How to Pray: The Stages of the Catholic Prayer Life

St. Thérèse of Lisieux once wrote that, “prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy” (Manuscrits autobiographiques, C 25r.).

St. John Damascene wrote that, “Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God” (Defide orth. 3,24: PG 94, 1089C.)

St Augustine adds that “prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst with ours. God thirsts that we may thirst for him” (De diversis quaestionibus octoginta tribus 64,4: PL 40, 56.).


Prayer is a lot of things.

Aside from the Eucharist, there is no more examined aspect of our faith than that of prayer. Saints and mystics have proposed myriads of methods, liturgies, verbiage, postures, and songs to help us delve deeper into the act of prayer. There’s enough literature devoted to learning how to pray to fill a cathedral-sized library twelve times over.

Where you are in your prayer life depends on many factors:

The state of your soul
Your holy longings
Your tendencies toward distraction
Your emotions
Your intellect
Your will
Your schedule

But in the grand scheme of things prayer isn’t a set of metrics or a spoken incantation of sorts– it’s a calling. Paul’s letter to the Romans tells us that “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans” (Romans 8:26).

These “wordless groans” prompt our souls at every second of our lives and, consequently, demand a response on our part.

How we react is deemed prayer.

The Catholic Church teaches that there are certain steps that we are called to by the spirit in order to travel into a deeper, more meaningful prayer life. They are as follows:

Vocal prayer

When we are young, we are taught the pray by speaking to God using our oral words. We memorize prayers, recite them, and converse with our Lord in silent or audible conversation. We can also sing, recite the rosary or pray the Liturgy of the Hours in this method of prayer. In fact, the greatest of all prayers, the Holy Mass, is celebrated vocally and would fit into this category as well.

Vocal prayer is where we start.

Meditative prayer

Meditative prayer takes vocal prayer one step further and unites the words with the imagination of the one prayer. When we read scripture and place ourselves in the scenes as if we were there is an example of meditative prayer. Lectio divina, where one reads a few verses from Scripture and ponders them in silence is meditative prayer. In this method, the Spirit not only prompts us to respond, but invites us to participate in the life of faith. Through Christ, through whom all prayer is devoted, we learn how to imitate Him.

Meditative prayer is the second step toward gaining a deeper prayer life.

Contemplative Prayer

Contemplative prayer takes the fundamentals of vocal prayer, the knowledge gained from meditative prayer, and unites them with a metaphysical understanding of God’s all-encompassing power, knowledge, strength and love. By the grace of wisdom, a contemplative can peer into the world and see not only the beauty of created nature, but the heavens that dwell therein. Through contemplation, the whole world is illuminated by the Spirit. One sees things as God sees them, and responds to them as God responds – with a divine outpouring of love.

Active Prayer

Active prayer takes what is learned from vocal, meditative, and/or contemplative prayer and applies it into the world through charity. Love becomes manifest in our actions be they as small as a smile or as big as taking final vows to enter the religious life. Giving of our time, talent and treasure is how we show the world that we are Catholic. It is what gives our faith life (James 2:17).

Prayer, then, more than the mere sum of our methods and traits.

It is the vast array of dialogue we have with others, ourselves and out Lord.

It is the desire to act, as well as the subsequent actions (or inactions) that follow.

It is our interaction with nature.

It is a simple, or complex, thought.

It is the understanding of learned knowledge and the wisdom to know what to do with said intelligence.

It is the asking for and receiving of grace.

It is the strength and power to press on when life is difficult.

It is the elation of joy when we hear good news.

In short, prayer isn’t just one thing.

Prayer is everything.

Photo by Francesco Alberti on Unsplash


T.J. Burdick the author of several books and articles on the Catholic faith. He writes and speaks on how to grow in holiness amongst the distractions and difficulties of the current age. When he is not spending time with his family or writing books, you can find him teaching courses on the Catholic faith through Signum Dei ( For more about T.J., visit his site at

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage