The great saint and doctor of the Church, Teresa of Ávila wrote The Way of Perfection, a book about prayer. She didn’t give the book that title. Instead she called it Advice and Counsels because she was writing a practical book for her sisters, the Carmelite nuns, about prayer.
One of her first counsels is that when praying vocally “you should understand what you are saying.” Keep in mind that Teresa lived in the 1600s and much of the nuns’ vocal prayer was in Latin, a language most of them did not understand. But she wasn’t referring only to Latin vocal prayers but all such prayers, whether long, short, or even of one word. She states it is not merely about pronouncing words correctly.
To get past the issue of not understanding the Latin words, Teresa suggested that the sisters make themselves aware of to whom they were speaking and “remain at the side of the Master.” I thought this was a wonderful way to bring meaning to what must have often been incomprehensible when reciting or chanting the Psalms in Latin. And even when one does understand the words of vocal prayers, this is still great advice.
Another piece of advice she gave is to pray in solitude, when possible, so as to be free of distractions. She is very understanding of the fact that there are times when, in spite of every effort, distractions persist. Then she says simply, “One should pray as best one can…” or get busy doing “other works of virtue.” So, I would say she means do your best and God will still be pleased with the effort and the desire, even if the outcome seems superficially a failure.
Another important point is that Teresa wants her sisters to combine vocal prayer and mental prayer; that is, pay attention to what one is doing when praying vocally. She believes religious images can be helpful for this.
When praying well, for example when praying the Our Father, Teresa says, “the Lord may raise you to perfect contemplation.” This is a gift from God whereby He takes over the prayer and gives the soul joy and love. I take this to mean that when a person forms good habits of vocal prayer combined with mental prayer, one is at least disposing oneself for the gift of contemplation. This doesn’t mean it will happen, but it is opening the door to God.
What I take away from this advice and counsel is that vocal prayer is not to be thought of as a lesser form of prayer than other types. What is important is the love and desire to honor and worship God.