Mental Prayer: internal attentiveness or self-absorption?

On Saint Gregory the Great’s feast day a week an a half ago, there was an excerpt from one of his homilies in the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours. In his homily, St. Gregory makes an analogy between someone who preaches God’s word and a watchman. St. Gregory says, “A watchman stands on a height so that he can see from afar what is coming.” We may first think of the prophesy of foresight as being most important to someone who presumes to proclaim God’s word, but an internal attentiveness is even more important.

Internal attentiveness is more than being punctual in spoken prayers. Internal attentiveness demands that a person be aware of all the movements in his or her heart. The prophet Elijah exhibits this internal attentiveness in 1 Kings 19: 11-13:

A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the LORD–but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake–but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was fire–but the LORD was not in the fire. After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound. When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave.

For people of prayer, God’s profound voice does not resound like a booming crash of thunder. Often it is a word or phrase or the beholding of a divine truth of the faith.

Internal attentiveness not only requires being attuned to the divine interventions in a person’s heart. The prayerful soul needs self-knowledge of one’s own struggles, burdens, and desires. If one doesn’t have an accurate picture of oneself, how can he or she pull the splinters out of someone else’s eye? Before we can be of service to others, we must know what is happening our own hearts. This variety of internal attentiveness doesn’t just happen; it requires an intentional commitment to meditative prayer. Since prayer is a result of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in a person’s heart (or the preparation for that indwelling), then one’s own abilities are not as important as his or her love for God and neighbor.

The danger to internal attentiveness, if it is not done prayerfully, is introspection. By introspection I mean a turn to the self which shuts out God and other people. This sort of introspection could be labeled self-absorption. Popularity and social media encourage self-absorption. The person in this position may think “how great am I,” but they should realize, “how poor am I!” The watchman sees himself as he really is: poor and not better than other people. Only with an accurate self-picture can a watchman see what needs to be brought to the attention of others. It may just happen that what the watchman finds in himself–good or bad–may be most useful in helping others!

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