1. Vocal Prayer
3. Affective Prayer
4. Acquired Recollection
Transformation stage: Dark Night of the Senses
5. Infused Contemplation
6. Prayer of Quiet
Transformation stage: Dark Night of the Soul
7. Simple Union
8. Conforming Union
9. Transforming Union
The above seven types, or “Ways”, of prayer outlined in bold above are those that God has set for us to participate in on our journey to Him in this life. We will go through each of them, starting with vocal prayer, the prayers we learned as children, all the way up to a complete joining into God, what they entail, what transformation stages are and what happens during them, and what the different groupings, or “Ways”, mean. There are three things we must remember about prayer: the first is that it is to search out the Lord, the second is to let ourselves be alone with the Lord, and the third is to look upon our Lord God within us.
“We need no wings to go in search of Him [God]”
Saint Teresa of Avila
These beginning stages of prayer are where we take our base selves or ascetical purification, meaning we submit ourselves to grace to focus on the Lord. Prayer needs to be with two things: attention and devotion. If we let our minds wander during Mass or prayer it invalidates what we are doing because we are loving the things we think about and not loving God.
Vocal prayers are things we Cradle Christians learn as kids, a time when we necessarily do not have the mental capacity to truly understand or reflect on what the Apostles Creed means or the weight of what a Hail Mary contains. If you were baptized as a child, feel away from the faith, and have come back to it, there Vocal prayers help us to purify our souls. Each sin we commit adds a taint to the body that oppresses the soul. So the more pure the soul and depending on how much time we spend praying a day the faster we can go through the levels. Vocal prayer never leaves our lives, you will be hard pressed to find a mystic that did not say vocal prayers in their final days.
This is a stage that we can truly start to think about how God can relate to our lives. This is the first step in creating Heaven on Earth within ourselves. In Saint Teresa's book Interior Castle God reveals to her the infrastructure of the Soul, it is like a crystal castle with seven mansions, the Holy Trinity is in the center of the seventh. Outside there are two stages there was only darkness filled with traps and dangerous creatures. Once we get through the first two stages we enter the crystal castle and are less tempted by our animal desires.
There are three elements to meditation:
Consideration: Think about a mystical matter and wonder at the implications of it. For example, think about the hour in Gethsemane, in which Christ bore the full weight of all our sins.
Application: Apply the truth to one’s spiritual life. We understand how difficult it can be to focus on prayer and meditation because of our animal desires, how oppressive that is to a spiritual life. Think about that sin was so oppressive to Christ, his blood was squeezed out of him.
Resolution: Come up with a plan to apply this truth into your life. Think about or pray on your most regular sin and do small things to avoid committing said sin.
God calls us to go through Purgatory on earth in constant prayer, mediation is the way to get serious about that undertaking. 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.
In the previous stage one uses their intellect to apply Holy works to their life and grow in virtue. Eventually the Holy Spirit will start to impress consolations on the Will. This means loving the Lord for the sake of love will come more naturally and one will wish to spend more time in prayer. The Will naturally makes promises, with the help of grace, to do such things to grow in virtue. We understand Christ's sacrifice and the Lord's love at a deeper level in this stage. While there are a lot of benefits from prayer one must not fall into the trap of growing in virtue for the sake of being better but for the sake of loving the Lord. Spiritual Gluttony is a major danger and can cause you to forget that you must continue to grow and eventually have a Union with God.
It is simply the prayer of acquired recollection, a simple love or gaze on some divine object, whether on God Himself, His nature, the Holy Eucharist, some Christian truth or mystery. The former reasoning and affection have now been transformed into a simple loving attention on the divine. The prayer is the last grade of ascetical prayer, meaning that the soul is able to attain this prayer by its own effort with the help of ordinary grace. There is no particular method for this prayer. All it takes is a simple loving gaze and attention amid a great deal of sacred space and quietude. However, it takes a certain intensity of God's grace or Energy to do so, i.e., the intensity which builds up through the former three grades of prayer. (cf. “Spiritual Theology”, pp.327-328)
So at this stage, simply looking upon a holy object should come naturally and absolutely should not be forced. For example do not leave your child to sit in front of the Cross and stare at it or they may associate prayer with boredom. Since this stage comes naturally all one must do is to spend time in front of, for example the Eucharist exposed to gain the sufficient graces to move on to the next stage. This is a balancing act, being too eager can cause Spiritual Gluttony and one can lose interest in loving the Lord or one can be too slothful and be stuck in this stage. Pray for guidance and be mindful of your disposition.
Dark Night of the Senses
Many may have read St. John of the Cross' book “The Dark Night", but secular society misunderstands what he truly meant by "Dark Night". As you can see on the list above there are two Dark Nights: the Dark Night of the Senses and Dark Night of the Soul. The former is a bridge between the first and second ways of contemplation. God and only Him can cause the Dark Night to happen. He uses this event to purge the soul of attachments to the things of this world. So it's not so much getting over the loss of a loved one or the loss of a job as secular society describes.
This stage lasts as long as it takes for God to purge the soul of defects or attachments. Many enjoy this world but this world is finite so as God removes enjoyment of this world He replaces it with a deeper love for Himself. At this stage a soul is practically living in virtue but may still have some defects, such as Spiritual Gluttony, Spiritual Pride, and Spiritual Sloth.
Spiritual Gluttony - A person experiences this when they enjoy the gifts from prayer and not pray for the love of the Lord
Spiritual Pride - this is an advanced stage of prayer that many do not reach, it is easy to feel like one is superior to others.
Spiritual Sloth - This being an advanced stage one may feel like they have gotten to a good enough point in their spiritual life and may not wish to continue.
It is easy to get discouraged in this stage, there is a lot of spiritual dryness so prayer can be painful and may take longer than one feels is right. Double down when you are tempted with such feelings. Pray for faith and guidance and see a good spiritual director. There are more mountains to climb.
Stated early, God desires us to reach complete Union with Him on earth. It is, however, a common belief that only contemplative nuns or monks are called to Infused Contemplation Infused contemplation is a take over of the soul by the Divine. To be in this stage a person needs to be in Grace (so get to confession!). When one gets to this stage virtues near double meaning you will see yourself become more charitable and virtuous. To help you tell if you have reached this level of prayer, Fr. Aumann lists twelve characteristics of Infused Contemplation (cf. Ibid., pp.331-336):
1. It is an unmistakable experience of God in our lives and his effect on us experimentally and intellectually.
2. The invasion of the soul by the Holy Spirit -The soul feels in an unmistakable manner that it is permeated with something it cannot describe with precision but it is life changing.
3. This experience lasts as long as the Holy Spirit desires
4. God leads the contemplation, the soul cannot choose.
5. The experience with the Holy Spirit is far from clear and distinct.
6. During the experience God’s existence cannot be denied although someone may doubt afterward.
7. Being at this level of prayer gives one a certain moral certitude while being in a state of grace compared to other Christians.
8. This experience with the Holy Spirit is beyond any bound of language
9.This experience could last a few hours or just be a divine touch
10. While this experience is very intense mentally it also comes with a list of different visceral reactions. They would be the
“eyes becoming clouded and dull, the organism is weak and intermittent, with an occasional deep breathing as if trying to absorb the necessary quantity of air; the limbs are partly paralyzed; the heat of the body decreases, especially in the extremities…" (Ibid., p.334)
These are just a few of the experiences known to have occurred when truly engaged in this type of prayer.
11. Mystical prayer is such an intense experience one cannot focus on anything but the Lord because He is so perfect and we are so far from Him.
12. The surest sign of true contemplation is that when a person is done with this prayer there is greater impulse to lead a more virtuous life. With constant effort each time a person does this prayer they get a little more virtuous, even may add those virtues that are too hard for someone to attain in life.
Prayer of Quiet
“The prayer of quiet is a type of mystical prayer in which the intimate awareness of God's presence captivates the will and fills the soul and body with ineffable sweetness and delight. The fundamental difference between the prayer of quiet and that of infused recollection, apart from the greater intensity of contemplative light and more intense consolations, is that the prayer of quiet gives the soul an actual possession and joyful fruition of the sovereign Good." (“Spiritual Theology”, p. 337)
As the quotation above says, the Prayer of Quiet is a focus on the Will over the Intellect. Infused contemplation is an emphasis on the Will. This essentially means that those in this level of prayer experience a deeper understanding of the Lord, the Holy Spirit inflames the mind. Since this is an influence of the Intellect one can enter into the Prayer of Quiet while the body is occupied with labors. This is the last stage of the Illuminative Way of prayer so the next stage to undergo is the Dark Night of the Soul.
The Dark Night of the Soul
This is one of the most painful stages of prayer because it is complete dryness. All defects of virtue from a person, when one goes through this stage one all of the defects of the Intellect and the Will get purged. So any concept of selfishness either conscious or unconscious gets purged and replaced with a complete understanding of God’s will. This can be equivalent to what we go through while we are in Purgatory. The best news is that God completely reveals Himself to us, but the pain is necessary for these reasons:
1. Involuntary distractions in prayer - At this stage one can still encounter the inability of the intellect and will to keep focus.
2. 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.
3. Temptation to over-zealousness instead of charity - One naturally desires the same joys he is experiencing for his brothers and sisters in Christ, but in his zeal, instead of relying on God to move them forward, he tries to force them along.
Fr. Aumann describes the simple union as being “that grade of mystical prayer in which all the internal faculties are gradually captivated and occupied with God.” and further noting that “Only the external bodily senses are now free." (“Spiritual Theology”, p. 340)
St. Teresa goes further, noting that this type of prayer is “very definitely a union of the entire soul with God” (“The Interior Castle”, Fifth Mansions, Chap. 1), and goes on to describe it as being akin to having a conversation with anyone in that it is “as if we were speaking to one person while another person is speaking to us, with the result that we cannot be fully attentive to the one or the other” (Ibid.), so it can only happen if we are able to listen to what God is saying back to us.
So essentially all interior faculties including memory and imagination focus themselves on the Lord while the physical senses remain under our control. Fr. Aumann gives us a list of characteristics to help us recognise this stage:
1. Absence of distractions - The reason for this is that the memory and imagination, which are the faculties that usually cause distraction, are now fixed on God and held captive. There may be a return to lower grades of prayer from time to time, and then distractions may again disturb the soul, but during the prayer of union distractions are psychologically impossible.
2. Certitude of being intimately united with God - The soul cannot doubt that it experiences God during the prayer of union. On leaving the lower grades of prayer, the soul may experience certain doubts or fears that it was not truly united with God, or that it was deceived by the devil, but in the prayer of union the certitude of experiencing God is so absolute that St. Teresa maintains that, if the soul does not experience this certitude, it did not have the true prayer of union.
3. Absence of weariness and tedium - The soul absorbed in God never wearies of its union with the Beloved. It is overwhelmed with delight, and however long the prayer of union may last, the soul never experiences any fatigue. For that reason, St. Teresa says that this grade of prayer can never do any harm to the individual, no matter how long it may last.
This stage has a few names, Spiritual Betrothal, Spiritual Espousal, or Ecstatic Union. At this stage the physical senses join the interior and the entire person focuses on the Lord, leaving no room for distractions. Saint Teresa’s provides us with two thoughts on this stage. We will see what the Lord does to confirm this betrothal, what it is like to undergo a rapure, meaning what its like for the soul to leave the body, and "the soul saw that it was so near to such great majesty, it might perhaps be unable to remain alive…” (“The Interior Castle”, “Sixth Mansions”) After this Saint Teresa notes that the soul will feel more alive than ever before and be fully awake to the Lord's Majesty. To quote her “[T]he faculties are so completely absorbed that we might describe them as dead, and the senses are so as well, how can the soul be said to understand this secret? I cannot say, nor perhaps can any creature.” (ibid.)
One can think of this stage as Spiritual marriage, one becomes more a part of God than human and is completely enwrapped in the love of God. Saint Teresa describes this stage in six ways:
1. A forgetfulness of self - So complete that it seems as if the soul no longer existed. There is no longer any knowledge or remembrance of heaven or life or honor as regards the soul, so completely is it absorbed in seeking the honor of God. The soul lives in a state of forgetfulness so that it has no longer and remembrance of life on Earth.
2. A great desire to suffer - For now, the desire does not disturb the soul at all. So great is the soul's longing that the will of God be done in it that it accepts whatever God wills as the best for it.
3. Joy in persecution - When the soul is persecuted, it experiences great interior joy and much more peace than formerly. It bears no enmity toward those who treat it badly or desire to do so. Rather, it conceives a special love for such persons, and if it were to see such persons come to love the Lord.
4. Desire to serve God - Whereas the soul formerly suffered because of its longing to die and to be with God, it now experiences a strong desire to serve God and to help any soul that it can. There is a strong sensation to live a long, prosperous life and to help as many souls as possible to see the glory of the Lord.
5. Detachment from everything created - The desires of the soul are no longer for consolations because the soul realizes that now the Lord himself dwells within it. As a result, the soul experiences a marked detachment from everything, and a desire to be alone or to be occupied with something that will be beneficial to the soul.
6. Absence of ecstasies - Upon reaching this state, the soul has no more raptures. The great weakness that formerly was the occasion for raptures has now given place to a great strength granted by God.
Whilst there is a lot of information to take in here and granting that this process cannot be rushed, love God for He is good. I leave you with a list of books that I found helpful in my research, if you feel inclined to do more reading, and encourage you to look up the Legio Christi reading list (which has curated lists for Catholic and Orthodox readers.
By Saint Teresa of Ávila
- “The Way of Perfection”
- “The Interior Castle”
By Saint John of the Cross
- “Ascent of Mount Carmel” by St. John of the Cross
- “The Dark Night of the Soul” by St. John of the Cross
- “Fire Within: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and the Gospel-On Prayer” by Fr. Thomas Dubay
- “Deep Conversion, Deep Prayer” by Fr. Thomas Dubay
- “Divine Intimacy” by Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, O.C.D.
- “Spiritual Theology” by Fr Jordan Aumann
The Legio Christi Reading List may be found at https://legiochristi.com/reading-list