What comes to mind when you hear the word "meditation"? More likely than not, it conjures to mind imagery reminiscent of New Ageism, or Eastern paganism. It probably did not cause a recall of St Teresa of Avila and her mansions of the soul, or St John of the Cross and his Dark Night. Nor perhaps did appear the Carthusian in his cell, or the layman seeking to empower her active apostolate. And yet it is all these people who carry on the ancient and necessary tradition of Christian prayer which is more effective at pleasing God and uniting the soul to Him, and at bringing all those petitions to Him which we so often make.
Sadly, in the minds of many, meditation is not the Christian way, but the way of the secularist, or the pagan. Yes, we may often hear of the health benefits of "emptying your mind" and we may have even tried it at one time or another. Yet the danger of such a practice is clear, for in the 12th chapter of St. Matthew's Gospel, Christ teaches us:
And when an unclean spirit is gone out of a man he walketh through dry places seeking rest, and findeth none. Then he saith: I will return into my house from whence I came out. And coming he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished. Then he goeth, and taketh with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is made worse than the first. So shall it be also to this wicked generation.
When our mind is emptied, and it is not filled with the things of God, we open ourselves to evil. Hence, the true meditation of a Christian is this very plenitude of God in the mind. Indeed, the Saints tell us that meditation, also called mental prayer, is the very means by which we attain the perfection God demands of us.
Mental prayer is defined by Dom Lehodey simply as "interior and silent prayer, by which the soul raises itself to God without aid of words or formulas." But why is this way of prayer so crucial and necessary? What makes it superior to praying vocally? St. Alphonsus Ligouri answers that "Mental Prayer is morally necessary for Salvation" and that:
St. Teresa used to say that he who neglects mental prayer needs not a devil to carry him to Hell, but that he brings himself there with his own hands.
St. John of the Cross says:
Without the aid of mental prayer, the soul cannot triumph over the forces of the demon.
Now, when the Saints speak, we of the Church Militant would do well to listen, just as an amateur athlete ought to listen to a champion. How much more so should we take the words to heart when they come from the agreement of the Doctors of the Church?
Now, often we see times when the world comes near to the truth, and is almost correct in its conclusions. Usually this is just because it is taking, knowingly or not, something from the Catholic traditions and twisting it to make it more palatable to the non-Catholic. That the world will say you will reap benefits from taking a few minutes out of your day to sit, breath, and empty your mind is one such example of a mark missed, but not by a lot. But this small difference is also that between the narrow way of God and the broad way of evil.
So, Christian soul, if you would fulfill your vocation to Sainthood, pick up a new good habit this year and start spending just 15 minutes a day in mental prayer. Here I hope I have answered the "why" of mental prayer sufficiently to entice the soul to action. For the "how" and "what" I would only repeat what the Saints and spiritual authors say. So here is a brief reading list that should give the reader a good foundation for this most admirable practice. All of these are ones I would consider must-reads for every Christian, but it is not exhaustive.
Beyond these I would include anything by Saints John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, and Alphonsus Ligouri. All of whom are referenced also in the above listed works.
A final note for everyone ready to jump straight into meditation. Take your time, and pray in the way that best lifts your heart and mind to God. There are no hard and fast rules to this, aside from the need to do it, and some people are better suited to certain methods than others. Different methods are shown in those works, so that the reader can find what best works for him or her.