“Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for a knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.” Step 11, “12 Steps and 12 Traditions,” p 96
I’m not sure about you, dear reader, but for me this period after November 3rd has been difficult. I’ve found that the 12 Steps have helped me gain a better perspective, particularly Steps 1, 3 and 11. (See here.) Hearkening back to my catechesis in the faith 25 years ago and the reading I’ve done since then, I’ve found that different ways to pray can achieve an increased measure of acceptance, if not consolation. So, in the spirit of a Calix Zoom meeting, I’d like to share these with you in the hope that you will also find them helpful.
WAYS AND LEVELS OF PRAYER
“This is my purpose, and will, I think, enable me to explain something about the four stages of prayer, to which the Lord has, in His kindness, something raised my soul. … Now the soul begins to be recollected, and here it comes into touch with the supernatural, to which it could not possibly attain by its own efforts.” St. Teresa of Avila
Many are the descriptions of stages of prayer. After my conversion 25 years ago, I participated in RCIA classes, where prayer was an underlying theme for discussion. In one of these our priest described the following stages of prayer, more or less following St. Teresa of Avila: vocal, purgative, meditative and contemplative. I found out later his categories didn’t quite match up with St. Teresa’s categories, but more of that below.
The most complete and clear description of the stages of prayer I have found is that given by Eric Sammons in two articles, “The Ascending Way of Prayer, part I” and “The Ascending Way of Prayer, Part II.” I’ll summarize these, but I urge the reader to go the articles for a fulfilling and inspiring instruction on how to pray. Simmons says there are two kinds of prayer: “ascetical” and “mystical.”
Ascetical prayer emphasizes man’s cooperation with grace; the primary initiator of this type of prayer is man. Mystical prayer, on the other hand, is initiated by God. Man’s role is to be receptive. It is important to remember, however, that these two types of prayer exist at all levels; they work together and should not be held in opposition. Some levels though are primarily ascetical while others are primarily mystical.” —Eric Sammons, “The Ascending Way of Prayer, Part I.”
I’ll summarize very briefly the prayer structure Sammons describes, but I strongly urge the reader to go the linked articles for a complete explanation. (I can’t say it better than he did in those.) As shown in the diagram at the right, Sammons gives three ways to pray and nine levels of prayer within these ways,
- “The Purgative Way is proper to beginners in the Christian life. Its goal is to tame the body, and its emphasis is on the ascetical purification of self.” .
- “The Illuminative Way is the path of Infused Contemplation, in which an experiential, intuitive knowledge of God is supernaturally infused into the soul. The Illuminative Way is the beginning of mystical prayer.”
- “The third way, the Unitive Way,…is the intimate union of the contemplative soul with God.”—op.cit
The nine levels proceed from vocal prayer, praying aloud (Lord’s Prayer, Rosary,….) through meditation, thinking about God’s works, to being a passive vessel for God’s word with, ultimately, union with the Trinity in stages. Please see Sammons’ articles (Part I and Part II) for a detailed description.
To go to a higher way to pray one must cross a bridge, “a dark night:” from the Purgative Way to the Illuminative Way, a “Dark Night of the Senses;” from the Illuminative Way to the Unitive Way, a “Dark Night of the Soul.” These are periods of dryness, when one may think that prayer is not accomplishing anything. According to Sammons, the first bridge is to remove the “consolation of the senses,” so that one will be more willing to be a passive vessel for God’s presence. The second bridge is to remove the influence of the intellect and will and let God take over entirely, that one pray and worship not for the sake of consolation but to love God.
Given all these theoretical considerations about ways of prayer, one might ask do they help one to pray? My good lady wife told me after reading a preliminary version of this post, “all that (the article) is very good, but it seems so unnecessary to me—all you should have to do is to sit down and talk to God and listen to what He says.” What she said seems eminently reasonable, but for some of us that’s hard to do.
When? Where? How long? Environment? Distractions? These are the questions that we, who are not adept in the art of prayer ask. I’ll not presume to answer them definitively here, but only direct the reader to where different answers are given. Fr. Bernard Groeschel (of blessed memory) has a series of audio and dvd’s on prayer (see here). Two monks of his Franciscan Order have a short, punchy and valuable video on how and when to pray (see here). St. Teresa of Avila gave advice about prayer to the Discalced Carmelite nuns under her direction in two books, “The Way of Perfection,” and “The Interior Castle.” The latter is my favorite. The Oxford Group (with which Bill W was associated before he formed AA) advocates two-way prayer, “Listening to God.”
Here’s my own recipe:
- a regular time;
- a darkened room;
- preferably at Adoration or in the presence of a sacred image.
- a comfortable (but not too comfortable) chair.
Adoration chapel, late at night, dark has been my best time to pray and to try to listen to God…
I’d be grateful if you, the reader, would add in comments your thoughts about prayer and ways to do it.