1. Prayer/oraison in the Bible and in the history of spirituality up to the time of Saint Eugene de Mazenod
  2. Oraison in the life and writings of the Founder
  3. Mental prayer/l'oraison in the Congregation from 1861 to 1982
  4. Mental prayer/l'oraison in our 1982 CC and RR
  5. Conclusion

To adequately treat all forms of prayer from the time of the Founder to the present in this brief article would be too vast an undertaking. Therefore, I limit my presentation to a single usage of the term – to “the prolonged silent prayer we make each day” (CC and RR, 1982, C 33). That is, I focus on the hour of “mental prayer” – or, as the French text puts it: l’oraison – to which we devote ourselves daily.

Prayer/oraison in the Bible and in the history of spirituality up to the time of Saint Eugene de Mazenod

The Hebrews did not have a single generic term for what we call prayer. They rather used a multitude of expressions to convey the many ways that a person addresses God – for example: thanksgiving, lamenting, singing, dancing, praising, bowing down, lifting up, listening.

The New Testament authors also use a variety of words, but they tend to return to proseuché when referring to prayer in general. That is, for example, Luke’s term to describe the scene in the Upper Room after the ascension: “They all joined steadfastly in prayer with Mary the mother of Jesus” (Acts 1:14). Paul, while retaining a certain generic quality, distinguishes proseuché – “prayers” – from “petitions, intercessions and thanksgivings” [1]. The synoptics consistently use proseuché, or its verb form, to highlight the solitary personal prayer of Jesus [2]. They, furthermore, employ the term to refer to the Christian’s general attitude in prayer (Mt 5:44; Lk 18:1) as well as to designate his/her “prayer in secret” (Mt 6:5-8).

Proseuché also refers to the place where prayers are offered, hence: oratory [3].

During the Patristic era, the Greek Fathers continued to use proseuché. The Latin Fathers, for their part, captured its basic meaning in oratio, whence come oraison and “oratory”. Both the Eastern and the Western church understood its respective word for prayer mainly in terms of request. Thus, for all practical purposes “prayer” meant “prayer of petition”. Yet, St. Augustine (+ 410), among others, was careful to note that true prayer consists more in turning one’s heart to God – affectus cordis and desiderium – than formulating a long series of specific intercessions. [4]

In the Middle Ages, we find several distinctions related to oratio. For example, the singular usage was differentiated from the plural: prayer/prayers. In the singular, oratio denoted the lifting up of one’s inner self to God in any manner that seemed appropriate. Orationes, on the other hand, referred to the specific petitions that one might address to the Lord. Another example differentiated between meditative prayer and contemplative prayer. Meditation consisted in a laborious application of intellect and imagination to the things of God as they relate to the human condition. The purpose of that exercise was compunction and increased purity of intention. Contemplative prayer, by contrast, was considered a more quiet and affective beholding of the Lord. The verb orare covered the ensemble of different forms of praying from the Divine office to contemplation. [5]

From the sixteenth century to the time of Eugene de Mazenod, we see much insistence on oratio as a well defined spiritual exercise. Different masters – for instance: St. Ignatius of Loyola (+ 1556), St. Teresa of Jesus (+ 1582), St. Francis de Sales (+ 1622), the French School of spirituality with Pierre de Bérulle (+ 1629) and Jean-Jacques Olier (+ 1657) – proposed various methods of prayer or enhanced our understanding of degrees of prayer.

During those centuries, oratio was still employed in a generic sense – any form of prayer. Yet, increasingly the term came to designate a specific way of praying. In French, prière ordinarily referred to prayer in general. Oraison, or more precisely l’oraison (with the definite article), was often reserved for methods or degrees of personal solitary prayer. Thus, one spoke of the Ignatian method, the Salisian method, the Bérullian method of l’oraison. One also spoke of different degrees or modes of l’oraison: mental prayer, affective prayer, prayer of the heart, prayer of quiet, prayer of union etc. [6]

Oraison in the life and writings of the Founder

When Eugene de Mazenod (1782-1861) entered the picture, all the above ways of understanding “prayer” and oraison were in vogue. In a 9 October 1815 letter to Tempier, the Founder specifies the sources of the rule for community living he proposes to initiate. They are: St. Ignatius, St. Charles, St. Philip Neri, St. Vincent de Paul and St. Alphonsus Liguori. [7] Yet, we know that our spiritual genealogy is much more complex than that. [8] The degree to which the Constitutions and Rules of the Society of the Missionaries of Provence depended on those sources – especially St. Alphonsus – is well documented. That dependence was not only general, but also includes the exact wording of many texts. What then about the sections on prayer? Where did Eugene de Mazenod get his ideas and practice of oraison?

At the foundation of the Congregation, the backbone of our spiritual exercises resulted from the networking of many sources. The daily schedule of those days bespoke a distinct Liguorian mold. Yet, the actual formula of many of the prayers used in those early years came out of the French School. Some examples are: Morning Prayers, the act of spiritual communion O Jesu vivens in Maria [O Jesus, living in Mary] which concluded morning meditation, and the Marian consecration O Domina mea [My Sovereign Lady] that crowned Particular Examen.


No doubt, the Founder like most of us learned his “prayers” – the Our Father, the Hail Mary, etc. – on the lap of his mother, aunt or grandmother. Yet, at a very early age he also found himself absorbed in moments of personal prayer – something approaching what he would later call l’oraison. This is what he reminisced as he prepared for his priestly ordination: “God had placed in me a certain innate propensity to love him. At an age when my ability to reason was not yet developed, I was happy to remain in his presence, lifting up my tiny hands toward him and listening in silence to his word as though I understood it. Although I was by nature lively and high-spirited, I had only to be brought in full view of an altar to make me become docile and still. I was utterly entranced even then by the wondrousness of God”. [9]

Thus, as far back as he could remember, Eugene would find himself at times listening to God in silence. Nonetheless, his introduction into personal prayer as a structured spiritual exercise probably came through his mentor Don Bartolo Zinelli during his exile in Venice (1794-1797). Don Bartolo was a member of the Society of the Faith of Jesus [Paccanarians], a group of priests aspiring to become Jesuits when the Society would be canonically reestablished. The young teenager lived quite a regimented life during those years, and he practiced regularly something akin to Ignatian meditation.

After his return from Palermo, while still in his early twenties, Eugene came under the direction of a former Jesuit, Père Magy. Even though forced to live as a diocesan priest because of the suppression of the Society at that time, Magy held firmly to his Ignatian roots and practices. In August 1805, Eugene – still a layman – participated in an extended retreat offered by the former Jesuit. During those spiritual exercises, he daily engaged in three or four hour-long periods of l’oraison, each followed by a fifteen minute written review. Those prayer periods were performed “in common”. That is, all the retreatants remained together in the same room – presumably an oratory, a chapel or a church – although the oraison of each participant was personal and meditative following the Ignatian method. [10]

From 1808 to 1812, Eugene – both as a seminarian and as a director at Saint-Sulpice in Paris – imbibed deeply from the French School of Spirituality. A few weeks after his return to Aix, Abbé de Mazenod wrote for himself an important document in two sections. One section contained a general Rule of Life. The other section expressed a more concise “rule” to order the hours of the day. Eugene composed this document during a personal retreat in December 1812. That retreat served as part of his immediate preparation before launching into full-time ministry.


Lest anyone be tempted to think that the attitudes and resolutions expressed in that document were meant only as a preparation for ministry rather than for lifelong full-time service, Abbé de Mazenod begins with the following paragraph: “This is the rule which I prescribe for myself and which I intend to observe for the rest of my life, with God’s help. Naturally, I will have to make modifications as unforeseen circumstances arise. But those changes will affect only the order and arrangement of the different exercises, [not their substance]”. [11]

The general Rule of Life, which is about ten printed pages long, can be subdivided into three segments: (1) an introduction which takes up the issues of fidelity, earnestness and perseverance; (2) a long segment called “duties toward God;” and (3) another entitled “exercises of piety”. Interestingly, the Founder addresses prayer (prière) in the second segment and l’oraison in the third. Under “prayer”, he includes the Mass and the Divine Office. Under “exercises of piety”, he discusses: the practice of the presence of God, l’oraison, spiritual reading, and visits to the Blessed Sacrament. Concerning l’oraison specifically, he comments: “What could I possibly add about l’oraison that hasn’t already been [convincingly] stressed [by so many before me] … I know only too well how important it is… Experience has proven that there is no good priest without l’oraison… It remains his true daily bread. There, he finds energy, light and solace in all the sufferings that come his way. There, God communicating himself to the priest in intimate union… bestows on him everything necessary to carry out his ministry and to render it profitable both for his own soul and for that of those to whom he is sent”. [12]

To that general Rule of Life, Abbé de Mazenod added a more concise règlement which would order the use of each hour of the day. This shorter rule, however, in addition to being an horarium is also an explanation of the meaning underlying the way the Founder intended to spend his time. On the subject of personal prayer, he observes: “After getting dressed, I will go to my oratory for l’oraison which I shall begin with the vocal prayer taken from the works of [Jean-Jacques] Olier.

Convinced that a priest cannot be sanctified except by l’oraison and that the fruit of my ministry depends on it, I intend to spend at least an hour each day in this holy exercise.

If circumstances do not permit a full hour in the morning, I will faithfully make it up in the course of the day. I will try, moreover to make l’oraison immediately before Mass…” [13]

As to how the Founder – then thirty years old – spent that hour of prayer, he gives us a few indications. First, he would begin his oraison with a formula from M. Olier. Then, he would read several chapters from the Bible, presumably meditatively. Finally, he would conclude the exercise with certain resolutions. [14] The unfolding of that prayer period suggests a certain personal adaptation and integration of possibly three methods of l’oraison: Ignatian, Sulpician and Liguorian.

In December 1814, Abbé de Mazenod made a private eight-day retreat based on the Ignatian Exercises. He used a book by François Nepveu, S.J., entitled A Retreat for Clerics according to the Spirit and the Method of St. Ignatius. [15] The context of that retreat was a veritable crisis of vocation: whether to enter a monastic order or launch himself full throttle into the apostolic life. The retreat itself did not produce a definitive response to the dilemma. That decision would come a few months later. [16] Yet, the retreat did prepare the ground for resolving the crisis by impressing upon him the conviction that it was indeed possible to integrate a vigorous interior life with a zealous apostolic life. The key to that integration would be fidelity to l’oraison – a full hour of mental prayer each day.

The above truth is borne out in a couple of remarks which the Founder offers during a personal retreat in 1816. He may have been thinking of Jesus’ reaction to Martha in Luke 10:38-42: “A little more oraison, and a lot less worrying and running around. I resolve to arrange my day so as to have more time for oraison than I have thus far. In this way, I should be better able to take care of my own business and that of our community”. [17]

During the same retreat, Abbé de Mazenod describes what might be considered his basic interior attitude during l’oraison as well as the core of his spirit of recollection. He may have been alluding to John 15:5. The following observation is the first of four resolutions: “(I intend] to live a vigorous interior life [vivre dans la retraite]. By that, I mean to live completely centered on the Spouse of my soul who has deigned to make his permanent home in me”. [18]


In the first edition of the Constitutions and Rules of our infant Congregation – hand-written by the Eugene de Mazenod at Saint-Laurent du Verdon during August-September 1818 – we find oraison specifically mentioned in several different contexts.

The Founder also uses related terms such as “silence”, “prayer”, “meditation”, “recollection” and “contemplation”. The following are five passages which contain the word oraison:

(1) [In the context of Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament during which the missionaries are sent forth to preach:] “Everyone chants together the prayer for the missioning of clerics. The responses are said by the choristers and the oraisons by the one who officiates”. [19]

(2) [In the context of the formal beginning of the mission:] “Once we have arrived at the church [in procession] and exposed the Blessed Sacrament, one [of the missionaries] will chant the Veni Creator, the verset and the oraison[20].

(3) [In the context of the missionaries’ daily schedule while on mission:] “They will rise at 4:00 a.m. and not take more than fifteen minutes to dress. Together, they will spend half an hour in l’oraison… If for some reason they are not able to make l’oraison in the [early] morning, they shall never be dispensed from making it before Particular Examen [which would have been at noon]”. [21]

(4) [In the context of an Oblate’s daily schedule while in his local community:] “We shall make l’oraison mentale [mental prayer] in common twice a day: in the morning for three quarters of an hour following morning prayers, and in the evening around the altar by way of a visit to the Blessed Sacrament for half an hour. We will meditate especially on the theological virtues as well as on the life and virtues of Our Lord Jesus Christ whom the members of this Society must earnestly strive to imitate” [22].

(5) [In the context of the opening sentences related to silence and recollection:] “The entire life of the members of this Society ought to be one of continual recollection. To achieve this, they will first practice faithfully the exercise of the presence of God by frequently making short but fervent oraisons jaculatoires [ejaculatory prayers]” [23].

Analyzing the above five instances in our primitive Rule, we see that the Founder uses oraison in three different senses: (1) In the first and second examples, he speaks of pre-formulated vocal prayers – what we might call “orations”. (2) In the third and fourth examples, he addresses prolonged personal prayer, presumably meditation according to some method. That is basically what our 1982 CC and RR refers to as “mental prayer” (see C 33). (3) In the fifth example, he is suggesting ejaculatory prayers, whether terse traditional formulas or spontaneous one-liners.

Concerning # 4 above – l’oraison mentale – we note the following: First, it is prescribed twice a day, not just once. Second, the morning period in effect was an hour long if we add the fifteen minutes of “morning prayers” which were to precede the forty-five minutes of l’oraison proper. [24] Third, the evening period was to be made specifically before the Blessed Sacrament – exposed or not – in a different attitude than the morning period. The evening oraison was to be approached as a “visit” with an intimate friend: Jesus. It could be meditative or quiet, discursive or contemplative. It could be conversation or adoration – whatever suited the moment and the spontaneity of the orans.

No particular form or method is prescribed for either period. That fact is remarkable when we consider the extreme detail which the Founder required in other situations, for example: the opening and closing ceremonies of a mission. [25]

By this time in his life, Abbé de Mazenod had imbibed and practiced at least three renowned methods of 1’oraison: Ignatian, Sulpician and Liguorian. The Ignatian methods are familiar to most people of prayer and can be found in the Spiritual Exercises. [26] The Sulpician method known to the Founder was taught him by his spiritual director in the seminary. That approach proposed to complete the method of M. Olier with elements from St. Ignatius, Pierre de Bérulle and St. Francis de Sales. It consisted basically of three parts: adoration, communion and cooperation. [27] The method of St. Alphonsus of Liguori is fundamentally a meditative reading of ure with pauses for personal reflections and resolutions as warranted. [28]

Eugene de Mazenod, although a lover of rules and regulations, was far too free a spirit to be tied down by a single method of prayer. His natural independence would not allow him to be restricted to one school of thought or of procedure. Thus, he took from one and borrowed from another, always adapting it to his personality, mood and the exigencies of the moment. He had no scruple about using material from diverse sources as long as it served his purposes. He was creatively eclectic and was constantly integrating converging elements as he matured. History and temperament seem to have placed the Founder at the crossroads of several great movements of spirituality. He benefited from them all, without becoming a partisan of any. [29]

Therefore, if the Founder moved freely within several approaches to prayer, it stands to reason that he would allow his brother Oblates to do the same. He did not impose or prescribe a specific method or form of l’oraison. He spelled out the time of day and the length of each period, but not its specific content or procedure.

In the CC and RR for the Missionaries of Provence, Abbé de Mazenod did, however, indicate a certain focus which he deemed significant. In all likelihood, he practiced l’oraison this way himself at the time. The focus concerns a difference of internal attitude with regard to the morning and the evening periods. The first would usually be more formal and meditative, while the second would generally be more intimate and affective. With respect to the meditative dimension of the morning oraison, the whole exercise – fifteen minutes morning prayers, plus forty-five minutes of mental prayer – would last a full hour. The morning prayers were formulated so as to establish an atmosphere of Trinitarian adoration, thanksgiving, contrition and oblation. [30] It was further suggested that the thrust of the meditations be twofold: (1) Trinitarian – that is, accentuating the theological virtues of faith, hope and love as manifestations of the indwelling Trinity; (2) Christocentric – that is, stressing the life and virtues of Jesus as well as our earnest imitation of him. [31]

Thus, there has never been an Oblate method of l’oraison as such. We are to approach our daily mental prayer in whatever way best suits us at that moment of our transformation in Christ. Yet, there has always been a certain tone, an accent, a focus both in terms of theological content and of interior disposition.


As far as l’oraison – understood as “mental prayer” – is concerned, the text of our CC and RR approved by Leo XII in 1826 is simply a literal Latin translation of Abbé de Mazenod’s French original of 1818. [32] The 1853 revision of the CC and RR did not change one letter of a single word in that article.

In the General Archives in Rome, there exists a manu in the handwriting of Eugene de Mazenod entitled No. 2. Retreat for Oblates. [33] The manu is undated. However, if we compare its contents with the retreat notes of Casimir Aubert (+ 1860) and Charles Albini (+ 1839), it seems to have been used as early as 1824 and again in 1832, 1833 and 1834. [34] The retreat is one of nine days, with four one-hour “meditations” daily. The subject of each period of mental prayer is specified, and clearly follows the Ignatian Exercises. The retreatant is expected to rise at 4:00 a.m. and be in bed by 9:00 p.m. The schedule calls for an hour’s oraison followed by a written review, at 4:30 a.m., 9:00 a.m., 3:00 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. We do not know how extensively that retreat was used by Oblates, nor for how long.

No matter how busy or stressed out, Bishop de Mazenod remained faithful to l’oraison each day. As the years wore on, his prime time for mental prayer was sometime late in the evening, although there is no indication that he ever abandoned his early morning quiet time before Mass. Those late evening visits with Jesus were, however, increasingly meaningful to himself in relation to the ever expanding Congregation. The following are typical observations: “[Together with Tempier and Honorat in the church of Notre-Dame de Lumières] we remained for half an hour in silent prayer. Those were precious moments… all alone in our divine Master’s presence… We placed ourselves, our society, its ministry, its undertakings and the house we had just taken possession of, under his powerful protection. We asked him to reign over us in unique fashion, to be our Father, our all. We called down his blessings on us and on our Congregation […]”. [35]

Each morning at Mass and every evening during l’oraison, the Founder was able to hold “a rendez-vous [with Oblates scattered around the globe] within [his] divine Savior’s most lovable heart”. [36]

To a missionary in Canada, he wrote: “I have only one way of drawing near to [our men on the Red River], and that is in front of the Blessed Sacrament where I seem to see you and to touch you. And you for your part must often be in his presence. It is thus that we meet one another within this living center which is our means of communication”. [37]

Eugene de Mazenod deeply believed that the Eucharist was not only the Sacrament of the physical body and blood of the Lord, but also the Sacrament of the Mystical Body of Christ. His fellow Oblates were in Christ as he was. Thus, it was in Christ that they commune. Visiting with the Eucharistic presence was a spiritual, but symbolically tangible, way to encounter his brother Oblates anywhere in the world. He could visit with some by direct conversation. He could visit with others by correspondence. He could visit with everyone through the Eucharist.

In English, we frequently refer to the evening time before the Blessed Sacrament as “adoration”. That term has its foundation in the Founder’s own way of describing l’oraison du soir. On a particular occasion while in Paris, he had apparently been attending to business all day. When night came, he started looking around for an open church so that he could make his adoration accoutumée – his “customary adoration”. [38] As luck or providence would have it, he indeed found a church open: Saint-Sulpice.

Mental Prayer/l’Oraison in the Congregation from 1861 to 1982

With regard to the article on l’oraison, the 1928 revision of our CC and RR left unaltered the text of 1826 and 1853. The only change that occurred was the numeration. In 1928, it became article # 254.

The 1966 revision of our CC and RR, however, effected major changes in virtually every article of the text. Not only were they rethought in the light of Vatican II, but also many were completely reworded and re-presented. Moreover, the 1966 CC and RR were divided into “constitutions” – preions which only the Holy See could change – and “rules” which could be altered by a General Chapter. Thus, following the Founder’s Preface, we find 215 Constitutions. They in turn are succeeded by 237 Rules. Each of the two divisions has its own numeration.

The article on l’oraison which had remained unaltered for almost a hundred and fifty years was completely revised. Furthermore, it was divided into one Constitution (C 59) and one Rule (R 110): “In daily and prolonged mental prayer, he [the Oblate] will allow himself to be molded by the Lord, in order to conform to his inspirations, and fulfill the life-giving requirements of the Kingdom. Cooperating with the Savior, he will find in him, in all things and everywhere, the inspiration of his behavior” (C 59).

“Each of the members will devote at least one hour daily to prayer. The time and place will be determined by the Superior, after consulting the Provincial. This arrangement should be such that where possible the evening prayer will be made in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament” (R 110).

The French text for C 59 uses la prière silencieuse et prolongée for “prolonged mental prayer”, and in R 110 une heure au moins par jour à l’oraison for “at least one hour daily to prayer”.

In comparison with the 1818, 1826, 1853 and 1928 editions, there are several changes: What was an hour and a quarter is now “at least one hour”. Gone is the specification of part in the morning and part in the evening. Gone also is explicit mention of “morning prayers” and of the theological virtues. The Christological dimension – the sequela Christi – receives a little more emphasis. Greater flexibility regarding time and place is evident. The relationship of this prayer to the animation of the Oblate’s ministry is noted.

The changes reflect many elements in the evolution of spirituality since the time of the Founder. The spirit of his initial convictions is, however, preserved.

Each General Administration since the death of Bishop de Mazenod in 1861 has insisted on the importance of l’oraison for every Oblate and his apostolate. There is no need to refer to those documents here. I would, however, like to close this section with a résumé of how some of the rank and file in the Congregation have viewed daily mental prayer.

We can find such testimony in many places. Because of its conciseness and universality, I have chosen a 1951 report on the novitiates of the Congregation prepared by Daniel Albers, then Director General of Studies. [39] That report contains the attitudes and practices of a large percentage of our membership. Even though it is written in the mid-twentieth century, it reflects what had been handed down for over a hundred years. Although it focuses on novitiates, that is where our first formation received its impetus. For what concerns us presently, the report distinguishes “morning meditation” and “evening oraison“.

Morning meditation. Many of the novices of the Congregation were being taught a simplified version of the Sulpician method of meditation. On the other hand, a significant number of novitiates were exposing their novices to Ignatian methods in such a way as to encourage them to choose whichever approach they preferred. In either case – Sulpician or Ignatian – the novices were urged to personalize their prayer. [40] Methods as such were seen as examples that could be imitated, borrowed from or otherwise changed to suit their individual needs and preferences. The meditation books which in use were a list of the classics: Plus, Marmion, Francis de Sales, Saudreau, Rodriguez, Philips, Leen, etc. The novices were generally encouraged to meditate on the New Testament, the Missal, the Imitation of Christ, insights derived from their courses on spirituality, and, after a few months, the CC and RR.

Evening oraison. With rare exceptions (e.g. long walks in the woods) evening mental prayer was made in chapel. Frequently, there would be Benediction at the same time. Even so, there would always be at least fifteen minutes of silent adoration. As to “method”, l’oraison tended to be more affective and free from structure than the morning meditation. Some approached the evening mental prayer in the form of a colloquy with Jesus – talking things over friend-to-friend. Some novitiates discouraged the use of books during this prayer period. Others permitted them, but counseled against reading too much. [41]

Difference between meditation and l’oraison. A few novitiates reported that they could see little usefulness in trying to distinguish between the two. Most, however, agreed in principle that meditation should lead to oraison; that is, to a life of more intimate and simple union with Christ, and through him with the Trinity. Thus, l’oraison was seen as more friendly and loving than the didactic and methodical meditation.

One novitiate looked at the distinction in this vein: Meditation at the outset of the day should furnish the Oblate with proper motives for life and action. Enlightened by the Holy Spirit, our mind should find in meditation reasons to impel us to know and to love more. That enlightenment and motivation should in turn lead the person to a firm resolution for the day. The evening oraison, on the other hand, is more a heart-to-heart encounter with the Lord. [42] Its format would be more simple and intimate, less analytical and discursive. Coming toward the end of the day, it invites the Oblate to place before Christ in a simple act of abandonment the joys and frustrations of ministry and community.

Most of the novitiates perceived the distinction like this: in meditation, we strive to improve our life; in l’oraison, we contemplate God. The one focuses on mental and imaginative considerations; the other centers on love without too many thoughts. Meditation is generally more discursive and methodical. L’oraison tends to be more affective, Christocentric and Eucharistic. The one attempts to analyze a precise subject in order to uncover practical means for personal improvement. The other is a freewheeling conversation with God in which the day is laid bare. [43]

Mental Prayer/l’Oraison in our 1982 CC and RR

Reaching back to the Founder’s expressions of 1818 and 1826 as well as to the Congregation’s preions of 1853, 1928 and 1966, the General Chapter of 1980 took the articles related to mental prayer and l’oraison in our CC and RR, digested the spirit which they contain and produced a more succinct, but nonetheless powerful, formulation: “In the prolonged silent prayer we make each day, we let ourselves be molded by the Lord and find in him the inspiration of our conduct. Following our tradition, we devote an hour each day to mental prayer, part of which is spent together in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament” (C 33).

In terms of the official language of our CC and RR, the 1818 edition was French, whereas the 1826, 1853, 1928 and 1966 editions were Latin. The General Chapter of 1980, however, prescribed two official languages: French and English. Neither text, therefore, is a translation of the other. The key words in the French edition are: “Dans la prière silencieuse et prolongée de chaque jour… ils [les Oblats] consacrent une heure par jour à l’oraison et vivent ensemble une partie de ce temps en présence du Saint-Sacrement” (C 33).

Comparing the two texts, three interesting differences emerge: (1) The English wording is couched in the first person plural – “we” – while the French uses the third person plural – “ils” (“they”). (2) The English edition speaks of “mental prayer”, whereas the French has simply l’oraison. (3) The English phrasing has “part of [that prayer] is spent together in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament”, while the French (literally translated) reads “and they live together a part of this time in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament”.

Those differences, however, do not affect the substance of the message. At least for English-speaking people, “we” is more personal and warm than “they”. “Mental prayer” and l’oraison are very close equivalents. We do notice, however, that the French redactors chose l’oraison rather than l’oraison mentale.

The Founder used both expressions in the CC and RR of 1818. [44] So, one expression is not more Oblate, so to speak, than the other. Regarding the third difference, the French text introduces a more vivacious tone than the English with the phrase “vivent ensemble” (“they live together”) in place of “is spent together”. Perhaps the hoped-for nuance is this: that we do not merely pass that time together in the same room, but rather that there be a life-giving communion among those present – and with those absent in the silent loving heart-to-heart with the Lord.


CC 33-36 speak of the nine principal spiritual resources which we Oblates have at our disposal. In the order in which they appear, the resources are: (C 33) the Eucharist, the Word of God, Liturgy of the Hours, mental prayer, examination of conscience, the Sacrament of Reconciliation; (C 34) ascetical practices; (C 35) times of personal and communal renewal; (C 36) Marian devotion. The general context in which those Constitutions appear is Chapter Two: Apostolic Religious Life. The immediate context in which C 33 is situated is Section Two: Living in Faith (Section One being: The Evangelical Counsels and Section Three being: Apostolic Community).

C 33 (paragraph 4) begins: “In the prolonged silent prayer we make each day..”.It says, “each day” – not “once in a while”, not “once a week”, not “when we feel like it” – but “each day”.

Furthermore, the text asserts: “we make” an hour of mental prayer each day. The text does not moralize: “we should make it” or “we ought to make it”. Nor does the text command: “we must make it” or “we have to make it”. It simply says: “we [do] make [an hour of mental prayer] each day”. In other words, if we are truly Oblate, that is what we do.

“We let ourselves be molded by the Lord..”. Note the insistence on the passive voice: “let… be”. The invitation here is towards a more listening mode of prayer – a more effectively receptive stance – whatever our individual method or approach in praying. We let the prayer come forth from within – whatever is appropriate for the moment – rather than impose some formula or framework. We let Father, Son and Spirit who are dwelling within our inmost being well up [45] into consciousness from those depths. We “experience that Jesus Christ is really in [us]” (2 Co 13:4).

“[We] find in [the Lord] the inspiration of our conduct”. That phraseology generally bespeaks meditation in the traditional sense. For those Oblates in a more discursive mode, any form of meditation is appropriate. For those in a more contemplative mode, some form of quiet affective prayer may be more meaningful.

“Following our tradition, we devote an hour each day to mental prayer…”. In effect, an hour and a quarter, divided between a morning and an evening period, was prescribed until 1965. Our 1966 CC and RR urged “at least an hour”. Since 1982, we say simply “an hour”. To the purist, that may seem like a whittling down. In reality, however, it captures the spirit of what has been from the beginning (1818).

Most persons well versed in prayer agree that a full uninterrupted hour is both more demanding and more spiritually beneficial than two half hours (or, one forty-five minute period and another thirty, as the case may be). Nobody wants to make a fetish out of sixty minutes. Yet, Carmelites, Jesuits, Cistercians – even Buddhists – concur that for a person to pray regularly, s/he needs an hour. Jesus himself asked: “Can you not watch one hour with me?” (Mk 14:37; Mt 26:40).

For a person in a full-time apostolate, more than an hour a day of mental prayer is not practical. Yet, one hour of solitary prayer is also a minimum. No one can explain in strictly rational terms why an hour. Yet, since there exists such universal agreement – among both Christians and non-Christians – there must be something fundamentally in accord with the human psyche to spending a full uninterrupted hour in l’oraison each day.

Also “following our tradition… part of [that daily hour of mental prayer] is spent [or “lived”] together in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament”. This prolonged visit with the Eucharistic Christ was insisted upon not only by the Founder, but also by all the first fathers and brothers of the Congregation. The theology of the Eucharist for most Oblates today is vastly different from that of the nineteenth century. Our 1982 CC and RR do not mandate this visit. They rather recall the meaningfulness of the tradition and affirm simply that we do it. I believe personally that we still have much to learn from the substance of that tradition even if our theologies differ. The mystery of the Eucharist – or, the Eucharist as mystery – is perennial. Moreover, the Eucharist is still full of potential for the person who will take the time to be receptive to it.


For me, the phrase “mental prayer” evokes the name of St. Teresa of Jesus (1515-1582). The phrase does not, however, originate with her. It finds its foundation in a statement of St. Paul: “When I pray in tongues, my spirit [pneuma] prays, but my mind [nous] remains blank. How should I resolve that [predicament]? I shall pray not only with my spirit, but also with my mind. I shall sing [God’s] praises not with my spirit alone, but with my mind as well” (1 Cor 14:14-15).

Paul is obviously making an appeal for understanding of what we vocalize in prayer. Yet, the focus of Paul’s insistence transcends mere intelligence (for nous in Greek means much more than “mind” in English). He is emphasizing that prayer is holistic and that it springs from what is deepest in the orans. Thus, in its pristine sense, mental prayer does not designate a particular form or manner of praying, but rather something essential to all prayer – that it be of the whole person and that it proceed from the deepest recesses of that individual.

a. Teresa of Avila’s Understanding of Mental Prayer

St. Teresa picks up on the above meaning and presents mental prayer in a way that any person of faith can appreciate. First of all, she accepts that “mental prayer” designates a universal condition for praying. Then, for her purposes, she narrows its supposition to the solitary personal prayer of anyone at any stage of prayer development.

Chronologically, the first time that she takes up the subject of mental prayer is in the book of her Life from Chapters 8-22. [46] Her most succinct deion is this: “Mental prayer is essentially a communing of friends [tratar de amistad] which takes place mostly in the solitary interchange with him whom we know loves us [estando muchas veces tratando a solas con quien sabemos nos ama]” (8,5).

By “prayer”, Teresa means addressing God. But since we can address the Lord in a multitude of ways – orally, liturgically, communally, etc. – she qualifies the word with the term “mental”.

“Mental”, however, can cause some unintended associations in English. We spontaneously relate mental with our cognitive, intellectual, thinking activities and processes. Teresa, and others before her, seems to be following the Augustinian tradition in their understanding of the word. They use the term to accentuate the inmost yearnings of the human person. Hence, St. Augustine would be describing the Latin mens in his Confessions when he writes: “You have make us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you” (l, l). [47]

Thus, mental prayer means addressing God out of the depths of our being. There may be some thinking, analyzing, intellectualizing in prayer. But prayer as such springs forth from the irrepressible yearning of the soul. It is an explicit affective movement of the whole person toward union with God. That is the sense of “a communing of friends”. Prayer is not just: creature to Creator, sinner to Judge, needy to Provider. It is friend to Friend (and in its ultimate stages: lover to Beloved). On a first level, tratar de means to discuss, to have a friendly chat.

On a deeper level, however, it means to commune. Amistad is literally friendship. Therefore, mental prayer denotes the communing which takes place between friends – in this case: between the soul and the Lord, between my self and my God. Friends talk. They converse. They discourse. But most of all, they are together – they commune.

Now, we can commune with God friend to Friend in many contexts. Teresa, therefore, narrows the focus of mental prayer to communing in solitude – being alone with God as friend to Friend. Thus, mental prayer in this more refined sense is distinguished from vocal prayer, liturgical prayer, shared prayer, etc. Even when done “in common” – that is, several people in the same room at the same time, as has been the Oblate practice before the Blessed Sacrament – mental prayer is personal and solitary.

“With him whom we know loves us” is Teresa’s way of recalling 1 John 4:10: “This is the love I mean, not our love for God, but his love for us”. It is also Teresa’s way to insure that we understand that the interchange is mainly one of loving rather than merely talking.

b. Teresa’s Ways or Degrees of Mental Prayer

St. Teresa used a very simple analogy to describe four basic ways that mental prayer transpires. These are also called degrees of prayer because they correspond to the gradual taking over the soul by God in love. The analogy is that of “watering a garden” [48].

The first entails drawing water from a well, carrying it by bucket and pouring it where required. That takes a great deal of labor. This way is compared to meditation (or to the “contemplations” of the Ignatian Exercises) where the mind, the imagination and the memory work hard at analyzing a subject or text so as to apply it to the life of the orans [49].

The second involves using a water-wheel and conduit to get the water where the gardener needs it. This is not nearly as laborious as the first. Teresa calls it “prayer of quiet” [50]. There is still some work, some conversation, but a basic threshold has been crossed which St. John of the Cross terms the beginning of contemplation. [51] From this moment on we become increasingly receptive to God’s loving initiative in prayer as well as in all of life. Moreover, we are aware of the intensifying dominance of God’s activity within us and all around us.

The third watering is set up by stream and irrigation ditch. This saturates the ground much more thoroughly and requires hardly any labor at all [52]. The fourth watering occurs during a heavy rain in which the Lord soaks the ground directly without any work on our part [53]. These last two degrees correspond to the advanced stages of contemplation wherein God becomes not only the prime initiator, but also ultimately the sole agent in prayer. At this final stage, we no longer pray as such – we are prayed.

Comparing Teresa’s Life with her later more developed work the Interior Castle (or Las Moradas), we see that the first watering corresponds to Mansions I, II and III. The second and third waterings are discussed in Mansions IV. The fourth watering, which admits of a broad range of prayer of union, is taken up in Mansions V, VI and VII.

Thus, the single phrase “mental prayer” can be said of the most elementary and laborious meditation of a beginner – a novice, for example – as well as of the deeply contemplative prayer of an octogenarian missionary who spends most of his day in solitude. The English redactors of C 33 in our 1982 CC and RR probably chose the phrase mental prayer for basically the same reasons that St. Teresa did: Mental prayer can encompass all the different degrees of prayer. It can refer to the prayer attitude of any person at any stage of spiritual genesis.

Conclusion: looking toward the future

In view of the changes which have taken place since the inception of the Congregation concerning oraison, we might ask ourselves: What form will our oraison take in the next century?

Since these transformations have had to do with purifying the gaze and of developing simplicity of expression, I believe that all things being equal and perhaps more so than at any other period of our history, a greater number of Oblates will spontaneously seek and create the conditions to do one whole hour of oraison a day. They will need it….

Why will they need it? Not primarily because a rule will demand it of them. Nor even because a superior will remind them of their duty in this regard. Not even necessarily because it is their good pleasure to do so. None of the above! It will be a need they feel.

Why will they have a need for prolonged silent prayer? And why will this need become ever more acute? A number of reasons come to mind:

In order to survive, faced as they are with an ever overwhelming workload and in view of the declining number of Oblates, in order to fulfill their mission, more and more a large number of them will be forced to look to the quality of their work rather than the quantity. Now, the key to the qualitative aspect of their ministry is fundamentally found in “the prolonged silent prayer we make each day” (C 33).

Our materialistic society finally ends up being disgusted with itself. The pace of life is too fast, too complicated, too secularized, and at times is alive in word only. In their efforts to maintain their balance, a growing number of Oblates will inevitably be led to concentrate more consciously on the spiritual. Now, the crucial issue with regard to their openness to the spiritual rests in their faithfulness in allowing themselves to “be moulded by the Lord and find in him the inspiration of our conduct” (C 33).

The amount of dependence on drugs and alcohol and the widespread “co-dependency”, so much a part of our culture, is a desperate cry protesting the disintegration inherent in our world, a disintegration people can no longer stand. According to the experts, in the United States, for example, eighty to ninety-five percent of the population is subject to a pathological mania of some kind; either they use drugs or they are “co-dependent”. The achieving of a state of wellness will necessitate the adoption of radical measures which entail recognizing that people are not in control of themselves; it will demand handing one’s life over to “a Higher Power”, and undertake a serious reform of one’s life. More and more, Oblates will undoubtedly see that the spiritual thrust of these persons can be maintained only by a heart rendered docile to God’s Spirit by “an hour each day [devoted] to mental prayer” (C 33).

Nevertheless, a considerable number of us will feel the need to deepen our silent prolonged prayer and to work at it intensely simply because we will need it to nourish our own lives… We will have an ardent desire to spend time with our Savior, our Friend, our Beloved. We will be on fire to gain a deeper knowledge of “who Jesus Christ is” (Preface) in himself. Instinctively, we will experience our intolerable emptiness, even if it is only for those blessed moments lived in a loving dialogue. As a result, we will experience the need, not only to be men of prayer – liturgical and community prayer is presupposed here – but also men of oraison: one hour each day (C 33).

In conclusion, I would like to express as my own the convictions stated by Fernand Jetté, Superior General, when on November 13, 1984, he addressed the Oblate Conference of the United States:

[After quoting C 33 with regard to the daily hour of oraison, he concluded] “How many Oblates are there in your region – and in the Congregation – who are faithful to this practice? It is my personal conviction that a province, a region, a religious family who seriously undertakes such a practice and dedicates themselves to it heart and soul can only progress mightily and carry out a very effective apostolate. If I had a challenge to leave with you in this regard, I would tell you: ‘Be faithful, scrupulously faithful, to your hour of mental prayer each day and all the rest will follow’.” (French text: Documentation: 131/85, p. 10)