There is a book that I have found to be a treasure. It is titled “Little Catechism of the Life of Prayer” by Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, OCD. You may search online, but it is out of print and difficult to find. In answer to the question, “What is prayer,” Fr. Gabriel writes:
Prayer is a conversation with God in which we manifest to Him the desires of our hearts. Prayer can be vocal or mental.
This leads, obviously, to vocal and mental prayer. Says Fr. Gabriel, “Vocal prayer is that in which we recite a formula which expresses our desires.” Thus, the ‘Hail Mary,’ ‘Our Father,’ litanies of prayers to the saints, and the like. He writes, “Often we do not think in a distinct way of the sense of the words we are pronouncing, but this does not hinder our prayer form being true prayer.”
Fr. Gabriel describes mental prayer as consisting “in talking to God ‘with the heart,’ no longer with prepared or memorized formulas, but in a spontaneous manner.” St. Teresa herself wrote that “mental prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us.”
Fr. Gabriel elaborates on mental prayer by describing how it moves into from meditation to what he calls a “loving colloquy.”
"This colloquy is most important; it is the central part of prayer. . . It may begin as soon as we have formed within us the lively conviction that we ought to respond with love to the love of God. . . It can be made in various ways. We may express our affection with words pronounced vocally, or in a purely “interior” way, that is with expressions of the heart and will. These expressions may be brief and follow one another with certain frequency, or else they may be rather prolonged, repeating them only at fairly long intervals; it might even be enough – and this is the best thing – to remain lovingly in our Lord’s company.”
I’ve recently come across a delightful find online: Contemplative in the Mud. There are two posts, in particular, which fit very well into my “mini primer,” and I suggest you click over there for the full articles. “Contemplation Trumps Meditation” gives an excellent description of what Fr. Gabriel is calling ‘loving colloquy.’ There’s also “What is the Difference Between Meditation and Contemplation.” The author has a series of writings on this; I’m linking to the post that gives the Carmelite view of this. Here’s the conclusion:
Hold your horses. This is beginning to look as if I’m going to need a degree in theology in order to teach my children the “proper” way to pray. And perhaps a course or two will be needed for my own prayer life.In all of this, the difference between meditation and contemplation – and the transition from one to the other – becomes clearer. It is a relationship. That’s no metaphor. Sure, the analogy has to be purified of anything strictly human. God is God, not human. But it is still truly, genuinely a relationship – in fact, more truly and more genuinely a relationship than any we can have below.
Take comfort from good St. Therese of Lisieux. She once wrote that she didn’t want to read a lot of books. They were too distracting for her prayer purposes. I kind of agree. I can geek out about books on spirituality. I enjoy reading St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila. I enjoy reading St. Therese. But I’ve noticed a change as I go on in life. Whereas ‘spiritual reading’ was once a part of my prayer time, I’ve come to find ‘spiritual reading’ to be very different from prayer. Reading about prayer once led me to prayer; now I find it a bit distracting and have compartmentalize reading and prayer as something different. I’m not sure what I’m revealing about myself to those who are more learned in the areas of spirituality. I don’t think it is necessarily anything good or bad; just different.
St. Therese once told her sister, regarding a library full of books, “If I had read them, I would have broken my head, and I would have wasted precious time that I could have employed very simply in loving God.” (Last Conversations)
Allow me to take artistic license and rephrase Fr. Gabriel in terms as they apply to conversations with other people. This can help in understanding how it is we might approach God.
Vocal prayer. This is comparable to the basic conversational skills we have and use to talk with anyone. “How about that weather?” “It’s baseball season!” “How is your granddaughter doing?” “What do you want for dinner tonight?”
Mental prayer. This might be likened to a deeper level of conversation. Perhaps a more passionate discussion about the arts or politics, hobbies or skills. Just as one can read about various depths of mental prayer with God, so it is with deep conversations with have with people. I’ve had beautiful, meaningful conversations with strangers in waiting rooms, at the pool, or at the store about topics as diverse as religion or Jane Austen, politics or the pleasures of gardening. I’ve had even more satisfying conversations with the loved ones in my life, where we discuss the Big Things in Life, losing track of time as we talk on and on. Conversations with our loved ones may start with small talk. Quite a bit of our everyday conversation is such. But the Big Talks happen because we are intimately acquainted with each other. This level of intimacy is what we hope to achieve in our relationship with God. After all, God knows me better and more intimately than I am known by my husband, children, mother, sisters . . .
Contemplation/Loving Colloquy. There’s a human version of this kind of communication, too. I do a disservice to prayer and human-to-human interaction if I limit it to things we say with words. This does not discount speaking, but it expands to include non-verbal communication. Consider sitting with a person, but not needing to speak. Rather, a comfortable silence. See also: Contemplative in the Mud: Something a Bit Weird. He nails it, in my opinion.
That’s all my way of saying that a primer on prayer is important. However, don’t get too caught up in terms, for yourself or for your children. Keep the analogy of the various levels of conversation amongst people, when you come across descriptions of prayer.
Above all, keep in mind this quote from GK Chesterton, because it applies to prayer:
Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.