Ways to Grow in Prayer

Prayer is Relationship with Godshutterstock_136197008 (1)

Prayer is crucial to the most important relationship a human person can have.  Among relationships, a personal relationship with God in Christ is the one true foundation that determines the truth of all other relationships.  To the extent that we are not in Him, not walking daily in Him, not living in real communion with Him – to that extent all other relationships are built upon foundations that are at best weak, and at worst false.

St. John Vianney wrote that prayer is nothing other than union with God.  Prayer is union with God!  Another way to say it is, our relationship with God is our prayer.  If we have, in truth, some measure of union with God, then we have to that measure “prayer.”  This may be quite different from the usual understanding of prayer!  For many, prayer is something that we read or recite from memory to God – or perhaps it is a list of favors we ask or plead from Him.  We need to come to understand that prayer is dialogue, not monologue.  Prayer is relationship, not solitude.  Prayer is union with God.

The Catechism teaches this in several places. We find, “This relationship [of the faithful with God] is prayer.” (Catechism 2558)  And again, “Christian prayer is a covenant relationship between God and man in Christ.” (Catechism 2564)  And again, “In the New Covenant, prayer is the living relationship of the children of God with their Father who is good beyond measure, with his Son Jesus Christ and with the Holy Spirit.” (Catechism 2565)

For our relationships with human persons to grow, the foundational relationship we have with God must grow: we must grow in Him.  For our relationship with God to grow, our life of prayer must grow.  It is that simple.  Our present life of prayer is a measure of the relationship that we have with Him, here and now.  Our foundational relationship with God grows, or it stagnates, as our life of prayer grows, or stagnates.

The Journey of Prayer is a Journey in Stages

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.

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:

I. Ascetical Prayer – that which we can do, with ordinary grace.

  1. Vocal prayer – with words, either formula or spontaneous.
  2. 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.
  3. Prayer of Simplicity – increasingly simple and more focused prayer of meditation, with increasing love.

II. Mystical Prayer – that which only God can initiate, with extraordinary grace.

  1. Prayer of Quiet – infused contemplation.  God is experientially, personally present.  His glory is known in a wholly new and experiential way.
  2. Prayer of Union – the will comes into personal, experiential union with His.
  3. Prayer of Conforming Union – Teresa calls this the “spiritual betrothal” of the soul with her Spouse.
  4. 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, I think, 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.

I want to deal – briefly – with the beginnings of ascetical prayer.  I hope and trust that those who want to pursue the higher stages more carefully will look to the references provided.

1. Vocal Prayer

We all begin with vocal prayer.  Vocal prayer can be set formula prayers, such as the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the blessing before the meal, the many prayers in the Mass, and so on.  Vocal prayer can also be spontaneous, personal, individual, situation-dependent prayers of petition, of thanksgiving, of praise and so on: words of prayer flowing from the mind and heart of the believer to our Lord.

Vocal prayer is simple, but challenging.  We have all memorized a collection of formula prayers, which we can recite easily – but that does not mean we can pray them well.  Vocal prayer, to be prayed well, must be prayed with attention and devotion.  Indeed without attention and devotion, we can recite many beautiful words, but we have not yet prayed.  We must be attentive to Whom we pray, to who we are, praying before Him (that is, we need true self-knowledge),  and we need to be attentive to what we are saying, and praying.  And, we need devotion: a will devoted in loving obedience to the One to whom we pray.  Vocal prayer demands of us an attentive mind and an obedient heart.

It is important to see that even this beginning of prayer – vocal prayer – is a beginning of  union with God.  To the extent that we are attentive and devout in our vocal prayer – for example, in praying the Our Father – to that extent we are in union with Him.  We enter into Him, in the truth of the precious words of that holy prayer.  We can never “outgrow” devoutly prayed vocal prayer!

On the other hand, a vocal prayer such as the Our Father is temptingly easy to simply recite without giving the first thought to God, or to our journey of discipleship in Christ!  We can be standing in Mass, reciting words, but meanwhile day-dreaming or planning some unrelated task for later.  Vocal prayer – especially formula vocal prayers – have great potential for good.  Yet they also allow us merely to act as if in prayer, while actually we are far away.  Prayer is a battle, and the battle begins when prayer begins.

2. Meditation

Vocal prayer prayed well – such that attention and devotion become habitual in the soul – leads the soul “naturally” (supernaturally) into Christian mediation, or mental prayer.  Being attentive to God in vocal prayer stirs the mind to hunger for more – and the more is found in meditation.  Christian meditation is the engagement of the mind with the truth of God, that we might know Him, that we might love Him, that we might live His truth and love.

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!

image: Shutterstock
R. Thomas Richard

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R. Thomas Richard, Ph.D., together with his wife Deborah, currently offers parish adult formation opportunities, and programs for Returning Catholics.  He has served the Church in religious formation, lay ministry and deacon formation, and retreat direction.  He is the author of several articles in Homiletic and Pastoral Review, as well as books on Catholic spirituality, prayer, and the Mass - which are described on his website, www.renewthechurch.com.  He also publishes a blog at renewthechurch.wordpress.com.

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