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Jan 26th, 2020 | The 23rd Times

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Growing in Prayer

By: Thomas Richard – Catholic Exchange

Many saints of the Church have discovered, and taught, that as one journeys through life, ones life of prayer can develop and grow – in stages – enabled by grace. We are called to grow in prayer, progressing by stages or grades of prayer, into ever-deeper and more intimate relationship with God in Christ.

There are two major levels of prayer: ascetical and mystical. Each of these levels is found in grades, or stages. The normal development of prayer, for a soul, is to begin at the beginning of ascetical prayer with vocal prayer, and then begin to advance, or grow, in the life of prayer. The normal journey is to advance through the stages of ascetical prayer up to the doorway of mystical prayer, and enter.

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By discipline and ordinary grace, one can advance through the stages of ascetical prayer – and the heights of ascetical prayer are beautiful and fruitful indeed. But mystical prayer is different: mystical prayer is a work of God, not man. Our part in mystical prayer is first of all to prepare for it, through the discipline of the stages of ascetical prayer. Then, if and when God sees an open and willing soul at His door, a door that He alone can open, and if and when He so blesses us, our part is to cooperate. Our part is not to obstruct in fear but rather to trust. Our part in mystical prayer is illuminated by Mary, through her whole life: “Let it be to me according to your word.”

The stages or grades of prayer are described in her own way in Teresa of Avila’s seven interior mansions, and are written of in the works of many saints. Fr. Jordan Aumann, among others, offers a modern systematic discussion of them; I have written a book on Catholic spirituality that includes these stages as part of the journey toward holiness.

Here is a list with brief descriptors of the traditional stages of the journey of prayer:

  • ASCETICAL PRAYER – we can do, with ordinary grace.
  • Vocal prayer – with words, either formula or spontaneous.
  • Meditation (mental prayer) – engagement of the mind with revealed truth, to come to know Him and to live His truth. This increasingly inflames the heart with holy love.
  • Prayer of Simplicity – increasingly simple and more focused prayer of meditation, with increasing love.
  • MYSTICAL PRAYER – only God can initiate, with extraordinary grace.
  • Prayer of Quiet – infused contemplation. God is experientially, personally present. His glory is known in a wholly new and experiential way.
  • Prayer of Union – the will comes into personal, experiential union with His.
  • Prayer of Conforming Union – Teresa calls this the “spiritual betrothal” of the soul with her Spouse.
  • Prayer of Transforming Union – Teresa calls this the “spiritual marriage” with the Spouse of our souls. Father Garrigou-Lagrange calls this “the prelude of the union of heaven.”

It is most helpful, to consider these stages of prayer (relationship or union with God) as comparable to stages of human relationships to which we can all relate. In vocal prayer we talk, in meditation we seek to know more deeply and intimately, in prayer of simplicity we are comfortable enough to use few if any words: being together is enough. But in mystical prayer, in the prayer of quiet, something different happens: the One we thought we were talking or being with, had been “at a distance” before. But now, He is here! He is really, actually here. Prayer has become fully dialogue – even though, and if, He never says a word in words. The prayers of union, in mystical prayer, increasingly bring about just that, analogous to the kind of love that leads to marriage: union, being one with the Other, the deepest longing of the heart. Scripture, the Catechism, writings of the saints – we have many solid sources for the prayer of meditation. We have a tradition of Lectio Divina that can help us learn to meditate. And once the soul begins to learn of Him, and grow in Him, and enter communion with Him in holy prayer – well, as a dear priest once told me, “Fasten your seat belts!” We were made for union with God! He made us in the divine image, and there is a certain compatibility of the human soul with Him – by design. In Him, by design, is our happiness.

In Him, in the communion of prayer, we find the foundation needed for all other relationships. Indeed the best of human relationships – marriage – point us to Him, our final end and purpose. In the communion of prayer, we find the foundation for our life!