First in a seven-part series
The Catholic Tradition considers there to be nine levels of prayer. The explanations of these levels have been developed over the centuries by various Catholic spiritual writers and saints, most especially St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. Although we are all called to live a life of prayer, most Catholics are not informed about these various levels, and it may be for this reason that they are unable to advance in prayer as they should. So I’d like to go through the levels this week in a seven-part series.
Before describing the nine ascending levels, let me first mention some general terms with regard to prayer. First is the distinction between ascetical prayer and mystical prayer. 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.
Furthermore, the nine levels of prayer can be grouped into three “ways”: purgative, illuminative, and unitive. 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 proper to the “perfect.” It is the intimate union of the contemplative soul with God.
Finally, between each of the three ways there is a “bridge” that marks the soul’s advancement from one way to the next. The bridge between the purgative way and the illuminative way is the Dark Night of the Senses, in which the soul is purged of all consolation of the senses. The bridge between the illuminative way and the unitive way is the Dark Night of the Soul, in which the soul is purged of all consolation of the intellect, mind and memory.
It is very important to note that there is some fluidity between these levels and the length of time a person spends in each one. Some levels one always experiences, whereas other levels are only attained over a long period of time.
With that, here are the nine levels of prayer:
1. Vocal Prayer
3. Affective Prayer
4. Acquired Recollection
Bridge: Dark Night of the Senses
5. Infused Contemplation
6. Prayer of Quiet
Bridge: Dark Night of the Soul
7. Simple Union
8. Conforming Union
9. Transforming Union
Over the next several days I will go into detail about each level with the hope that those who read this will be helped in their own prayer life.
Sts. Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross, pray for us!