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Commentary: Two kinds of prayer

Commentary: Two kinds of prayer

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Commentary: Two kinds of prayer

An e-Review Commentary by Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker / Oct. 29, 2008 {0932}

NOTE: A headshot of Whitaker is available at

Catherine of Siena is one of three women considered to be a “doctor” by the Catholic Church; that is, she is one of the authoritative teachers of the church.

Born in 1347 in Italy, she became a Dominican nun who lived a life of ecstatic mysticism combined with social and political engagement. She died in 1380 at age 33 with a reputation as the “social mystic.”

In her work “The Dialogue,” she described the difference between “vocal prayer” and “mental prayer.” Vocal prayer is prayer using words. It involves the readings and written prayers of the Daily Office (the daily prayers of the Catholic Church) and the personal prayers one offers to God. Catherine taught that vocal prayer is necessary, yet she also taught that vocal prayer should lead to mental prayer.

Mental prayer is concentration on the love and goodness of God revealed to us in the cross of Jesus Christ. She wrote, “As soon as (the soul) senses her spirit ready for (God’s) visitation, she ought to abandon vocal prayer.”

This mental prayer is contemplation of God’s presence with us in love, characterized by a holy desire to come to know God and one’s self; however, mental prayer is not reserved for times of solitude alone. It can be practiced in the course of one’s daily activities. Catherine wrote that “everything you do can be a prayer, whether in itself or in the form of charity to your neighbors, because of the way you use the situation at hand (‘Catherine of Siena: The Dialogue.’ Paulist Press, 1980, Pp. 122-127).”

Protestants traditionally have been leery of mental prayer or contemplation. We have had a tendency to teach only vocal prayer or petition.

It is often said that Jesus’ model prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, encourages prayer as petition — petition for our daily bread, forgiveness and power to overcome temptation so that we may not fall into evil, yet this approach seems to ignore the parts of the Lord’s Prayer that instruct us to pray to our Father and hallow his name. Moreover, it is reasonable to assume that when Jesus retreated for long periods to pray he was engaged in both vocal and mental prayer.

The apostle Paul instructed Christians to pray without ceasing (I Thessalonians 5:17). I take this to mean that we can be in prayer even as we engage in other activities — in “the way we use the situation at hand.”

Prayer is our daily bread. It is the spiritual sustenance we need. It is a way of living each hour in the presence of the triune God. If the guidance of the saints teaches us anything from experience, it is that prayer is more than our words. It is also a continual feeding of our minds on the goodness of God’s presence.
News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference.