Updated: Sep 28, 2022
An examination of the different stages of prayer
Photo from Wikimedia Commons
St. Teresa of Ávila is one of the most well-known nuns of the 16th century. She was a Spanish nun known for her austerity.
Teresa of Ávila is also one of the greatest mystics of the Catholic tradition. For hours, she devoted her time to prayer.
She once said: “For prayer is nothing else than being on terms of friendship with God.”
Photo from Wikimedia Commons
Some of her best insights was her analysis of the grades of prayer, detailed fully in 1577’s The Interior Castle.
She defined them as:
1. Vocal Prayer
2. Mental Prayer
3. Affective Prayer
4. Acquired Recollection
— Dark Night of the Senses
5. Infused Contemplation
6. Prayer of Quiet
— Dark Night of the Soul
7. Simple Union
8. Conforming Union
9. Transforming Union
The “Dark Night” in-between some of the stages will be familiar to those who have heard of St. John of the Cross, another Spanish mystic from this time. These are periods where God feels furthest away, bordering on despair; yet in these moments, God is closer to us than ever before. The ostensible separation and apparent loneliness during these times set up a great explosion of spiritual fruit in the future!
To advance from stage to stage requires some humbling by God. Job had to be humbled to become a greater man. Are we any different?
As you grow in virtue, you can climb up the ladder of prayers.
It should be your spiritual goal to reach level nine before you breathe your last.
Perhaps right now you are only on the second level, your mind can only pray on the second level, but with devout attention to prayer, and dedication to repentance, you can strive to achieve a higher ability of prayer before you die.
There is also a tenth level, St. Teresa says, unreachable in this life and reserved only for everyone who is in Heaven (called Prayer of Union in Heaven).
Teresa of Ávila is also known for her “7 mansions” of the Interior Castle
The First Four Levels
The first four levels are those which belong to the “ascetical stage.”
These are the temporal, or wordly, physical levels.
Level 1: Vocal Prayer
Words written or spoken in prayer.
Words said aloud have power. Holy words especially have power because they represent concepts of the divine, making those divine things take physical form, since they were said by something physical (you are physical!).
When God said “Let there be light,” there was light. When we say, “Bless us O Lord!” we are blessed. Our words have meaning and power because they come from the breath of God, or the spirit of God (spirit is another name for breath), breathed into Adam.
Though this is the lowest level of prayer, it is fundamental to all the other levels.
Level 2: Discursive Meditation
Most know this stage as simple meditation, like how you meditate when you pray the rosary.
It is a “consideration of a spiritual truth; application to oneself, and resolve to do something about it,” according to catholicculture.org
Level 3: Affective Mental Prayer
Meditative prayer where love dominates over the intellect.
This level is not a great shift from the previous stage, it is merely an advancement where love for God becomes greater than comprehension of the intellect.
Level 4: Acquired Recollection
Contemplative prayer while observing something holy, such as God Himself, the Holy Eucharist, a crucifix, or envisioning a Christian truth. The reason and affection of the previous two levels have now become elevated to a simple gaze, though in a more intense way, which can only be built up by mastering both levels 2 and 3.
A peace within the body seems to be reached with this level of prayer. Your love for God will have physical effects within you. It will feel like you are overflowing with joy.
Luckily, God takes this joy from you since it is not your ultimate joy; instead of letting you settle for it, He will put you through a Dark Night. Prepare for it and remember that it is for your own good.
The Last Five Levels
The last five levels are the infusing, captivating levels of mystical prayer.
While Mary was on earth, she was given grace by God to be at level 9. So, don’t become overly scrupulous about where you find yourself; just work on your prayer life the best you can, since even a simple prayer is pleasing to God.
Level 5: Infused Recollection
Not many make it to this level. This level is, even more so than the other levels, granted only by God’s grace, and is not something you do but rather something God commands.
Infused Recollection is a great entrance of the Holy Spirit. God’s presence will be unmistakably felt.
Level 6:Prayer of Quiet
This level is almost akin to the state in which saints find themselves in.
Fear of God is nearly at its zenith so committing any sin becomes nearly extinct for one at this level. Humility and suffering are extremely welcomed.
St. Teresa of Ávila wrote: “From this recollection there sometimes proceeds an interior quiet and peace that are full of happiness because the soul is in such a state that it does not seem to lack anything, and even speaking [e.g., vocal prayer and meditation] wearies it; it wishes to do nothing but love. This state may last for some time and even for long periods of time.”
Note: another Dark Night happens before you can reach the next stage. This time instead of being a physical dark night, it is a much more despairing spiritual dark night.
Level 7: Prayer of Simple Union
Now, the intellect and will are absorbed in God. Your will has been ceded to God’s will.
Prof. Jordan Aumann said in his book Spiritual Theology that:
“The prayer of union is that grade of mystical prayer in which all the internal faculties are gradually captivated and occupied with God. In the prayer of quiet only the will was captivated; in the sleep of faculties the intellect was also captivated, although the memory and the imagination remained free. In the prayer of union all the interior faculties, including the memory and the imagination, are captivated. Only the external bodily senses are now free.”
Level 8: Prayer of Ecstatic Union
All interior faculties are fully centered on God. Only external faculties remain, but even those feel the effects of coming closer to God, conforming to His will.
Level 9: Prayer of Transforming Union
The soul comes into the most intimate union with God possible in this life. Mortal sins cease. Suffering is welcomed. The self is forgotten and God is known in nearly all things.
“Let nothing disturb you. Let nothing frighten you. All things pass. God does not change. Patience achieves everything. Whoever has God lacks nothing. God alone suffices. Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world. Yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which He is to bless His people.” — St. Teresa of Ávila