Nine Levels of Christian Prayer
How does one advance in prayer?
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. Hopefully this article will be of some help in the prayer life of those who read it.
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
In this article 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!
The Purgative Way, Levels 1 and 2
As the saying goes, we must crawl before we can walk. For first I will explore the the first two levels of prayer, which begin what is called the "purgative way." These levels, along with the next two, also fall into the category of "ascetical prayer," which means that the primary initiator of these levels of prayer is man. Obviously, they require grace, but the emphasis during the purgative way is man's cooperation with that grace.
Level 1: Vocal Prayer
What is the first prayer that we teach our children? Usually it is something like the Our Father, the Hail Mary or perhaps grace before meals or bedtime. In other words, vocal prayer. Vocal prayer is, simply put, prayers said out loud. Before we can meditate upon the mysteries of our faith or contemplate divine realities, we must first say our prayers out loud. Man is a body-soul composite, and therefore our bodies - including our voices - must be involved in our prayer. And it is important to remember that no one - I mean no one - ever abandons this level altogether. Even the greatest mystics said vocal prayers to their dying day. But over time, vocal prayer can be combined with other forms of prayer, as we will see below.
Of course, anyone can outwardly say prayers, but that does not mean that he is actually praying. For vocal prayer to be truly prayer, two components are necessary: (1) attention; and (2) devotion. We must be aware of what we are saying and we should be saying it with love. Otherwise, we will be "like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them" (Matthew 6:5).
Level 2: Meditation
Meditation applies the mind to some supernatural truth in order to penetrate its meaning. It is primarily an act of the intellect, but the will also comes into play, since the purpose of meditation is to excite the will to love.
In general, there are three elements to meditation:
(a) Consideration: we think about the supernatural matter and ponder what it means.
(b) Application: we apply the truth to our own spiritual life.
(c) Resolution: we resolve practical ways to make the application of this truth occur in our life.
Meditation is the first stage of any serious prayer, and it is foundational to the further stages. It has been said that if a person meditates daily, in a short period of time he will either stop committing serious sin or will stop meditating. Meditation is also something that can be fruitful at any level of prayer; St. Theresa of Avila said that she always started her prayer by reading some spiritual work and meditating on it. That would then lead her to other, higher levels of prayer.
Next we will look at the next two levels of the purgative way, which are affective prayer and acquired recollection.
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.
The Dark Night of the Senses
Most people are familiar with the work of St. John of the Cross called "The Dark Night." However, not many have actually read it or really understand what he means by "Dark Night." First, there are actually two Dark Nights: the Dark Night of Sense and the Dark Night of the Soul (or Spirit). The first forms the bridge between the purgative and illuminative ways and the second is the bridge between the illuminative and unitive ways of prayer.
Unfortunately, "Dark Night" has become a term used very loosely to designate any difficult or depressing time in life. But this is not the meaning St. John of the Cross gives to "Dark Night." These two stages are not brought about by external events, such as the loss of a job or the death of a loved one. Instead, they are brought about by God alone, who uses the Dark Nights to purge the soul of attachments to the things of this world.
Let us look at the first Dark Night, that of the senses. As said previously, this stage of prayer forms the bridge between the fourth and fifth levels of prayer, or between the purgative and illuminative ways. At this stage, God becomes the primary initiator of prayer, not man. Whereas in the purgative way, man's primary duty is to actively cooperate with grace, at this level, man's duty is to be passively receptive to grace.
But what does the Dark Night of Senses consist of? Primarily it involves a prolonged series of aridities in which the soul experiences dryness in prayer. It is a painful state that tests the soul to see if it desires prayer for the consolations or because it desires God Himself. At this stage, the ability to meditate becomes difficult, even painful, as no fruit comes from it and the Holy Spirit wants to move the soul from meditation to contemplation.
Why is this painful stage necessary? Why is it the bridge between the purgative and illuminative ways? It is necessary so that the soul can be purged of defects that still exist within it, defects which prevent the soul from being passively receptive to God's grace. Note that at this stage the person is very spiritual and is basically living a life of virtue. But that does not mean that the soul does not still have defects that keep it from God. What are some of these defects? There are three primary ones:
(a) Spiritual Gluttony: the soul has an inordinate attachment to consolations and begins to see them as ends, not means to the end.
(b) Spiritual Sloth: a laziness which creeps into the soul in which it does not strive for perfection anymore but is content with mediocrity in the spiritual life.
(c) Spiritual Pride: Since at this stage one is truly advancing in virtue, it is easy to become spiritually proud and to look down on others. But of course pride is the worst of sins and keeps one away from God.
This stage too is a spiritually dangerous one, perhaps the most dangerous of them all. Up to this Dark Night the soul has advanced in virtue, holiness and prayer. Yet at this stage it appears that one is backsliding: consolations disappear, temptations become greater and meditation dries up. So a person might flee from the Dark Night and regress into lower levels of prayer. The proper response to this temptation to regress, however, is renewing your trust in God, continuing to utilize acquired recollection in prayer, abstaining from seeking consolation, and seeking counsel from a good spiritual director.
If one does make it through the Dark Night of Senses, then he can move into the illuminative way of prayer, in which God becomes the primary initiator of prayer.
The Illuminative Way
With the fifth level of prayer, we have moved through the Dark Night of Senses and into the illuminative way of prayer. We have moved from prayer that is initiated by man to prayer initiated by God. We have moved from meditation to contemplation.
Level 5: Infused Contemplation
One of the most important things to note about this level of prayer is this: every Christian is called to infused contemplation. It is a common belief that only contemplative nuns or monks are called to infused contemplation, but one of the corollaries of Vatican II's emphasis on the universal call to holiness is the recognition that all followers of Christ can - and should - eventually be at this level of prayer.
What is infused contemplation? It is the experiential knowledge of God that is infused into the soul by God. In other words, it is the invasion of the soul by the supernatural. In this stage, the soul is permeated and penetrated by Someone else. Note that to reach this level, the soul must be in the state of sanctifying grace; someone in mortal sin is not a receptive vessel for the Holy Spirit. Also, the soul who reaches this level of prayer does not discontinue the practice of virtue or charity; in fact, it usually will intensify.
There are a number of characteristics of this level of prayer, including:
(a) The impossibility of producing this mystical experience by one's own efforts. One cannot "turn on" infused contemplation or turn it off, for that matter.
(b) The soul is more passive than active. In the previous forms of prayer, the soul was actively reaching for God; in this stage, the soul reclines and waits to receive God.
(c) The knowledge gained through infused contemplation is indescribable. When reading the writings of a St. Theresa or St. John of the Cross, one often notes how these saints struggle to actually describe their mystical experiences. They use metaphors, but even these must fall far short of the mark.
(d) A dramatic new living of Christian virtue. At this stage, one can truly do what St. Paul so often writes about: live "in Christ." It is truly "no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me."
Level 6: Prayer of Quiet
At this stage, one is still involved in infused contemplation, but it includes a special captivating of the will. It is "infused contemplation plus," so to speak. This level of prayer brings great spiritual delight, as the soul is absorbed in contemplating the presence of God. Whereas level 5 has a special emphasis on the intellect (knowledge of divine things), this stage has a special emphasis on the will (love of divine things). There is an analogy between levels 5/6 and levels 2/3: levels 2 & 5 primarily work in the arena of the intellect, whereas levels 3 & 6 are involved in the arena of the will.
One of the great benefits of this level of prayer is that often it can be experienced while the intellect is otherwise occupied. For example, the farmer tending his garden can experience the prayer of quiet during his gardening. St. Theresa said that at this level, the person experiences such an interior peace and quiet that even speaking wearies it.
Next we will explore the bridge between the illuminative and unitive ways: the Dark Night of the Soul.
The Dark Night of the Soul
"The Dark Night of the Soul" is a commonly used phrase, but as we saw when exploring the first Dark Night (that of the senses), it is most often misunderstood and misused. The true Dark Night of the Soul is the bridge between the illuminative and unitive ways, in which the soul is purged not of the lower elements of the soul, but instead of the higher faculties of intellect, will and memory.
At this stage, even infused contemplation is not possible; every faculty of the soul experiences dryness. In many ways, it is like a purgatory before death. But God reveals Himself in this darkness, and it leads to total union with Him.
But why is this necessary? Like the first Dark Night, it purges the soul of defects. One might be tempted to think that a soul at this advanced stage of prayer has no real defects, but this is not the case. A few of the defects the Dark Night of the Soul purges include:
(a) Involuntary distractions in prayer. At this stage one can still encounter the inability of the intellect and will to keep focus.
(b) Dullness in prayer. As one grows accustomed to infused contemplation, he can begin to lack full sensitivity to spiritual things. It is a type of spiritual sloth.
(c) Temptation to over-zealousness instead of charity. It is very easy at this stage to desire the same joys for our brothers and sisters in Christ that we overwhelm them in trying to help them. Instead of relying on God to move them forward, we try to force them along.
During this Dark Night of the Soul, the person experiences the final purification of the will. Any egotism, either conscious or unconscious, is replaced by a complete acceptance to the will of God. And that is the point of this stage: to unite one's will completely with God's will, so that the soul wants nothing other than what God wants.
After passing through the Dark Night of the Soul, one moves onto the unitive way of prayer, which we will explore next.
The Unitive Way
Now we are at the last stages of prayer, the unitive way. This is the way of the "perfect," those who have totally abandoned themselves to God and His holy will. At these stages, the soul does not experience distractions and has a complete certitude of intimate union with God. There is no tedium or weariness in prayer, even though it is quite intense at this level. This is the highest level of purification: the saint can only make a naked act of faith. He is not dependent on any consolations, either of the senses or the higher facilities of intellect, will or memory; in other words, he does not believe in and love God because of what God does for him, but instead simply because He is God.
Level 7: Simple Union
During the prayer of simple union, all internal faculties, including the intellect and the will, are gradually captivated and occupied with God. What is not captivated? Only the external bodily senses. Otherwise, the soul is totally united to God.
Level 8: Conforming Union
This is also called "spiritual betrothal," where both the internal and external senses are absorbed in the presence of the divine. At this stage, the person is in "ecstacy" where their body no longer responds to outside stimuli and is completely captivated by God.
Level 9: Transforming Union
If Level 8 is "spiritual betrothal," then Level 9 is "spiritual marriage." Conforming union involved the consent of the will to union, but transforming union is the union itself. This is the highest grade of perfection in prayer, and St. John of the Cross said it is "nothing less than a transformation into God." It is at this stage that deification occurs, and by grace we become more divine than human. Our entire being is captivated by God and everything we do is completely united to God. The soul and God are so united at this stage that they cannot be separated.
The observant reader of this article might notice that I spent much less space describing these three levels than any of the other six. The reason for this is simple: they are so beyond human language, and they have been experienced by so few people, that detailed explanations are impossible. At these stages, one must simply follow the promptings of God as He leads you into complete union with Him.
If this article has whet your appetite for learning more about Christian prayer, then the following books all should help you in that process. I would recommend first reading Dubay's books (especially "Fire Within"), as they give the "lay of the land" that you need before you can really understand the works of the Spanish saints.
But by far the best way to learn about prayer is to pray! So keep praying!
- "Deep Conversion, Deep Prayer" by Fr. Thomas Dubay
- "Fire Within: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and the Gospel-On Prayer" by Fr. Thomas Dubay
- "The Way of Perfection" by St. Teresa of Avila
- "Interior Castle" by St. Teresa of Avila
- "Ascent of Mount Carmel" by St. John of the Cross
- "The Dark Night" by St. John of the Cross