Homily for the 19th Sunday of the Year


12/13 August

Hearing God’s Voice in Mental Prayer

Both of the protagonists of the First Reading (Elijah) and the Gospel (Our Lord) find themselves on retreat, seeking out communion with God the Father.

For Elijah, it’s a sort of double retreat: he is fleeing from the evil queen, Jezebel, who is infuriated by his victory over her pagan prophets on Mount Carmel. He steals away to Mount Horeb, partly to flee from terror; mostly, we should say, to spend some time in the presence of God, Who has promised to encounter the prophet on the mountain. The God Who made all things from nothing, Who has performed the majestic wonder of creation, is not present in the wild wind, the earthquake or the fire that engulfs Horeb. Rather, God chooses to be present in the still, small voice. Elijah hears Him there, and covers his face in reverence of God.

Our Lord has gone, after seeing the crowds, to the lonely mountain to pray. Communion with the Father is at the heart of the Son’s life. He has no reason “to flee”, but He prioritises the Divine Interview which is essential in the life of all men. Leaving His Apostles to go fishing, Jesus spends some quiet time with His Father.

One can wonder what Our Lord says to His Father. It’s a matter of speculation, really. Perhaps Our Lord prays the Psalms, those ancient hymns of the Old Covenant, which often point towards Him in prophecy. Maybe Jesus addresses the Father in the words that He taught as a model of prayer in the “Our Father”. It’s possible, too, that Jesus, reflecting on the wonders He has done in the presence of the Father, continues to offer Himself in loving service, to fulfil the Father’s will.

What, and how, Elijah, or Our Lord prayed is less important to us than that they prayed. Prayer is obviously essential in the life of faith. Our greatest prayers are Liturgical, because at Holy Mass and in the Divine Office, it is Our Lord Who prays. When we hear the Mass with devotion, we hear the Voice of the Son to the Father. Occasionally, we might pray together outside of Mass “where two or more are gathered” in the Name of the Son: to this, Jesus makes a promise of being specially present. We might practice it when, as a family, we say grace before the evening meal, for example. In addition, like Jesus and Elijah, we might engage in some private prayer, on our own, with the door closed so that “your Father Who sees what is done in secret will reward you”.


What we want to consider, guided by the Gospel account of Our Lord walking on the water, is form of prayer that can include all of the “ends” or purposes of prayer, is often private, but can be communal (though outside of the Sacred Liturgy) and is mostly meditative, though includes some vocal parts. The Church’s spiritual tradition calls this mental prayer because it occurs mostly in the mind and in the imagination. It is not strictly just a meditation – or a thinking about something, though consideration is part of it. Rather, it is a form of prayer that situates us in the presence of God, presents some mystery for consideration and then speaks with God intimately and familiarly. These initial stages, or preparations, lead us to the two most salient features of mental prayer: it should always engage our affections, and it should lead to resolutions or promises.

One could present various “methods”, which arise from the spiritual schools of the Church. A Jesuit might approach it differently to, say, a Sulpician. But we will base our reflections on the method of St Francis de Sales, the Oratorian founder in Switzerland, who described it in his Introduction to the Devout Life. Again, using the episode from the Gospel, we will hope to give shape to the meditation, and then the process of stimulating affections and resolutions.


It is right to say that all good work is well prepared work. We need to engage before prayer at a designated time, place and circumstance. This isn’t to say that all of our prayer should be this way; some of our best prayers are likely those spontaneous ones at the prompting of the Holy Spirit. But, like Elijah who goes to Horeb at the appointed time, for forty days, we would do well to be clear about the time when we will stand “at the mountain of the Lord”.

Good mental prayer often relies on the truth of the Scriptures to help us paint a picture of God’s nature, His call on our lives and on the circumstances of our day. So if we will use Scripture during our mental prayer, we should choose what to use in advance and have it ready to prevent unnecessary distraction, page flicking or place finding. (The Sunday Gospel, or one of the miracles of Our Lord, can be a fruitful place to begin if we aren’t sure.)

Before we start the prayer, a necessary preparation is the silencing of the heart. We rely on no mighty wind, or earthquakes or fires: a still, but strong silence, placing ourselves in the presence of God in Whose presence we are before we even place ourselves there, as Newman tells us in his short “Visit to the Blessed Sacrament” from the Meditations and Devotions. Saint Francis imagines us using some vocal prayers like the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the Creed (he suggests in Latin!) to focus our attention on the work of prayer. To this, we add a simple invitation to God to speak to us: “Save us, Lord, for we are drowning” or “Speak Lord, thy servant listeneth”, or “Lord, bid me come to You, and, if You will, come to me”.


After this, we do well to read carefully through the Scripture, or other spiritual text – if we need it! Some Masters are able to skip this part of the prayer out completely, being already focused on the acts that follow. Though it is true to say that the Masters often return to the Scripture for inspiration and assistance, even when quite advanced in the spiritual life.

This reading is not necessarily a lectio Divina, that favoured way of praying with the Scriptures attributed to Saint Benedict, but rather a reading to create a mental image of what we should consider, and how the heart should move towards it. What is the purpose of the reading, we might ask? We want to find something in the mystery that will excite our affections to God, Who is Love Himself.


This is really the heart of good mental prayer. We want to excite within ourselves a deeper love for God, Who has loved us first. Our hearts, designed for God and by God, are made for love. And so our prayer, at its finest, seeks to rest in God’s love. Our hearts are also fickle, tainted by sin and clouded by so many misguided affections. What mental prayer is able to achieve, in part, is a reordering of our affections: towards God, Who is the goal and hope of every heart.

How do we achieve this practically? We might reflect on the affections that could be stirred in the context of today’s Gospel by dwelling on some key features. First, we consider the redeeming-example of Jesus, Who goes out to pray silently on His Own. We note our own inspiration to mental prayer in the very person of Our Lord Himself. While the Apostles busy about their usual business, at the instruction of the Lord, terror strikes. Jesus does not abandon them: He moves from prayer to their help – just as in our own lives, the Lord has not abandoned us even if we ever felt tempted to think He had. Walking to them, Our Lord is mistaken by the Apostles first as a ghost, but He calms their fear by speaking to them. At Christ’s invitation, Saint Peter willingly goes to the Lord, walking on the water himself. At first, it seemed an easy approach. But as danger – from distraction? – grows, fear grows too: “Lord, save me!” And what happens? Our Lord is true to His Name: Jesus saves.

This account is already full of moments that could excite affections, love of God, within us. We might think about our own faithfulness to prayer, thinking about those times in the past where fidelity to prayerfulness was a powerful antidote to fear or temptation. We may think about the storms, terrors and fears strike at us even now and are drawn to consider, lovingly, how might it be that Jesus is coming to us to give us a share in His strength. We may think tenderly of how it was that Our Lord encounters the Apostles in their own waters, as it were: it bespeaks a connection with God in the context of “our own work” or of work we know very well. And does it not invite us to invite God into the midst of it, especially when it’s tough or rough: how often do we take time to think of God in the midst of our usual and typical chores, either recognising His Presence there, or inviting in Him to sanctify it and make it a fruitful offering? We may be moved to think of a time when we felt alone and afraid, and we called to the Lord and He came to our help – maybe not in the way we thought or expected, but He was definitely there. Our memory of the Lord’s goodness creates a deep love of Him in our hearts, and our affection towards Him is kindled.

And what does this bring out in us? Such love desires to make a little promise to God, for each day, in honour of His love. We call these resolutions. Unlike the ones from New Year’s Day, these resolutions should be short, clear, precise, brief and attainable in a single day. They can’t be vague, or a vast commitment to an enormous enterprise. Here isn’t the moment to promise to convert the world, or to “be good” in a generic sense. Rather, a good resolution that follows this prayerful affection must be a simple promise that can be fulfilled within the day.

So, in response to the Lord’s invitation to me, to walk on the water with Him, I might promise to have some greater trust in Him. But more especially, I want to make a resolution that is short, sharp and realisable. I could promise to spend time with God in prayer for twenty or thirty minutes, even if it’s a enterprise. I may commit, with God’s help, to seek resolution with someone with whom I find myself at odds, where the relationship is a bit stormy, rocky or uncertain. I might even promise God that I will let my soul, buffeted by the storms of sin, find relief in the person of Jesus, Who saves us in the Sacrament of Confession, and promise to go to confession that very day.

What will this do to the heart? It’s a heart that’s heard the Lord’s Voice calling us to come to Him; it’s a heart that’s grown in affection for God, Who is love. Now, it’s a heart that has made God a promise. And a heart that makes, and keeps, promises to God is a heart that is more perfectly situated in the Sacred Heart. In that Heart, God has loved us, even to the point of death. He has promised to save us, and has kept His promise. It’s a Heart that keeps speaking to our hearts, asking it to prefer silence, to cherish prayer, to honour sacrifice and to seek heaven.

And mental prayer intends to do precisely this.


Once we have made our promise, we thank God for the time with Him; we unite that time spent with the Lord to the prayers and offerings of His Son, especially His Sacred Passion. Finally, we make a special prayer for the Church and the world, each according to their needs. So moved, with love for God and having made promises to Him, we can trust that even if nothing “special” – like an earthquake, wild wind or fire – inhabits my prayer, we’ve been able to be close to the Lord, Who keeps inviting us, like Saint Peter, to come to Him, even when the waters are rough or the days are busy.

Though Holy Mass is not an exercise of mental prayer in the way we have been describing it, there is scope within the Mass to excite our hearts affectionately towards God, Who will come to the altar for us under the appearance of Bread and Wine. Love, God, is truly present here in the Blessed Sacrament. Why? He has promised He would be, even to the end of time. And in response to His love and His promise, can we not make God a little promise too? At the time of Holy Communion, then, make a little promise to God Who loves us – short, sharp, realisable. And then, with His help, try to keep it. Let His voice – still and small, echoing in our hearts – urge us to pray, uniting ourselves to Him always.



Would you like to learn more? Included below is a useful PDF on mental prayer: 

A Garden of God’s love: A primer on mental prayer according to the method of Saint Francis de Sales