Nine Levels of Christian Prayer

How does one advance in prayer?

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The Purgative Way, Levels 3 and 4

Most likely, the vast majority of Catholics are familiar with the first two levels of prayer that I have reviewed, vocal prayer and meditation. After all, both levels are involved in the most common forms of prayer, such as the Rosary. Many Catholics may also have heard of higher levels of prayer such as the mystical experiences of a St. Catherine of Sienna or a St. John of the Cross. But there are actually two more levels of ascetical prayer; i.e. prayer which is initiated by man. We will look at these last two levels of the purgative way here.

Level 3: Affective Prayer
We saw in the previous level of prayer, called meditation, that the intellect predominates: one thinks about some supernatural truth and makes an effort to have that truth apply to their life. In this third level of prayer, called "affective prayer," the will begins to dominate over the intellect. What does this mean? Unlike meditation, where the intellect works to consider the supernatural truth, during affective prayer the soul receives certain consolations regarding that truth which impress upon the will. These consolations lead one to make acts of love towards the Lord. I like to think of this activity as a "supernatural New Year's Resolution." When making a resolution at the beginning of the year, one simply says that he will do such and such and then makes an effort to stick with it. However, in affective prayer, the will makes a certain resolution, aided by grace, which leads the person to make a true change in his life. For example, the soul might be meditating on the scourging at the pillar, and recognizing Christ's suffering for our sake, might resolve to live a stricter life of penance. This resolution does not cause a sense of burden or anguish, however, but instead fills the soul with deep consolation and joy.

This level, however, can be spiritually dangerous. Now that the prayer has consolations attached to it, the person can fall into "spiritual gluttony," desiring the consolations of the prayer for themselves. Thus, one can become stuck on this level and believe that his prayer is "fruitful" because he receives consolations. But the truth is that the only indication as to whether prayer is fruitful is whether the person is growing in virtue, charity, and self-denial. Consolations are wonderful, but they are a means to an end, not the end in themselves.

Level 4: Acquired Recollection
As we are still in the purgative way, we are still in the domain of ascetical prayer; so even at this fourth level, man is still the primary initiator.

This level, also called "prayer of simplicity" or "simple gaze" is the simple loving gaze upon the divine object. In it, we use our faculties to focus on our Lord, not using our intellect or imagination or emotion. It is a simple gaze of the will.

Acquired recollection demands the greatest recollection and requires us to master our faculties of intellect and will. This is so that we can be completely focused on the Lord and be still within.

Note that acquired recollection should not be forced and it is not proper to all persons. If one is getting fruit from an earlier stage, there is no reason to push to this level. Furthermore, you would not leave your 10-year-old daughter in an adoration chapel and just tell her, "Gaze on Jesus, not thinking of anything other than him." She simply couldn't do it and it could actually be harmful for her, as she would associate boredom with prayer. But there is a certain beauty about this level, as it starts to leave the domain of man and enters the domain of God: prayer is no longer only about what it does to you, but is more and more directed towards God.

After the purgative way comes the bridge to the illuminative way: the Dark Night of the Senses.
Previous Page: The Purgative Way, Levels 1 and 2Next Page: The Dark Night of the Senses




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