Online Edition – Vol. IV, No. 9: February 1999
The Mass as a Model for Meditation
by Father Jerry Pokorsky
"He was praying in a certain place, and when he ceased, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples’" (Luke 11:1).
Today, a generation after the close of the Second Vatican Council, the question of how to pray is just as compelling as it was 2,000 years ago. The answer, as always, is to pray as the Lord taught us.
Christ continues to teach us how to pray through the liturgy of his Church. According to the fathers of the Second Vatican Council, "[i]n the liturgy, we find "the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed" as well as "the fount from which all her power flows" [SC 10]. "In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the Holy City of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, Minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle" [SC 8].
But private prayer — in particular, meditation — is necessary to complement the communal liturgy. Pope Pius XII’s encyclical letter on the liturgy, Mediator Dei, continues to provide fresh insights into the complementary role of private meditation and the public celebration of the Mass.
What constitutes "private prayer"? What does "meditation" mean? Spiritual theology tells us of various forms of prayer such as vocal prayer, meditation, affective prayer, and prayer of simplicity, contemplation, recollection, quiet, union, ecstatic union, and transforming union. But for the purposes here, this discussion will be limited to the basic prayer of meditation and the gift of contemplation.
Meditation and Contemplation
Meditation is prayer in which the truths of the faith are identified and applied to one’s life. The intellect and will, by God’s grace, guide meditation. The subject matter of meditation includes memorized prayers, sacred Scripture, or the multitude of available spiritual treatises. There is no one way to meditate. The mystics and saints give us various methods of meditation which, over time, may dispose us to receive the gift of infused contemplation. For example, a perennially favorite method of meditation is given in St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life.
In contemplation, on the other hand, we are gripped by the Holy Spirit and we actively listen to and behold Divine Wisdom. There is a happy combination of understanding and delight, a movement of intuition and love, in contemplation. Contemplation may follow upon the prayer of meditation because meditation can dispose us for higher levels of prayer. But contemplation is a gift, an "invasion" of the soul by the supernatural. It does not occur by one’s own powers.
All prayer begins with God’s grace. The flashes of insight in meditation as well as the more extended gift of contemplation are truly the actions of the Holy Spirit.
Most people, however, struggle with identifying a consistent and fruitful method of prayer. Perhaps there is too much routine or too much activity. Occasionally there is concern whether enough effort is put into prayer: Do I remember to praise God? Do I pray for myself and others adequately? Do I ask the Lord to guide me? Do I thank God for his gifts? Do I faithfully keep up with the liturgical year? In other words, have I found a fool-proof framework of personal prayer?
While finding a "fool-proof" formula for prayer might appeal to the rigorist in all of us, we need not look far for sure and certain guidance. The Mass is not only the "summit and fount" of Catholic living, it offers a splendid model, with appropriate adjustments, for private meditation.
The following suggestion is meant to be less a formula for meditation than a framework for meditation. The framework should be familiar because it is, essentially, the framework of the Mass. Hence, it includes all of the essentials of prayer: contrition, praise, petition, and thanksgiving. But it should be adapted to one’s needs as they arise, and as prompted by the Holy Spirit. As we shall see, there is room for formal prayers or, as the occasion or need demands, spontaneous prayers. In addition, this suggestion is not meant to substitute for other types of prayer such as the Angelus or an evening Rosary. As a model for meditation, it is not designed to replace the private recitation of the Divine Office. Rather, if it suits the reader, it is meant to offer a flexible means to meditate for 15 or 30 minutes (or more) every day.
The Structure of the Mass
Personal prayer needs structure to endure under normal circumstances. But sometimes preoccupation with the method of prayer interferes with the prayer itself. The solution, of course, is practice. By developing the habit of prayer, the method of prayer (for example, the method of St. Francis de Sales or the method of St. Ignatius) becomes second nature. For most Catholics, the structure of the Mass is already second nature. So we can use the gift of the Mass to teach us to pray.
Recalling the outline of the Mass, we begin by placing ourselves in the presence of God with the sign of the Cross. We continue with a self-accusation of sin and plead for forgiveness. We praise God for his glory, offer a prayer, and listen to the Word of God in the readings. Nourished by Scriptures (followed by the homily), we profess our faith through the recitation of the Creed. Upon affirming our belief in the whole faith, we dare to beg the Lord for favors in our prayers of petition. This concludes the "Liturgy of the Word."
Continuing with the "Liturgy of the Eucharist," we offer the gifts of bread and wine which represent our sacrifices to the Lord ("which human hands have made"). The presentation of the gifts is the exercise of the "priesthood of the laity." In the name of the Church, the priest receives the gifts and, through his mediation, the drama of the sacrifice continues with the celestial liturgy. We enter into the "holy of holies" with the recitation of the Eucharistic Prayer. The Consecration represents ("makes present") in an unbloody fashion the one Sacrifice of Christ. The sacred exchange is completed when we receive the body, blood, soul and divinity of the risen Lord in Communion. A final blessing and thanksgiving concludes the sacred act.
The structure of the Mass offers a convenient outline for personal prayer. To develop a prayer life that immediately complements the Mass, one need only to flesh out the outline of the Mass with spontaneous or formal prayers according to one’s personal needs and discernments.
There is, of course, danger in providing specific examples because of the temptation to follow the proposals to the letter. This would be unfortunate. The aim in developing our prayer life should be authenticity, simplicity and, to a certain degree, spontaneity (i.e., being open to the prompting of the Holy Spirit). With this in mind, the following proposal is intended to give practical suggestions that can be adapted to personal needs and preferences.
A Practical Application
First, identify at least 15 minutes when you will not be disturbed, perhaps in the morning before the kids get up, in the evening just before retiring, or any time during the day when distractions are few. Prayer before the Blessed Sacrament would be ideal. To the extent possible, the time selected should be fairly regular. Think of it as an appointment with the Lord.
Use a Bible (the best contemporary English translation is the Revised Standard Version-Catholic Edition, available from Ignatius Press) or a weekday missal. As you pray, move from one topic to another, following the outline of the Mass. If you find yourself distracted, ask for the Lord’s assistance and return to the subject of prayer.
Sign of the Cross
Place yourself in the presence of God. Request his assistance during prayer.
Briefly examine your conscience and follow with an act of contrition or a spontaneous prayer of sorrow. In the morning, this could be used as the place for a preventive examination of conscience.
Offer an act of praise for God’s revelation and our redemption. A simple, devout "Glory be" doxology would suffice, or a longer prayer, perhaps the Gloria from the Mass itself.
Allow your prayer to correspond to the liturgical year. Refer to a Catholic calendar to obtain the daily Scripture references, or use a weekday missal; or simply recall a favorite prayer or Scripture passage for meditation (e.g., "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.") Allow for a brief period of reflection after the reading. Ask God to help you make resolutions based on the insights you receive.
In response to "hearing" the Word of God, respond with an act of faith by reciting an act of obedience to the Word, such as the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed.
Prayers of Petition
Recall your special needs, the needs of loved ones, the nation and the Church.
Recite the familiar "Morning Offering" or, in your own words, express your desire to surrender into God’s hands. Consider the Serenity Prayer or a spontaneous prayer of self-donation to the will of God in union with Christ on the Cross.
This is the core of the "celestial liturgy" and is a prayer reserved for recitation by the priest. Still, it would be helpful to imagine the presence of all of the angels and saints, as well as the presence of the souls in purgatory during your prayer. Aspirations to be present at the eucharistic sacrifices being celebrated around the world would be appropriate.
The Lord’s Prayer
Recite the "Our Father" in preparation for receiving our Lord in spiritual Communion.
Use a formal prayer or a prayer of your own making; always express a desire to receive Communion sacramentally at Mass.
Conclude with a brief prayer of thanksgiving and a request for God’s grace, recalling any resolution made during the body of the prayer.
There are considerable advantages to using the Mass as a structure of personal prayer. The habits we form in private meditation will assist us during the celebration of the Mass. These habits prepare us to participate more actively by disposing us to be more attentive to the drama of the Mass as it unfolds.
The subject matter and content of prayer also gives one the opportunity to remember the various themes for spontaneous prayer throughout the day. Prayer of meditation can be adapted for any part of the day to accommodate a busy schedule. It might be abbreviated if, for example, a mother needs to tend her flock; or lengthened for purposes of a holy hour in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.
It can be adapted for use during rush-hour commutes (turn off the radio and pray!), as well as during air travel. It is also conducive to family prayer and helps keep everyone in step with the liturgical year. Favorite prayers, as indicated above, can be added anytime.
Finally, there is always a tension within our life of prayer. We seek to enter into conversation with God who is accessible only by faith and can be heard only by recollected hearts. Without true recollection, prayer can easily become a monologue rather than a dialogue. A dull recitation of words may satisfy the desire to "do something," but the spirit of prayer can be extinguished. On the other hand, without guidance, prayer could deteriorate into unhealthy psychological introspection.
Allowing the outline of the Mass to guide private meditation drives private prayer to a certain conclusion. At the same time, there are many opportunities to pause and listen to the Lord. If we persevere, the framework provides a flexible context allowing an openness to the possibility of genuine contemplation.
You may be happy with a method of prayer that has grown habitual over the years. If so, there’s no need to tamper with success. But if you’re having some difficulty and are looking for a way to improve your prayer, you may want to consider allowing the Mass to aid you in private meditation.
In itself, the Sacrifice of the Mass is the pre-eminent form of prayer. It is also the standard and inspiration of all authentic personal prayer.
Father Jerry Pokorsky is a priest of the diocese of Arlington, a founder of credo, and a member of Adoremus’ Executive Committee.