The ways of vocal prayer

Catholic theology distinguishes three levels at which vocal prayer can be made. The attention is either focused on the words, or on the meaning of the words, or directly on the realities of faith itself.

At the first level one’s whole attention is concentrated on the words, with little or no focus on their meaning or on God. It is the sort of vocal prayer that many Dominicans had to practice in the past. On first entering the Order and being confronted with a choral office that was totally in Latin. It took all one’s effort simply to get the words right. There was little scope for raising the mind and heart to God. And yet it was not a waste of time. In so far as one began the Office with the intention of honouring God and interceding for the Church. It is an intention which persisted throughout the Office even when one’s attention was wholly concentrated on the words. Such vocal prayer had all the merit of true prayer.

At the second level of vocal prayer one concentrates on the meaning of what one is saying. The heart is in keeping with what the lips are repeating, to use the expression of St. Augustine. The words of prayer suggest, sustain and express the soul’s attitudes before God. This is true prayer, and is the normal way in which vocal prayer is made.

But it can happen, as we recite prayers devoutly in this way, that the focus of our attention shifts imperceptibly from the meaning of the words to God in himself and to spiritual realities. There is no longer an immediate link between words and thoughts. It appears like a distraction upwards, though in fact, it is not really a distraction. This level of prayer remains in profound continuity with what preceded, and should be seen as its finest fruit. Such upward distractions should normally not be resisted. We continue reciting the words, but they now constitute the background rather than the foreground of our prayer. Our awareness of them may remain, but our directly conscious attention is now immediately on the things of God.

We have here the three basic ways in which vocal prayer can be made. We have also the three basic ways in which the Rosary can be said. The first way of saying the Rosary, corresponding to the first level of vocal prayer, I would describe as looking for Mary; the second way, corresponding to the second level of vocal prayer, I would describe as looking at Mary; and the third way, corresponding to the third level of vocal prayer, I would describe as looking with Mary.