ABOUT THE STAGES OF PRAYER
St Teresa of Avila, one of the Doctors of the Church whose expertise is Prayer, taught nine stages of prayer which have become the standard for Catholic spiritual writers. These stages can only be properly understood by those who have experienced them, but we can gain some understanding of each stage. These stages are rarely neat in practice and a particular journey may appear erratic rather than a straight path through them. It is however very useful to have this overall map and learn about these stages so we know where we are headed and what is happening in our own prayer times. God wants to lead each and everyone of us to transforming union, to this profound experience of God’s love that goes way beyond any earthly experience.
There is one basic rule for prayer. If you start to experience a higher form of prayer, give over to it.
Vocal prayer is prayer expressed in words. This includes the Eucharist, the rosary, prayer before meals, novenas, etc. For prayer to be effective you need to focus your mind and heart during prayer. Every prayer has some merit, but if we want to grow in prayer and want our prayers to be effective we need to keep improving on our prayer. To think about what we are praying and make the prayer our own. In other words, to pray in our hearts. If we follow the right prayer advice, prayer will naturally become a prayer of the heart. As with all these stages we will provide more detailed advice of how to pray and grow into each of the prayer types themselves since each has its own dynamics and focus.
Meditation or mental prayer is conversation with God. It starts by listening to God, which could be through nature, the lives of the saints, scripture, but is best through the Gospels where we can encounter Jesus himself. We should always start by calling to mind God’s presence and trying to allow our hearts to enter that presence. We then read through a passage of the gospels slowly. If we start to think about the passage, then stop reading and allow yourself to think about the passage (this is properly called discursive since you are thinking and reflecting, reasoning on the passage). If your attention is taken elsewhere then refocus on your initial thoughts or start reading again slowly. If, as you are reflecting, you want to talk to Jesus about something, then do so. Allow yourself to talk with Jesus. Share with him your needs, fears, hopes, questions, prayers for others, everything. Sometimes, we might find everything is too much, or we just want to give it all to Jesus, so surrender it all to Him. As you give over to God and allow him into your life and heart, you may start to experience his presence with you. Allow yourself to rest in that presence and just stay and abide in that presence and warmth of God’s love. If you experience a higher form of prayer give over to it. If you become distracted, then start again and refocus on Jesus. Discursive meditation is primarily the reasoning stages of meditation. Once you start to experience your heart engaged, it is more affective prayer.
If this enough detail for now and you want to focus on the prayer method click here.
Affective meditation is the natural progress of prayer from predominately a mental exercise to one of loving responses from our heart. We follow exactly the same ‘method’ as discursive meditation. It is just that we find that our hearts naturally engage quicker with a deeper love of Jesus that is expressed in discussions and prayers. We are moving from thinking to feelings and desires. We want to know what Jesus is feeling and learn from him how to love. We share our own concerns for ourselves, but also for others. Affective prayer grows through applying what we are learning in our day to day life. The more we put into practice the gospel, the deeper our friendship will be with Jesus. We can’t make affective prayer happen, it naturally arises from our hearts. But we can live the gospel more in our daily lives and the effect will be an increase of intimacy with Jesus in prayer. When our meditation time is regularly filled with more of these affective movements of our heart, we can say that we are at this stage of prayer. It is not a smooth transition, since our path to God can be two steps forward and one step back, but it normally appears as the drunken steps of someone who is gradually making his way home.
PRAYER OF SIMPLICITY
As we deepen in affective meditation we move from our loving intentions, prayer, conversations with Jesus to just a loving attention based in the heart. Again we follow exactly the same ‘method’ as discursive meditation. It is just that we find that our hearts naturally engage quicker with a deeper love of Jesus that rather than be expressed in discussions and prayers moves straight to an awareness of God’s presence and an openness of our heart and soul to that presence. Rather than be actively seeking God, we are now passively abiding in God’s presence. We come to a place of deeper attention, presence and focus where our heart is more and more captured by God who is truly present in us. We just want to be with him and that is all we need. This presence of God can be manifest in many ways such as a deep warmth of love, a profound joy and happiness, a euphoria of satisfaction, a sense of completion yet an awareness that there is more.
PRAYER OF QUIET
You are always meant to take the initiative in living out the gospel in your life. As you increase in holiness you increase in freedom. As you increase in freedom you increase in greater good choices you can make. God has given you gifts and he wants you to use them. As you use them he backs you up, but not necessarily the way you expect. But that isn’t important for those who want to make progress through these next stages since they are more intent on using their freedom to do the greatest good they can, God’s will. What’s not important is the profound experience of prayer, but knowing and doing God’s will. This may seem like a contradiction, but the key is to realise God loves us unconditionally and wants us to do the same. God IS unconditional love itself. To share in God, means we must love unconditionally just like God. There was a musician in the King’s court who loved to play and enjoyed everyone enjoying his music. All was good. This is the prayer of simplicity. Sheer enjoyment. But then he goes deaf. Since he still enjoys others enjoying his music, he perseveres. One day, he is in the king’s court, but there is no one there. The king comes and asks him to play, and leaves. He doesn’t get any enjoyment from his music but out of love for the king he plays even though it appears futile. This musician is seeking God’s will without expecting anything in return. This is unconditional love. No conditions. God wants us to love others with the same unconditional love he has for us. In a strange way this IS freedom since we rely on nothing except that which alone we should rely upon, God himself. We have nothing but love itself. Even though we may experience nothing in prayer or even a profound darkness, God’s grace is just as much with us, maybe even more so without us being aware of it. This stretches our heart and increases its love. Our empty heart is stretched to be able to start to contain such love and intimacy with God that words can’t describe. It is more important to have the right attitude to make progress than to just know about these stages. Progress is actually up to you since God will do his part, because he is God. It comes down to your determination to surrender all and keep pushing through what appears is darkness to keep loving until God brings about the transformation of your soul. What he does in prayer is totally beyond your control. To make progress, you need to love God himself and not any gift he may give. Those who love the gifts, don’t make progress.
God gradually, imperceptibly starts to transform the prayer of simplicity into the prayer of quiet. Have you ever felt as if someone was looking at you and you turn and then see the person looking at you. That inner awareness of the gaze of the other is like this awareness of God’s presence with you, except it is always a presence of love. You are aware that God is there, but also within you. Once you start to become aware of his presence, as in the prayer of simplicity, allow your whole attention to be given to God present. Open your soul to allow God into every part of your being. As God enters into you, you are entering into God. Initial moments may be short, but as you continue to grow in holiness, the experience deepens and prolongs. The experience is not a single type of experience, but has many forms. Since your heart is being captured and purified, you will also experience a kind of darkness with a yearning. God is just as present, but the gift of warmth is gone and only a longing remains. This longing can be profoundly empty and dark but as the musician kept playing, so you should keep praying and keep growing in holiness. The amount, duration and type of darkness all depends on God and the person. As the purification deepens so does the depth of consolations, warm profound experiences of God’s love. The will is being captured and is drawn on by more profound joys. The intensity of the experience of love at times goes beyond any possible pleasurable experience that can be had on earth. God is directly filling the soul with himself.
To describe the experience of light, warmth, joy, in the spiritual life we use the word consolation. To describe the experience of darkness, emptiness, and an inner chaos we use the word desolation. As we start to experience the joy that God alone can give (consolation) we will also experience desolation. These spiritual experiences have emotional effects. Discernment is the skill to work out what is the greatest good I can do, ie what is God’s will. Part of discernment is understanding the dynamics of consolation, desolation and how to respond to them. There is a lot to learn about all this which is covered in the material about discernment based on St Ignatius’ teaching. But one point is always true, keep praying and keep doing the greatest good you can.
The prayer of quiet is when God will so capture your will that you will be filled with inexpressible joy and delight. This experience can extend beyond your time of prayer and can happen at any time. It can be extended for days. You are aware that you are loved and filled with love at the same time you are busy with others, or work, or whatever you are doing. Since this is a higher form of prayer than meditation, we give over our will to God and be totally present to him who is with us. Our will is being freed of attachments and our heart is being emptied. Yet this helps our choosing to be more loving, more selfless and more focused on doing the good. We must push ahead in doing the good and seeking God above all so we can love others more and gain the graces they need to have a better life. Gradually our captured will helps our mind to more fully surrender to God and be drawn into this prayer. We are not in control of the prayer at all and can do nothing to bring it about, increase it or prolong it. God gradually draws us deeper, but only if we keep doing the good and recognising that God is the source of all that is good. This is only an initial sketch of these stages which are explained further in summary of Fr Thomas Dubay’s book Fire Within which explores them more comprehensively.
PRAYER OF UNION
In the prayer of union your will and mind are both captured and filled with God’s unutterable delight and joy. This prayer is far more intense than the prayer of quiet but also shorter lasting about 10 minutes at a time. Everything on earth will appear as nothing compared to God, yet you will be a person of profound love and joy.
The prayer of union deepens further in intensity leading to possible experiences that St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross discuss. Ecstasy, rapture, flight of the spirit, impulses, wounding and levitation are possible experiences of conforming union with God. Ecstasy and rapture is a very intense, brief experience of mind, will and heart being absorbed into God. Being so absorbed in God during the experience leads to awareness of what is happening around you appearing far off. Each of these experiences are an order of magnitude greater than the prayer of union. Flight of the spirit is shorter and more intense than Ecstasy and rapture, but now the intellect perceives a fresh light and understanding of great truths. God is love is a truth. But now that truth (and many others) will be known in greater depth, breadth, intensity, reality, more completely and more inexpressibly. From knowing about something to knowing and experiencing it personally. The order of magnitude of the experience is increased in the conforming union, but also an order of magnitude of understanding. Impulses are the awareness of our current separation from God, that will only be fulfilled in heaven. Impulses are profoundly humbling and bring about a profound yearning. Wounding is a spark of divine fire in the soul that instantly consumes it that is triggered by some holy thought and leaves the soul like ashes, longing yet again an order of magnitude of joy and delight. It is very short, but intense. The soul is not ‘wounded’ but purified by it. Levitation can happen during a flight of the spirit when being lost to God the body is also lifted up. The spiritual graces received can overflow into the body with physical strengthening and healings. The body starts to participate in what the soul is enjoying. As conforming union deepens the manifestations decrease since the union becomes more complete with less ‘noise’ as St Teresa of Avila puts it (Dispositions, p 61).
The next stage after this is heaven itself. The key experience of the transforming union is an intellectual vision of the Trinity.
First of all the spirit becomes enkindled and is illumined, as it were, by a cloud of the greatest brightness. It sees these three Persons, individually, and yet, by a wonderful kind of knowledge which is given to it, the soul realizes that most certainly and truly all these three Persons are one Substance and one Power and one Knowledge and one God alone; so that what we hold by faith the soul may be said here to grasp by sight, although nothing is seen by the eyes, either of the body or of the soul, for it is no ordinary vision. (IC, mans. 7, chap. 1, pp. 209-10)
This experience leads to a constant union of the person with God who now abides permanently in the center of one’s soul, though it is still possible this could be lost. Strangely the person experiences at the same time the fullness of this awareness of God within and the pains and sufferings of this life. God’s will is lived so accepting persecutions and sufferings is kind of joyful, yet all the pain they bring are felt. There is only love even for those who cause such pain and suffering. So all the pains and sufferings are accepted out of love for God to save souls. One has become a person of unconditional love. Spiritual darkness will be endured so others can experience the light. The treasure that awaits these souls in heaven forever cannot be contained in this whole universe.