The Role and Limits of the Mind in Prayer


From Thirsting for Prayer by Father Jacques Philippe

Much the same can be said about our intellects. Reason has a fundamental role in human life and spiritual life; faith cannot do without reason. We should do all we can to understand with our intelligence what we believe, since our minds need to assimilate the content of the faith.

That is what theology is for. The more we understand what we believe, the more our faith will be light and strength for us.

Additionally, in our prayer life we will often receive lights that enlighten our intelligences in many areas: an understanding of certain aspects of the mystery of God, a more vivid perception of the person of Christ, or the meaning of human destiny, etc. We will sometimes receive wonderful, valuable lights on the meaning of a particular phrase or passage of Scripture.

Besides these general lights on the content of the faith, our minds will also receive more specific enlightenment regarding our own lives: what choice to make, how to rule our lives in given circumstances, what advice to give someone who asks for it, etc.

Each time the intelligence, the mind, is enlightened in this way, it is a precious gift, and we need to do all we can to live out our faith in an intelligent way, employing the faculties of reflection, comprehension, analysis, and the rest.

We should ask for and seek the lights that enlighten intelligence. Indeed, we cannot do without them. A lazy mind and spiritual vitality do not go together.

That said, we need also to realize that the intelligence has its limitations. It is good to understand truths about God, but we should bear in mind that everything we understand about God is still not God.

God is infinitely beyond all that our minds can image or grasp. No concept of God truly corresponds to what God is. O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

The intellect can bring us nearer to God, but it does not give us access to what God truly is in Himself. Only faith can do that. At certain points in Christian life, our minds must fall silent and admit their powerlessness.

The greatest theologian in the history of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas, recognized at the end of his life that everything he had written was only straw.

It is normal, then, and even necessary, that on our path as Christians, and especially in our prayer lives, the intelligence should sometimes find itself in a certain degree of darkness.

Regarding questions relating to faith, the mystery of God, or even the meaning of this or that world event or personal experience the mind sometimes is simply lost for an answer. That is disquieting since not understanding always produces a painful sense of frustration. But it is inevitable.

Then it is helpful to recall that not our intelligence but faith gives us access to God and the deep truth of our own lives, and that should be enough for us even if our intelligence is in its death throes.

These times of darkness are necessary for the mind to purify and refine it. The fact is that many things are often at work in our use of our minds, in our desire to understand, from which we need deliverance: some curiosity, a lot of pride, conceit, and desire for power (to understand is to dominate); as well as a human quest for security (to understand is to master and control).

To know everything, we must first pass through a stage of not knowing … we cannot truly grow, humanly or spiritually, without going through times when the intelligence is painfully humbled.

We should also recognize that thinking and reflecting can bring us nearer to God, they can be a path toward him, but they cannot give us God himself. Thinking of an object means holding it at a certain distance in order to master it. That is not possible with God—we cannot “think about” God in the sense of making him into an object.

It is faith, love, and adoration that place us in contact with God. The spiritual life has sometimes been over-intellectualized in the Western world.

The conclusion to which what has just been said obviously points to this: our emotions and our intellects are useful and valuable, but they cannot serve as the basis for our relationship with God or our prayer life. The only basis for that has to be faith.

When our emotions are dry and our minds are blind, faith should be enough to carry us forward. Faith is free, untrammeled. It can feed on what stirs our emotions and enlightens our minds, but it can also do without those things.

Ultimately, these considerations have one practical consequence, and it is an extremely consoling one. There are moments in our prayer lives when we are, quite simply, poor. Despite our good will and efforts, we remain arid, cold, devoid of feeling, understanding, and lights… .

At such times we tend to be discouraged and think we must be very far from God. We envy those who express delicate emotions and deep thoughts, we feel we are totally helpless, compared with what the lives of saints tell us about their fervor and mystical graces. We see ourselves as distant from God since we have neither any fervor nor any light about Him.

If that happens to you, my dear reader, then remember what I have said: It does not matter what you feel or don’t feel, what you understand or can’t understand. If your feelings or your intelligence do not give God to you, faith will.

It is enough to make a humble, sincere act of faith for you to be in contact with God from that moment, with absolute certainty. Faith, and faith alone, establishes real contact with the living presence of God. When everything else is lacking, faith is sufficient.

If we go courageously in that direction, we will end by experiencing how true it is, and how what we grasp by the act of faith is really given to us. “Be it done for you as you have believed,” Jesus says constantly in the Gospel.

In this necessary experience of passing through trials, the role of emotions and intelligence should not be denied or suppressed, but they need to be assigned the right place.

The painful times of “crisis” for human faculties during the spiritual journey are not intended to destroy them, but to purify and refine them, so that, when used, they are no longer a hindrance to union with God.

They need to pass through darkness in order to grow accustomed to a new, deeper perception of God and his wisdom. They must be impoverished to be enriched.

“You must have the courage and farsightedness to face all of your problems and must ask help from Him who is the source of all wisdom in the greatest and most worthy career a woman can espouse: being a real mother. The greatest joy you can find is in one day discovering that your daughters are as good as they are beautiful and your sons as pure as they are stalwart.”
Fr. Lawrence G. Lovasik. The Catholic Family Handbook
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