Chapter Three: Mental Prayer

Throughout The Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius offers various methods of prayer. Though he identifies at least five different methods of prayer, the three below get at the heart of his approach to praying with the Scriptures.

Meditation: At the beginning of the first exercises for the first week, Ignatius gives some brief descriptions of what he calls “meditation.” Ignatius explains that you need to use your imagination to see the “composition” and to experience the appropriate “desire” within the meditation. One may analyze doctrine and spiritual concepts, prayerfully reason toward conclusions of faith, think about events in the Gospels, and do so very intentionally. Meditation is a mental exercise using your reason and imagination as you think about, reflect upon and ponder some truth of our faith. Thus, if you are meditating on the Nativity of Christ, you try to see, with your imagination, the details of Jesus’ place of birth. Perhaps you ponder the meaning of the name “Bethlehem” as “House of Bread” or contemplate why Jesus was born in a manger. 

Contemplation: Though Ignatius uses the word “contemplation” beginning in the second week of his exercises, he is not referring to what Saint John of the Cross and other great mystics mean by “infused contemplation.” For Ignatius, contemplation is another form of mental prayer and is similar to meditation. In contemplation, a person may do less “thinking” and more experiencing while gazing with devotion and interest at the Gospel scene. Continuing with the example of the Nativity of Christ, one can imagine the pleading words Joseph might have used with the innkeeper to give them a room, the calming words of Mary to her husband that everything will be fine, or the reassuring words of Joseph that he will be at her side at Jesus’ birth. One’s affections, feelings, emotions, desires, etc., are stirred, and much attention is given to the various movements of the soul. As you look at the image, persons, events and places of the Gospel with love and with the use of your imagination, you become a true participant in the Gospel scene.

Application of the Senses: This form of prayer is still a form of mental prayer using the imagination and mind, but it has much more of a focus on the sensory experiences obtained from the meditation than some form of logical conclusion gained by reasoning. Less focus is given to a reasoned out “conclusion” to some mystery of faith and more attention is given to the fruitfulness experienced by simply “being” with our Lord in the Gospels in silence and love. Again, in the Nativity example, try to imagine the smell of the barn. What were the sounds of the animals in the middle of the night? How was the feel of the hay? And what did the new parents think about all of this?

Interestingly, for those making a 30-day directed retreat, strictly following the outline of The Spiritual Exercises, Saint Ignatius often recommends the use of the application of the senses at night when one is more tired. He recommends that in the evening, during the fourth holy hour of the day, one sit and hear, see, taste, smell and feel all the fruit of the day’s meditations thus far. Thus, in this prayer when it is more strictly a prayer of the application of the senses, one simply experiences, with the senses, the Scriptural scene and that which was experienced earlier in prayer through meditation and contemplation.



Though it may be somewhat artificial to try to make a hard and fast distinction between these three forms of prayer, it is useful to understand them. Essentially, all three are ways of entering into a mental exercise with the use of the imagination, but in them you see a progression of moving from more pure reasoning to more affective experiencing. 

Week One of The Spiritual Exercises introduces and uses meditation more than the other methods because it’s important to come to clear rational resolutions about sin—and that is a fruit of meditation. An exception to this, however, is the meditation on hell from Week One in which one uses the application of the senses to see, feel, hear, taste, and smell this frightful reality. But as the weeks progress and as you seek a deeper intimacy with our Lord, rational meditation must give way to a more affective encounter with our Lord, so as to dispose your soul to the deeper communications of prayer that go beyond rational concepts and maxims.

During Week One, for example, as you (the retreatant) ponder your sins, it’s important to mentally comprehend the saving power of the Cross. It’s important to rationally understand all that Jesus did and to intentionally connect His saving Passion to your own sins. This process of spiritual reasoning helps you to accept the mercy of God that was given on the Cross, so that you can allow that mercy to directly apply to your own personal sins.

However, as you enter into Week Three of the retreat and spend even more time directly “contemplating” the mystery of the Cross of Christ, the goal becomes more of a gaze of love upon the Cross. Here, you should seek only to be there with our Lord, to experience all that He endured in His suffering and death, and to encounter it with Him. Contemplating the sufferings of Christ are not so much to rationally apply the grace won on the Cross to your personal sins; rather, the contemplation of the Passion is simply to be there, experience Christ’s sufferings, console Him with your presence and to share those sufferings in the depth of your soul. Thus, the intellectual reasonings and logical spiritual conclusions give way to a more interior and affective experiencing of Christ’s Passion, which leads to a much deeper union with Jesus Himself.


Introduction to Infused Contemplation (A Side Note)

Though Saint Ignatius does not cover the traditional topic of “infused contemplation,” it is useful to understand this method of prayer. As mentioned, “infused contemplation” is not the same as “contemplation” as Saint Ignatius describes it. “Infused” contemplation is a much deeper form of prayer that goes beyond any intentional mental activity on your part and is exclusively a form of prayer guided and sustained by God Himself. Infused contemplation is no longer an affective and sensory encounter with the Gospel and life of Christ; rather, it is purely spiritual in nature. In infused contemplation, God enters in and takes over the prayer. For your part, you simply allow Him to do so. During this deep form of prayer, your only appropriate response is silent attentiveness to the presence of God on a spiritual level. 

It may be useful to briefly consider the teaching of another great mystic, Saint John of the Cross, in regard to infused contemplation. He explains that, at first, this form of prayer is “purgative” of the senses. By this he means that God is doing a deep cleansing action within your soul by freeing you from the deepest attachments of a “sensory” nature. However, purification of your soul must first take place by your own prayerful and intentional action, such as self-denial and mortification. However, your own efforts are ultimately insufficient, and therefore you will need contemplative purgation to finish the process. For example, if you have actively sought to purge your soul from an attachment to money (the sin of greed), you will find that there remains a deeper attachment that is beyond what you can willingly free yourself from. For example, the deep feelings and desires you have in regard to a love of money may be beyond what you can let go of by yourself. Therefore, an infused “purgative contemplation” will be necessary. In this form of prayer, God will enter in and cleanse your desires and all remaining attachment to material things. For your part, you must simply allow Him to do so. The same is true for each of the Capital Sins. Though you must at first make a conscious choice to overcome them, eventually it is only God through a deep, spiritual cleansing Who can remove every last attachment to these sins.

Moving beyond a “purgative contemplation,” God will then begin to draw a person into a purer love of Him by a sustained and infused contemplation. This is the ideal form of prayer and is a prayer that goes far beyond any rational meditation or mental exercise. In this form of prayer, the soul is drawn into union with God through the infused gifts of faith, hope and charity; and these virtues take over, leading you to a level of union that mere meditation cannot accomplish. Rational thoughts, images and ideas of God slowly give way to a purer form of knowledge. This “new” knowledge in the intellect is no longer a knowledge about God; rather, it’s an infused knowledge of God in His essence. This is pure faith and goes beyond concepts. Furthermore, memory is slowly purified as the virtue of hope is infused. As this happens, your hope in God is no longer based on reasoned conclusions about the goodness or trustworthiness of God; rather, hope and the direction of your life are now based on God Himself in His most pure spiritual form. Lastly, your will begins to be moved by God Himself and not by reasoned conclusion about why you should do this or that good action. Instead, God takes over your will and infuses love of Him and others directly.

Though this form of prayer is difficult to understand, it is useful to be aware of the fact that this deeper form of prayer is the ultimate goal of the spiritual life. When God chooses to infuse this gift, all you can do is allow it to happen in God’s time. The best bit of practical advice in regard to infused contemplation is that when you sense God working within your soul, in this deep way that is beyond what you understand, try to silently allow God to work on you. Let Him take over and do what only He can do within you. If you find that you can return to your meditation, then do so. But if you find that God is drawing you deeper, simply consent to this deeper action and allow Him to take over.

Table of Contents

Chapter Four: Examining Your Conscience

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