without prayer. It gives you peace and stability no matter what happens. I talk about prayer all the time. Nothing is more important to me.
How did you come to write this book?
For the past three years, I’ve run a Facebook group called Authentic Contemplative Prayer. People ask the same questions over and over. When you keep answering the same questions, your answers become more concise and refined. I wanted to preserve some of the answers that I thought were particularly helpful, so that I could use them again. I started copying them to save. Then I realized they could form the basis of a book on mental prayer.
What do the saints have to say about serious pitfalls in prayer life?
St. Teresa is frank about the fact that she gave up prayer for a time. She urges others not to do that, and warns them about various temptations the Devil will send to persuade them to give up prayer. One that I include in my book is the idea that if you are sinful, you shouldn’t try to pray, because that just makes you a hypocrite. She says, don’t use the excuse, “‘If I am falling back into sin and still continue to pray, it will be even worse.’ I think,” she goes on, “it would be worse if they abandoned their mental prayer and did not correct the sin.”
For John of the Cross, ignorance of the way God works in the soul can be a serious detriment to growth. He particularly talks about ignorance of what is happening in the transition from meditation to infused contemplation, which is the highest expression of personal prayer. The majority of people who reach this point, John says, fail to continue growing. Often that’s caused by ignorance or bad spiritual direction.
St. Ignatius of Loyola gives invaluable advice about how to respond in times of desolation. We all face desolation and it can cause a downward spiritual spiral if we fail to recognize its source and that it is only temporary.
St. Francis de Sales is the saint of practical spirituality for laypeople, without any compromise of zeal. He helps us balance prayer with the duties of our state in life, not trying to live like cloistered religious, but not falling into the opposite error of laxity either.
Could you please expand on the three expression of prayer?
The Catechism speaks of three expressions of personal prayer: vocal prayer, meditation, and contemplative prayer, with contemplative prayer being the highest expression. Contemplative prayer, or contemplation, is seen by the Doctors of the Church as a pure gift from God. In vocal prayer and meditation, you reach up toward God. In contemplation, God reaches down to you. It is contemplation that makes people saints.
Meditation is the type of prayer that prepares you to receive contemplation. By meditation, we mean prayerfully reading a holy book, particularly the Gospel, pondering what God is saying to you through it, and conversing with Him about it. Meditation has great power to bring you toward full conversion.
Vocal prayer is the most basic kind of personal prayer. It includes all the prayers we memorize and recite. Vocal prayer can lead to communion with God as well, but because it is memorized it is easy to pray vocal prayer sloppily.
So, if someone is only praying vocal prayers right now, I’d advise them to pray them as well as they can, then try to add a little meditation to their daily routine.
What exactly is mental prayer?
Let’s go back to St. Teresa for that one. She said, “Mental prayer, in my opinion, is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us.” So there are two aspects to mental prayer. One is spending time alone with God. This leaves out the little prayers we voice throughout the day and communal prayers. The second aspect of mental prayer is a “sharing.” That means prayer is more than talking to God; it is also letting God share Himself with us. There should always be both a giving and a receiving, because God and the soul are seeking communion with each other.
In terms of the three expressions of prayer, meditation is unquestionably mental prayer. Some people use the term mental prayer exclusively for meditation, but others, including me, see contemplation as a mode of mental prayer too, since it also fulfills Teresa’s two conditions.
In your years of studying prayer and prayer life, what errors do you find people are making and not realizing?
I think most people probably come from the vein of thought that any attempt to communicate with God is good as long as your intentions are good. Well, God does honor our goodwill, but without knowledge of pitfalls, we can waste years in fruitless activities.
Many of the mistakes people make are tied to the idea that their difficulties in mental prayer are somehow unique. When they learn that everyone, including nearly every saint, struggles to form a habit of prayer, to overcome distractions, and to continue when prayer is difficult, it relieves a lot of stress. It encourages them to keep going.
Another type of error that’s quite common is when people realize that prayer is supposed to be a two-way exchange, but they aren’t well instructed on how to make that happen. So they go to prayer and they just sit there “listening,” waiting for God to speak to them. What usually happens is they become very distracted and frustrated, because they either hear nothing or they have no way of knowing whether what they think they might be hearing is from God. I suggest that they start meditating on Scripture instead of sitting and waiting. Scripture is God’s word. When you meditate on it, God is always speaking to you. You just need to discern how He wants you to apply it to your life so that you can be more fully converted. Meditation makes prayer a conversation.
Who is your book geared toward?
My book will be most helpful for those who are still in the beginning stages of prayer. Maybe they want to start praying, but they don’t know how. Or they’ve begun practicing meditation, but they are encountering difficulties. Then there are those who have been praying for several years whose prayer is changing in preparation for the gift of contemplation. All these people will find help in my book, and that includes the vast majority of devout Catholics. I don’t go into great depth on the more advanced stages of prayer, but I do talk about them briefly.
I hope that priests and spiritual directors will read the book to help them explain prayer to others. And when people can’t remember the definition of a particular term related to prayer, I hope the book will provide a quick reference for them.
There are 125 questions and answers packed into 139 pages! That’s a lot of information. What formats will the book be available in?
It is currently available for pre-order on Amazon for Kindle. I will also making it available through Apple and other ebook distributors. A paperback version should be out soon on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other online stores. The expected release date is July 16, 2019.
If people are discouraged in their prayer life, what encouragement would you give them?
Keep going. Always keep going. As I named a blog post long ago, “You can’t lose, unless you give up.” Remember that the Holy Spirit can work through your prayer even when it feels dry and empty, when you are completely distracted, or even falling asleep. God’s action in prayer is more important than yours. He is always there when we pray sincerely.
What is the most important message that you would give to the world if you only had one minute?
God calls you to a deep intimacy with Himself in prayer. He loves you so much, He longs for you to spend time with him, allowing Him to pour His graces down upon you. Deep prayer is not a reward for being holy. It is deep prayer that makes you holy. You don’t have to be a saint to devote yourself to prayer. But you might become one if you do! Prayer is how saints are made. Vatican II taught that God calls everyone to the heights of holiness. That means that He calls everyone to intimacy with Him in prayer.
I like to tell people that in my 25 years or so of practicing mental prayer, I have never regretted praying. I have only regretted the times when I missed prayer. Prayer will make you into the person God created you to be. So what are you waiting for?
In a short amount of time, Connie really opened my eyes to the need to improve my own prayer life and to add more meditation to my daily prayer. Through The Q&A Guide to Mental Prayer we can all learn to be more fruitful in the ways that we pray and guide our children in how to deepen their relationship with Christ through more productive prayer.
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Copyright 2019 Marya Hayes
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