Posted by: Thomas Richard | June 26, 2017

Our Need for Prayer

Mother Teresa troubled the West when she noted that for all the wealth of our materialism, we are victims and perpetrators of a deeper poverty than the material poverty she knew back in her beloved India.  She saw among us – citizens of a developed nation, a modern and advanced society – persons rejected, abandoned, alone.  She spoke of babies rejected and aborted because they would require care, and love, and sacrifice.  She spoke of the “disease” among the living of persons uncared for, unloved – a cultural poverty of love:

The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love. The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty — it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.

― Mother Teresa, A Simple Path: Mother Teresa

There can be a kind of love without God – but it is thin, shallow, transient.  Such love is never enough; it is barren, untrustworthy, unfaithful. The true hunger of persons for love is the deep longing for home, for our Origen, for our Destiny, for the meaning and reason for our very being.  We cannot know such love apart from sacrifice, from self-gift, and from the receiving of the gift of another. Love completes us, and the only love that can still the deepest longing of our hearts, is the love that completes us to finality, to perfection, into timeless peace.  “There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.”

Christians have the greatest promise ever dreamed of in the history of all creation, and it is no dream: it is real, a real promise, an assurance, a treasure waiting to be received and gathered into each precious self, each person, each soul.  God is seeking to be sought.  God is seeking to be found.  God is waiting to be asked; He is the flame of divine and eternal love, waiting to set ablaze human hearts grown cold in guarded and lonely chambers of isolation.  God waits to pour life into souls lingering or wandering in the shadow of death, if we will but seek Him!

Prayer is our call to God, the ever-near God who waits.  Prayer is the journey to life, the journey to Him.  It is the journey to Him, all the while always with Him.  We cannot take a step to Him, except with Him – indeed, except in Him, and He in us, an ever-present Companion.  He reveals Himself only when it is time, and only enough to enable our strength for the day.  He is calling us to holiness!  He is calling us to life, to love, to communion – and because He calls us to Himself, the hunger in our hearts is deep, and strong: we must respond.

The Journey of Prayer

The journey of prayer then is a journey of response to this place in our hearts made for God, made by God, satisfied by no other love but holy love, of and for the one true God.  The journey of prayer is a journey of meeting with God, of communion with Him, progressively deeper and higher in communion with Him.  Therefore the path both descends, deeper and deeper into our own souls, and ascends, higher and higher to Him.  The journey of prayer proceeds with greater and greater engagement with God, if and as we continue to grow in the interior life of prayer.  In the very depths of the soul is I myself – who I am – my own unique name as God knows me and has created me.  If then, in my ascent to Him in prayer, I come finally to meet Him there, in the depths and center of my soul, then my prayer has reached its rightful end, even here on this earth and in this body.

Stages, or Grades, of Prayer

  •  Vocal Prayer

The journey of prayer proceeds in stages: Vocal Prayer, Meditation, Contemplation.  We begin with vocal prayer – either “formula” vocal prayers such as the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the common prayer of blessing before meals, the Glory Be, and so on, or “spontaneous” vocal prayers that are prayers simply prayed in our own words.  This is the way we typically begin to pray – words spoken, directed to God either directly or through the intercession of some saint.  For many people, this is also the only way that praying is understood!  But prayer includes more, much more, than “words spoken, directed to God” directly or indirectly.

The essential requirements to pray vocal prayer well, and fruitfully, are to pray slowly, carefully, attentively, with devotion:

  1. pray with careful attentiveness, slowly, giving careful attention to what is being prayed: to every word offered in the prayer,
  2. pray with reverent devotion and commitment to the words prayed; with a faithful sincere heart, with careful intent to be obedient to the meaning, the words, the intention of the prayer.
  • Meditation

If we advance in prayer, we advance to include meditation, or mental prayer, as a way of praying along with our vocal prayers.  We never “outgrow” the beautiful written vocal prayers of the Church – indeed the Our Father is our model for prayer, the perfect prayer.  But vocal prayer, prayed well, invites us to pray better – more deeply – more completely – with our whole mind and heart.  Vocal prayer prayed well invites us into meditation.

Meditation in the Christian sense is the intentional engagement of the mind – thus “mental prayer” – with the works and words of God.  Fitting for meditation would be portions of Holy Scripture, for example: devoting time to carefully listening to a portion of Scripture, seeking to hear and understand it as fully and deeply as possible, seeking to fully open one’s own mind and heart to this passage which is “of God”.  In this way we seek to know Him more and more, in truth, and to understand His will and His ways, so as to love Him with our whole mind, and heart, and soul – by seeking to live in obedience to His will and His ways.

As vocal prayer has two “kinds” – formula and spontaneous – so mediation has three “kinds”.  The three kinds of meditation are usually experienced in a sequence, each progressive kind being “deeper” and more “simple” than the preceding one: first discursive meditation, or effort to understand or grasp with the mind, using reasoning; then affective meditation, with more intense affect of the heart; and finally the prayer of simplicity, deep and intense engagement with great focus on matters of simplicity, purity, and mystical profundity.

  • Contemplation

The last-listed “kind” of meditation, the prayer of simplicity, might be called (and has been called) “acquired contemplation,” but it is not yet true contemplation – it is still meditation.  All of the grades or stages of prayer listed so far belong in the category of ascetical prayer; the kinds of prayers of contemplation, rightly understood, belong in the category of mystical prayer.

Ascetical and mystical prayer are radically, importantly and significantly different.  Ascetical prayer can be prayed with ordinary habitual grace – the grace common to all in “the state of grace” and fellowship with Christ.  All Christians in the state of grace given in Baptism can pray in the mode of ascetical prayer – all kinds of vocal prayer and all kinds of Christian meditation.  Mystical prayer is different; contemplation, rightly understood, is different.  Contemplation is a work of God the Holy Spirit not a work of man; it is initiated and caused by actual grace (not caused by, but still requiring the presence of ordinary habitual grace) infused into – given to – the soul by God’s initiative.  Man cannot “do” contemplation; it is given to him.

There are five “kinds” of the mystical prayer, contemplation, all connoting stages of deepening, increasing spiritual union with God: contemplation as first experienced is called simply “infused contemplation.”  The next grade of contemplation is called “the prayer of quiet,” after that, “the prayer of union,” and then, “the prayer of conforming union,” and finally, “the prayer of transforming union.”  This last grade or stage of contemplation, the transforming union, is also called the spiritual marriage of the soul with God. It is identified with the seventh mansions of St. Teresa’s Interior Castle; it is the highest level of union with God possible in this life.

Concluding Thoughts

In the beginnings of prayer – vocal prayer, using prayers such as the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the whole Rosary – we are beginning a conversation with God.  In this beginning, it may be that we do all the talking, and possibly not even wait for God to respond!  But this beginning of a conversation is intended by God to grow, to develop, to mature.  The fullness of development, of maturity, of conversation with God is in the higher levels of contemplation, especially the last kind of prayer listed here, the prayer of transforming union.  I hope that this brief post on the journey of prayer can encourage you to pray more, to pray with greater attention and devotion, to expand your praying into the prayers of meditation upon Holy Scripture, and on to the threshold of holy contemplation, and beyond.

“Assignment for the Learner”

The Our Father is an excellent prayer (it is the perfect prayer!) to pray, and to meditate upon in prayer.  I have a guided meditation on this prayer on my website, linked here:

An Interior Pilgrimage for the Soul

The first page (the link above) is an introduction, ending with a link to a page beginning the meditation/pilgrimage.  Try a plan of one page of the pilgrimage per day, until you complete the whole Our Father – and for the rest of each day, focus on the whole prayer the Our Father, especially the verse/petition especially highlighted for that day.

There is a space for comments/responses at the bottom of each web page – I’d appreciate hearing from you any questions or comments, especially about any way or ways this guided meditation has been helpful to you.

Learn more about the art and the science of prayer!  I list some resources below:

Resources:

  1. Spiritual Theology, by Fr. Jordan Aumann, O.P.  Pages (on Prayer): 221-248.  This book can be read on-line, for free.  Fr. Aumann discusses all of these grades of prayer.  An on-line copy is HERE
  2. The Ordinary Path to Holiness, by R. Thomas Richard, Chapter 4: Growing in Holiness: Prayer.  Sorry, no copies available free on-line, only for purchase, paperback or Kindle reader.  (See Amazon: LINK )
  3. Encountering Christ in Holy Scripture with Lectio Divina, by R. Thomas Richard.  Sorry, no copies available free on-line, only for purchase for the Kindle reader.  (See Amazon: LINK )

Responses

  1. Dear Thomas,

    How I thank God for His gifts to you and thank you for your willingness to share with all who seek to worship Him in Spirit and in Truth! May all of us who read this blog article, follow the graces God gives us to pray well, and be continually blessed by more graces to become all we are called to be!

    Mary, Mother of the Church, pray for us.
    St. Joseph, Protector of the Universal Church, pray for us.
    Jesus we trust in You!

  2. Very concise presentation about prayer
    it has made it all more clear to me. Thanks
    for the encouragement, it’ll be useful.

  3. This presentation was indeed very helpful.
    It will be useful especially at adoration.
    Thank you for pointing out the various stages,
    very important for one to deeply grow with the Lord in one’s spiritual life.

  4. Thank you, Thomas. I really love reading all of your blog entries. Your love of God just shines through. I agree we all need to pray more. I want to pray so God knows I love Him. I can’t read the links today, but I will tomorrow.


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