Nine Levels of Christian Prayer

How does one advance in prayer?

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The Purgative Way, Levels 1 and 2

As the saying goes, we must crawl before we can walk. For first I will explore the the first two levels of prayer, which begin what is called the "purgative way." These levels, along with the next two, also fall into the category of "ascetical prayer," which means that the primary initiator of these levels of prayer is man. Obviously, they require grace, but the emphasis during the purgative way is man's cooperation with that grace.

Level 1: Vocal Prayer
What is the first prayer that we teach our children? Usually it is something like the Our Father, the Hail Mary or perhaps grace before meals or bedtime. In other words, vocal prayer. Vocal prayer is, simply put, prayers said out loud. Before we can meditate upon the mysteries of our faith or contemplate divine realities, we must first say our prayers out loud. Man is a body-soul composite, and therefore our bodies - including our voices - must be involved in our prayer. And it is important to remember that no one - I mean no one - ever abandons this level altogether. Even the greatest mystics said vocal prayers to their dying day. But over time, vocal prayer can be combined with other forms of prayer, as we will see below.

Of course, anyone can outwardly say prayers, but that does not mean that he is actually praying. For vocal prayer to be truly prayer, two components are necessary: (1) attention; and (2) devotion. We must be aware of what we are saying and we should be saying it with love. Otherwise, we will be "like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them" (Matthew 6:5).

Level 2: Meditation
Meditation applies the mind to some supernatural truth in order to penetrate its meaning. It is primarily an act of the intellect, but the will also comes into play, since the purpose of meditation is to excite the will to love.

In general, there are three elements to meditation:

(a) Consideration: we think about the supernatural matter and ponder what it means.
(b) Application: we apply the truth to our own spiritual life.
(c) Resolution: we resolve practical ways to make the application of this truth occur in our life.

Meditation is the first stage of any serious prayer, and it is foundational to the further stages. It has been said that if a person meditates daily, in a short period of time he will either stop committing serious sin or will stop meditating. Meditation is also something that can be fruitful at any level of prayer; St. Theresa of Avila said that she always started her prayer by reading some spiritual work and meditating on it. That would then lead her to other, higher levels of prayer.

Next we will look at the next two levels of the purgative way, which are affective prayer and acquired recollection.
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The Nine Levels of Prayer