As I’ve been reading about prayer, I’ve run into an interesting distinction. Many discern at least three different degrees, or kinds, of prayer. Generally speaking, they are:
1. The Prayer of the Mouth, or Oral Prayer:
This is pretty much what it sounds like. It’s when we simply say a prayer with our lips, reciting it aloud, preferably with meaning.
According to the church fathers, the problem with this type of prayer is that the mind tends to wander. We don’t always think about what we’re praying. Consequently, we may not always mean what we pray.
In other words, oral prayer lends itself to being rote ritual.
2. The Prayer of the Mind, or Mental Prayer:
Mental prayer is when we reel in the mind and we focus on the words of what we are praying. We pray what we mean, and we mean what we pray.
For the church fathers, this is a marked improvement over mere oral prayer. However, it still falls short of the ideal. The mind may mean what it says, but the heart still may not be in it. It’s prayer without feeling.
Think of those times when you’ve prayed and it feels as dry as dust and you wonder if God was even listening. That’s the limit of mental prayer. It’s prayer of the mind without the heart.
3. The Prayer of the Heart, or Inner Prayer:
Inner prayer is when the mind descends into the heart and we pray with full feeling. What we once prayed with our lips, we now pray silently. And we sit in the presence of God pouring out our hearts to Him.
According to the church fathers, this is the most intimate form of prayer. Prayer is no longer simply words we say or thoughts we ponder, but rather the moving of God’s Spirit within our spirit. This is the goal of all prayer.
That’s the gist, at least. Personally, I find this a helpful way of thinking about prayer. All of us pray in these different ways at different times.
However, the ultimate goal is to reach that more contemplative form of prayer where God moves in powerful ways in our hearts and minds. That’s the prayer that really changes and transforms us.
The question is, what do we do to get there? How do we move from oral prayer and mental prayer to the inner prayer of the heart?