Why can mental prayer be so difficult? Review of Boylan’s “Difficulties in Mental Prayer”

“Let him proceed to pray to Our Lord in his own words as soon as he can and as often as he can.”

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Image: A Prayer for those at Sea, Frederick Daniel Harvey, (Source: Wikicommons)


This is a review of a book called Difficulties in Mental Prayer, by Dom Eugene Boylan – published in recent years by Baronius Press.

Many Catholics desire to maintain a practice of mental prayer. Many Catholics also complain that they find such a habit difficult – or even impossible – to establish. This problem can persist for many years. 

This is a serious obstacle because many spiritual writers, including great saints, stress the importance – indeed the necessity – of mental prayer for progression in the spiritual life.

On the eve of the impending calamity of revolution in the Church, Boylan, a monk of the Cistercian Abbey of Roscrea, wrote:

“If there be anything wrong with our priests and religious of today, if there be any failure even on the part of the laity to live up to the faith they undoubtedly possess, if our resistance to the infiltration of pagan civilisation, of pagan manners, and of pagan principles into our minds and hearts, into our public and private life, is not as vigorous, as sturdy, as resourceful, as it should be, the cause is surely to be found in the lack of an interior life, and, fundamentally, in the lack of such a life, in its proper measure among priests and religious. 

“With the best will in the world, it is not easy to be assured that all is as it should be. There are not wanting voices – competent voices – crying out in warning; there are not lacking signs – unmistakeable signs – giving them support; it is even said that supernatural admonitions are not unheard of, all deploring the lack of due fervour and interior life in religion.

“It is not for us to attempt to pass judgment upon the state of affairs. But it is for each of us to examine his own condition, and see whether it is in harmony with the wonderful spiritual equipment that God has given each one of us in our baptism. For God Himself has come to live in our souls, to be our Guide, our Strength, our Life and our Love.”[1]

In the Church today, there are many men and women of good will who desire to deepen their interior life and yet – despite the stakes being so high – and despite so many resolutions being made –struggle to make this practice a part of their life.

Boylan writes in the book:

“Faced with the ever-increasing difficulty of leading a holy life in contact with a world every growing more flagrantly pagan, often urged by the more or less conscious feeling of the needs of one the most critical moments in the history of Christianity, many souls have commenced to examine the state of their spiritual health and to seek means of spiritual advancement.

“The need for greater spiritual energy has led them to consider especially their prayer, for they have come to realise that prayer is the source of their spiritual strength and the centre of their spiritual life.”[2]

However, tragically:

“Many find that there is something wrong with their prayer; they note a lack of progress, and ever-increasing difficulty, and even a growing distaste for that exercise. Some conclude that for them it is a mere waste of time to go on ‘praying’ as they have been doing; others find the time given to prayer a burden that is becoming well-nigh intolerable.”[3]

It was to provide a remedy for this problem that Dom Eugene Boylan wrote Difficulties in Mental Prayer.

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About Dom Eugene Boylan

Eugene Boylan (1904-1964) was a monk of Mount St Joseph, a Cistercian abbey at Roscrea in Co. Tipperary, Ireland. Born in 1904, he entered the seminary of the Archdiocese of Dublin in 1921, but left after a couple of years, concluding that the diocesan priesthood was not his calling. He studied physics and mathematics at University College Dublin and in Vienna. He returned to Dublin to take up a position as assistant lecturer in physics, where he began to develop a reputation as a scientist. 

But in 1931, he chose to abandon the world, and received the Cistercian habit at Mount St Joseph, making his final profession in 1936 and being ordained to the priesthood in 1937. He was elected abbot of the monastery in 1962, but died tragically, on 5 January 1964, after less than two years in office, following a car accident.

During his thirty-three years as a monk, Boylan gained renown as a preacher, confessor, and giver of retreats. His experience of directing souls alerted him to the many difficulties faced by those wishing to grow in the spiritual life. 

Difficulties in Mental Prayer, published in 1944, was written at the encouragement of a religious who had attended one of his retreats. It quickly became a classic of spiritual writing in the English-speaking world, and has been republished many times since his death in 1964.

I will begin this review by briefly examining the nature of mental prayer and will then proceed to offer readers an insight into Boylan’s approach by expanding on one particular difficulty often encountered.

What is mental prayer?

In the book, Boylan defines prayer as the “elevation of the mind and heart to God, to adore Him, to praise Him, to thank Him for His benefits, and to beg His grace and mercy”.[4]

It can be divided into vocal prayer and mental prayer. 

Vocal prayer occurs “when we make use of a set formula with our lips and endeavour to conform our thoughts and desires in some way to our words.”[5]

In mental prayer “we endeavour to originate these thoughts and desires in ourselves by some reflection, and then to give utterance to them by words – generally words of our own – or even by that eloquent silence where the heart speaks to God and gives Him fitting praise without the noise of words.”[6]

However, as Boylan stresses, “even if we do articulate words, or vocalise these acts and desires, our prayer does not therefore cease to be mental prayer. This is a mistaken that some people make, thinking that they must repress all articulate utterance or speech in mental prayer.”[7]

The acts that we make in prayer are called “affections”. These are: 

“[E]ssentially acts of the will, by which it moves towards God, and elicits other acts of the different virtues, such as faith, hope, love, sorrow, humility, gratitude and praise.”[8]

In the book, Boylan explains that in the earlier stages of the spiritual life, these affections generally cannot be produced without effort. Therefore, it is usually necessary to focus the mind on those things which will assist us in “stirring up the heart to act and to give expression to its desires.”[9]

This “preparatory work of reflection and consideration” is called “meditation”. 

The very important role of meditation in preparing the mind and heart for mental prayer is such that the whole exercise of mental prayer is sometimes referred to as “meditation”. This is unfortunate, as Boylan explains, because it implies that the essence of the practice is the reflection or visualisation of which the meditation consists – rather than the conversation with God, and the accompanying “affections”, which are the real matter of mental prayer.

This misunderstanding can be fatal for the practice of mental prayer, as I will explain in more detail below.

The difficulties of mental prayer

Why do so many of us find mental prayer difficult?

There is one reason that is all but universal, especially in our highly distracting modern world:

“The things of this life, the rush of human activity, the daily experience of the senses, so throng the imagination and excite the emotions that the more abstract truths of the faith and the mysteries of the nineteen-century-distant life of Our Lord have little hold on the mind.”[10]

But there are other reasons, as alluded to above, and this is where Boylan’s book may be of supreme importance to many struggling souls.

In this short review I cannot examine all of them, but I hope that the following example will give an insight into Boylan’s approach and hopefully encourage you to explore further for yourselves.

Continuing the line of thought I referred to above, Boylan writes:

“In the strict meaning of the word, ‘meditation’ applies to the discourse of the mind with the accompanying workings of the imagination and the memory, and to that alone. Since, however, the name meditation is given to the exercise in which a stated time of the day’s programme is set aside for mental prayer, the word is often applied to any form of mental prayer. 

“Even if a religious is raised to the heights of contemplation, he is said to be ‘at his meditation.’ This usage has its disadvantages; it takes away a very useful word, which will here be replace by ‘reflection’ or ‘consideration’, and it leads those who take the name too strictly to think that the essence of this exercise of mental prayer lies in the considerations.

“Now in reality the fact is that there is no real prayer until the soul starts making ‘acts’, or affections. This cannot be too often emphasised. The purpose of consideration, reflection or ‘meditation’ in its strict sense, is merely to lead the soul to produce acts. It has other effects, to be considered later, but once the acts come, its work is done, and it should be put aside until the soul can no longer go on making acts – or, in other words, can no longer go on talking to God in some way or other, for that it is in which prayer really consists. 

“If such conversation with God is found possible at the very beginning of the time of prayer, no attempt should be made at considerations as long as our conversation with God continues, even though this may mean leaving out considerations altogether.”[11]

All methods of meditation have the same goal: moving souls towards conversation with God. There are many different methods, because human beings vary widely in the personality, temperament, age, culture, maturity, experience, stage of spiritual development and other factors. In recent centuries however, one particular kind of method has dominated:

“The detailed methods of discursive prayer, found in so many manuals, and which are a difficulty to the class of souls we are now considering, are of a comparatively recent growth; their spread dates from around the sixteenth century. In the old days, when the religious life was more monastic in form, and faith perhaps more lively, the need for such a detailed plan was not so generally felt. 

“The notion also of mental prayer as something confined to a special short period was quite foreign to the minds of the time… The work of meditation… was supplied by spiritual reading… and was continued by actual reflection and pondering over the truths of the faith or the mysteries of Christ during the time of manual labour or the free periods of the day. 

“Acts of ejaculatory prayer throughout the day helped to turn the heart to God, and the Divine Office gave utterance in a definite and inspired form to the feelings and the needs, not only of the individual soul, but also of the whole Church, the Body of Christ. Thus, when a religious betook himself to private prayer, the preparatory work was already done, and he went straight to the business of praying.”[12]

The tyranny of method

Over time, and especially after the inventing of printing, methods of meditation were developed to assist active religious, secular clergy and lay people to prepare themselves for mental prayer. A classic method, which has yielded enormous spiritual fruit for half a millennium, is that of the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola. Methods found in modern books are often based on it in some way. 

But a method that brings forth great spiritual fruit in one person, may not be fruitful for another. Many of us get “hung up” on a particular method and make adhering to it the focus of our prayer. Our struggles with the method can lead us not abandon attempting to it, but also to abandon mental prayer itself. And this occurs not because we cannot converse with God, but because we find it difficult follow a particular method of meditation or consideration. 

The individual is thus kept from developing a friendship with God out of a sincere but misguided attempt to follow a path for which they are not suited, mistaking that path for mental prayer itself. 

This is a tragedy. 

The remedy is to understand that mental prayer consists in conversing with God, and not in any particular method of meditation. The method used is only useful if it helps us attain this end. 

As Boylan writes

“The many souls who can follow [a method of this sort] are in no need of our remedies, but it is desirable to warn them to be ready to modify their method should it cease to be helpful, and to put them on their guard against the mistake that may be made through a wrong notion of the essential nature of prayer, of thinking that reflection is prayer, and of failing therefore to give enough time to the making of acts and talking to God.

“They may perhaps find new hope in the suggestion that there may be further possibilities open to them.”[13]

The methods that have been most popular in recent centuries don’t sustain those they benefit at every stage of their spiritual life, and there are some men and women for whom they are simply the wrong methods: 

“There is [a] type of temperament that finds great difficulty in discursive meditation. Some minds reach their conclusions by a sort of intuition rather than by a long discourse of reasoning. When a subject is set before them, they quickly draw out of it all the fruit available at the moment, and the harvest will not be increased by prolonged consideration. 

“It is not till later on, in the light of new knowledge and experience, that their convictions are deepened and extended. Such souls have little to gain by trying to keep the mind fixed for long on the points of a meditation. It is better for them to proceed to the acts, and try to talk to Our Lord, or, if that fails, to repeat phrases of a favourite prayer, slowly and thoughtfully… 

“The fifteen decades of the Rosary form a programme of prayer for many souls. Others make similar use of the Stations of the Cross. Another way is to remember that Mass is beginning somewhere at every moment. If one follows the Mass in thought and imagination, in can provide suitable matter for prayer.”[14]

An expression of common experience

If the first part of the above text resonates with you, you are not alone: 

“There seems… to be a number of people who, despite continued efforts and undoubted goodwill, not only fail to find any help in the use of these methods of prayer, but are even hindered thereby, sometimes to the extent that the whole business of prayer becomes an intolerable burden. 

“As a result, that which should be the source of their spiritual life becomes dried up; perseverance becomes difficult, and advance is only achieve by heroic efforts. The soul may even give up all attempts at prayer, and end in spiritual disaster.”[15]

If you recognise yourself in this description, then Dom Eugene Boylan’s book is for you:

“All such souls, it is hoped, may find the beginning of the solution of their problems in the following discussion of mental prayer.”[16]

I encourage you to read it and allow Boylan to unfold to you how at last you can begin to find friendship with Our Lord Jesus Christ through the practice of mental prayer which is, in the words of St Teresa of Avila:

“[N]othing else but an intimate friendship, a frequent converse, heart to heart, with Him Whom we know to be Our Lover.”[17]

As Boylan writes:

“[L]et each soul renew his hope and his intention of persevering in prayer… Let him take up prayer as he should take up the whole spiritual life, as a quest for Jesus, a striving for close union with Jesus. Let him meditate as long is necessary… but let him proceed to pray to Our Lord in his own words as soon as he can and as often as he can.”[18]  

Further Reading

Boylan – Difficulties in Mental Prayer

Boylan – This Tremendous Lover

Boylan – The Mystical Body and the Spiritual Life

Boylan – The Spiritual Life of the Priest

Boylan – The Priest’s Way to God

“Seeking Christ by Reading” – from Dom Eugene Boylan’s classic “This Tremendous Lover”

Morrissey – Dom Eugene Boylan: Trappist Monk and Writer


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[1] Dom Eugene Boylan, Difficulties in Mental Prayer, (1943), (Baronius Press edition, 2019), p114.

[2] Boylan, Difficulties, p1.

[3] Boylan, Difficulties, p1.

[4] Boylan, Difficulties, p2. 

[5] Boylan, Difficulties, p2. 

[6] Boylan, Difficulties, p2.

[7] Boylan, Difficulties, p2.

[8] Boylan, Difficulties, p3.

[9] Boylan, Difficulties, p3.

[10] Boylan, Difficulties, p3.

[11] Boylan, Difficulties, p9-10. Boylan notes that not all authors agree him.

[12] Boylan, Difficulties, p13.

[13] Boylan, Difficulties, p11.

[14] Boylan, Difficulties, p20.

[15] Boylan, Difficulties, p11-12.

[16] Boylan, Difficulties, p12.

[17] Boylan, Difficulties, p74.

[18] Boylan, Difficulties, p118.

3 thoughts on “Why can mental prayer be so difficult? Review of Boylan’s “Difficulties in Mental Prayer”

  1. JA

    Thanks. This is next on my reading list. It was a great grace for Dom Boylan to die before the aftermath of the Judas Council. Just think: all of us born after 1965 know nothing other than living amidst the wreckage of the Judas Council.

  2. Michael Wilson

    Thanks for the review; this book sounds like it will be very helpful for those who are interested in the practice of mental prayer. I read another book by Fr. Peter T. Rhorbach, O.C.D. “Conversations With Christ, St. Teresa of Avila’s Teaching on Mental Prayer”. Very similar in the advice she gives, about the essence of mental prayer is the act of affections rather than the intellectual cogitations and considerations which are only a prelude to these.

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