This article is the first in a five-part series on what are known as the nine grades of prayer. These were primarily revealed to us by St. Teresa of Avila and we’ve learned more over time from others like St. Francis DeSales and St. John of the Cross.
First, let’s begin with what prayer is in a general sense. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs #2559-2565, we find an in-depth examination of prayer. But essentially, it is communication with God. However, it is not simply talking to God with words, rather it is joining your heart to His in love and making the communication a loving dialogue between those two hearts. Just as with any relationship, the more the loving dialogue flows, the deeper the union becomes and the more intimate the communication. As we’ll learn, the nine grades of prayer are the stages and types of prayer which draw a soul into deeper and deeper union with God.
It is important to note that each grade is not exclusive. In other words, when you move from one grade to the next, you are not done with all of the previous grades. You will ebb and flow as you move between the grades and you will always need to return to the foundational forms. It is also important to note that in grades one through four the individual is the primary mover and in grades five through nine, God is the primary mover. What this means is that for the first four grades, you, as the prayer, are in control of your faculties and self-discipline to work your way through the grades. In doing so, you may merit, by God’s will, progression into the final five grades where you become passive and God works in you. In the final five grades, the individual cannot decide to turn it off or on, rather God decides how and when He will commune with the heart and soul. Do not be overwhelmed or discouraged! We’ll begin at the beginning and we will discuss all of this in more detail as we progress through the grades.
1st Grade of Prayer – Vocal Prayer
Vocal prayer is the grade of prayer which the vast majority of people know and utilize when they communicate with God. It is any form of prayer that is expressed in words, whether written, spoken, or thought. It is the form of prayer we use in public liturgy and in our own private conversations with God. Vocal prayer directs our thoughts and our bodies toward God which elevates our souls to Him. It also gives physical expression to thoughts or feelings we have and want to communicate to God.
There must be two elements present in one’s vocal prayer for it to be fruitful. The first is your attention. You must be attentive to whom you are addressing and with whom you are dialoguing. You will find this to be true in your human relationships as well. Your conversations are much more fruitful and productive when both parties give their full attention to the conversation, whereas having a conversation with someone looking at their phone is a much less satisfying experience. The second element that must be present is devotion. We cannot just communicate with God because we’re supposed to. We must do so out of love for Him. Prayer without love is a robotic duty which will not produce much change in us.
Sometimes we struggle in our prayer life and vocal prayer is where we should we return when we do. Some useful tools here might be to start a prayer journal and write out all of the things your heart longs to say to God. Prayer books are also helpful when you get stuck. Rote prayer is often misunderstood as being a robotic form of prayer, and while that can be true, it doesn’t have to be. Some days, all we can do is repeat something like, “Jesus, I trust in you.” over and over. Rote prayer is also how we keep certain truths of our faith ingrained in our hearts by memorizing and repeating them. Again, as long as the elements of attention and love are present, our vocal prayer, whether rote or spontaneous, will be fruitful communication with our good and gracious God.
2nd Grade of Prayer – Meditation
Meditation is a form of prayer where we fix our heart and our mind on one single supernatural truth to understand its deeper meaning. You use your intellect and your imagination to help yourself know God more. An excellent example of this is when we Catholics pray the rosary. Each time we pray the rosary we are able to meditate on 5 mysteries from Christ’s life whether they are the joyful, sorrowful, glorious, or luminous mysteries. Each mystery depicts a scriptural event in the life of Jesus. As you move your fingers over the beads and recite the prayers, you are meditating on the deeper truths of that mystery. Let’s take the first joyful mystery as an example – The Annunciation, where the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to tell her she would conceive Jesus by the Holy Spirit. As you repeat your Hail Marys, you might meditate on some of the following questions: What does it mean for the Word to be incarnate? Why did God humble Himself to be born of human flesh? Why did Gabriel tell Mary to not be afraid? What does it mean to be full of grace? What sort of faith must Mary have had to give Him her ‘yes’? The options for points of meditation are endless throughout the 20 mysteries of the complete rosary.
The rosary is the easiest example to use, but meditation is not limited to that one format. You can meditate on any supernatural mystery in an effort to know and understand God more deeply out of love for Him. You could meditate on the mystery of God’s full presence in the Eucharist, or the gift of supernatural grace He gives to us in Baptism. Again, the options are endless. An excellent tool for choosing objects of meditation is the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Every single paragraph in the entire Catechism contains truth about God and about our Faith. Choose any paragraph and sit with it in meditation to penetrate the deeper meaning in grace.
In order for meditative prayer to be fruitful, three elements must be present. The first is ‘consideration’ which we’ve already discussed at length. Considering the object of your meditation by applying your intellect and imagination is critical to good meditative prayer. The second is ‘application’. Whatever it is you are meditating on, it must apply to your life in some way. Meditating on the Crown of Thorns might show us how we are to respond in humility. Or, meditating on the Eucharist might invoke the realization that you are a living tabernacle. Everything truth of the Faith has something to do with you personally. The final element is ‘resolution’. This involves you applying your will to do something practically regarding this truth. If you have meditated on the Crown of Thorns and feel motivation to increase in humility, what practical step can you take to make that happen? If you have meditated on the Eucharist and your role as a living tabernacle, what does that mean for how you conduct yourself in your secular life? Do not overwhelm yourself and certainly choose doable resolutions, but to do nothing is miss the point of meditating on supernatural things. We should be moved to change.
Spend some time this week working on these 2 grades of prayer with more attention and love than you may have done in the past. Next week, we’ll move on to the 3rd and 4th grades of prayer.
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