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Degrees of Prayer TWO


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§§ 1, 2. 3. Several degrees and stations in an internal life; as the three ways, Purgative, Illuminative, and Unitive.

§§ 4, 5. They are best distinguished according to the three degrees of internal prayer.

§§ 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15. The grounds of the several degrees of prayer.

§§ 16, 17. How God is represented in the said degrees.

§§ 18, 19. How the operations of the soul grow more and more pure.

§§ 20, 21. The degrees of prayer are not so diverse but that sometimes they may be intermixed.

§§ 22, 23, 24. In what sense the exercises of an active life (to wit, meditation) are divided into three ways also, purgative, illuminative, unitive.

1. It is generally the custom of those that write treatises of spiritual doctrine to begin with a division of the several stations or ascents observed in the duties and exercises thereof, but such a division I have conceived most proper to be reserved to this place; and the reason is, because though in a spiritual progress there be an ascent in the practice of all duties universally of a spiritual life, as well of mortification as prayer, notwithstanding the true judgment of a progress is to be made with reference principally to prayer, according to the increase in the purity and spirituality whereof so is the person to be esteemed to have made a proportionable progress in all other duties and virtues disposing to contemplation and perfection.

2. Now several mystic authors, according to the several 396notions that they had both of the end of a spiritual life and means conducing thereto, have by several terms made the division of its degrees. The most ancient division is into three states: 1. of beginners; 2. of proficients; 3. of such as are perfect. Yet withal they do not signify by what distinctive marks each of these states are separated from the others; but generally, in latter times, the whole course of a spiritual life is divided: 1. into the Purgative way, in which all sinful defects are purged out of the soul; 2. the Illuminative way, by which divine virtues and graces are introduced; 3. the Unitive way, by which a soul attains unto the end of all other exercises, to wit, an union with God in spirit by perfect charity.

3. Besides these many other divisions may be found, as of F. Benet Canfield, who, making the Divine Will (that is, God Himself) the sole object of all our exercises, doth by a division of the said Will into: 1. external; 2. internal; 3. essential or supereminent Will, virtually divide all spiritual exercises into such as are proper and conformable to these three notions of one and the same Will. Again, others divide all exercises into: 1. active; 2. contemplative, &c.; and it is of no importance which of these divisions is made use of so they be rightly understood.

4. But since, as hath been said, the degrees of perfection generally understood as relating to all the duties of an internal life are best conceived and measured by the degrees of internal prayer, which, indeed, are of a different nature one from the other, and therefore are not so properly called degrees, as several states of prayer (which is not so in mortification or the exercise of virtues, because the perfect do the same actions, though in a more perfect degree than the imperfect); hence it is that R. F. Constantine Barbanson, the most learned and experienced author of the book called Secrets Sentiers de l'Amour Divin, divides the whole progress of a spiritual contemplative life according to the progress of prayer, which (saith he) hath these degrees: 1. The exercises of the understanding in meditation. 2. The exercises of the will and affections without meditation (which at the first are very imperfect). 3. Afterward a soul 397comes to an experimental perception of the divine presence in her. 4 Then follows the great desolation. 5. This being past, there succeeds a sublime manifestation of God in the summity of the spirit. 6. From thence, after many interchangeable risings and fallings (which are found likewise in all the degrees), the soul enters into the divine yet most secret ways of perfection.

5. Now this order of his in gross (as being most natural and suitable both to reason and experience) my purpose is to follow, yet so as to collect the four last degrees into one, so that I shall only distinguish three degrees of prayer, to wit: 1. Discoursive prayer or meditation. 2. The prayer of forced immediate acts or affections of the will, without discourse preparatory thereto. 3. The prayer of pure active contemplation or aspirations, as it were naturally and without any force flowing from the soul, powerfully and immediately directed and moved by the Holy Spirit. Now this third degree, to which the prayer belonging is, indeed, truly the prayer of contemplation, beyond which there is no state of prayer, may very conveniently include all the four degrees mentioned by Barbanson, and so nicely distinguished by him; rather out of a particular experience of the effects passing in his own soul, which, perhaps, are not the same in all (for God works according to His own good pleasure in the souls of His perfect servants, and not according to any methods that man can conceive or express).

6. These, therefore, being the three degrees of internal prayer (which do most properly answer to the commonly assigned ways of spirituality, the purgative, illuminative, and unitive), of them the first is a prayer consisting much of discourse of the understanding; the other two are prayers of the will, but most principally and purely the last. Of these three I shall treat in order in the following discourse (to wit: 1. in pursuit of this second section of the most imperfect degree, to wit, meditation; 2. in the following section of the prayer of immediate acts of the will; 3. and in the last section of the prayer of aspirations or contemplation); but before I come to treat of each in particular, I conceive it requisite first to show the grounds upon which the propriety and reasonableness of this division of the 398succeeding degrees of prayer is built, and it may be evidently and convincingly demonstrated so far, that according to the dispensation of divine grace to souls that tend to perfection, it may be affirmed that they are conducted by these degrees in this order, and no other way; and this experience will make good even in souls that never heard of any degrees of prayer, but, without learning, reading, or instructions, are immediately guided by God’s Holy Spirit in His internal ways. The reason hereof will appear by that which follows.

7. First, therefore, it is apparent and acknowledged that, generally speaking, a soul from a state of negligence and secularity first entering into a spiritual course, though she be supposed, by virtue of that grace by which she is moved to make so great and happy a change, to be really in the state of justification, yet there still remains in her a great measure of fear, conceived from the guilt of her former sins; and withal, strong inclinations to sin and vicious habits do yet abide, and will do so, till by long practice of virtue and piety they be abated and expelled. Moreover, a world of vain and sinful images do possess the soul, which distract her whensoever she sets her mind on God, calling on her to attend to her formerly pleasing objects, which took up all her affections, and which do still ofttimes insinuate themselves into her memory with too much contentment to inferior nature, which contentment, though she, upon reflection, do resist and renounce with her superior soul, yet this resistance is ofttimes so feeble, that frequently she is really entangled and seduced, and more oft does find ground to doubt that she has given consent thereto.

8. Such being ordinarily the disordered condition of a soul at her first conversion, the remedy acknowledged to be proper and necessary for her is prayer, and the highest degree of prayer that for the present she is capable of is either a much distracted vocal prayer or discoursive meditation, in which the understanding and imagination are chiefly employed; and the reason is, because although God hath imprinted true charity in such a soul, yet seducing images so abounding, and vicious affections being as yet so predominant in sensitive nature, there is a 399necessity for the fortifying it to chase away the said images and subdue such affections, by storing the imagination with contrary good images, and setting on work affections contrary to these; and this is done by inventing arguments and motives (especially of fear). So that the exercises proper to a soul in this first imperfect state are those of sensible contrition and remorse for sin, &c., caused by the consideration of the foulness of it; of the misery that attends it; the certainty and uncertainty of death; the terrors of God’s judgments; the horror of hell, &c., as likewise a consideration that no less a price would serve for the reparation of a soul from sin, than the bloody Passion of the Son of God, &c. Such matters as these are now the seasonable subjects of meditation; and the actions of mortification fit to attend such prayer are more sensible, gross, and exterior, proper to repress her grosser defects.

9. Now when by means of such exercises the soul is become well eased from remorse, and begins to be moved to the resistance and hatred of sin by the love of God rather than fear of His judgments, her discoursive prayer for all that does not cease, but there is a change made only in the objects of it, because, instead of the consideration of judgment, hell, &c., the soul finds herself more inclined to resist sin by the motives of love, or a consideration of the charity, patience, and sufferings of our Lord, as likewise out of a comfortable meditation of the future joys promised and prepared for her. Although charity be much increased, yet not yet to such a point but that she stands in need of motives and considerations to set it on work, as likewise of good, holy, and efficacious images of divine things to allure her to forget or neglect the vain images that yet do much distract her. The object of her thoughts now are the infinite joys of heaven, the sublime mysteries of faith, the blessed Humanity of our Lord, the glorious attributes of the Divinity, &c., and the mortifications answerable to the present state do grow more internal, being much exercised about inward defects, which by prayer are discovered to her and corrected. Now a soul whilst she continues in this sort of prayer and mortification, standing in need of a much and frequent consideration of 400motives, is properly said to be in the purgative way, though toward the latter end there be a mixture of the illuminative.

10. In the second place, when a soul by perseverance in such discoursive prayer comes to find (as in time she will) that she stands in less need of inventing motives to induce her to exercise love to God, because good affections by exercise abounding and growing ripe do with facility move themselves, so that the mere presenting of a good object to the soul suffices to make her produce a good affection; thenceforward, by little and little, the soul in prayer quits discoursing, and the will immediately stirs itself towards God, and here (meditation ending) the second and more perfect degree or state of internal prayer begins, to wit, the prayer of immediate acts of the will.

11. Now a soul living a solitary or abstracted life, and being arrived to this prayer, if she should be obliged by others, or force herself to continue meditation, she would make no progress at all, yea, on the contrary, the extreme painfulness of inventing motives (now unnecessary) and tying herself to methods and prescribed forms would be to her so distractive, so void of all taste and comfort, and so insupportable, that not being suffered to follow God’s invitation calling to an exercise of the will, she will be in danger to give quite over all internal prayer; whereas, by pursuing God’s call, she will every day get light to discover more and more her secret inward defects, and grace to mortify and amend them; and such her mortification is exercised rather by transcending and forgetting the objects of her inordinate affections than a direct combating against them; and this state of prayer doth properly answer to that which is commonly called the illuminative way, because in it the soul with little reflection on herself or her own obscurity, by reason of sin, &c., tends directly and immediately to God, by whom she is enlightened and adorned with all virtues and graces.

12. In the third place, a soul after a long exercise in forced affections of the will to God, represented to the understanding by images far more subtle and spiritual than formerly, yea, endeavouring to contemplate Him in the darkness and obscurity of a blind and naked faith, void of all distinct and express 401images, will by little and little grow so well disposed to Him, that she will have less need of forcing herself to produce good affections to Him, or of prescribing to herself determinate forms of acts or affections; on the contrary, divine love will become so firmly established in the soul, so wholly and only filling and possessing it, that it will become, as it were, a new soul unto the soul, as constantly breathing forth fervorous acts of love, and as naturally almost as the lungs do send forth breath.

13. And here begins the state of pure contemplation (the end of all exercises of an internal life). In this blessed state the actuations and aspirations are so pure and spiritual, that the soul herself oftentimes is not able to give an account what she does; and no wonder, since they do not proceed from any forethought or election of her own, but are suggested to her by the Divine Spirit entirely possessing her; and although in these most sublime and blind elevations of the will, the imagination and understanding with their images are not absolutely excluded, yet so imperceptible are their operations, that it is no wonder if many mystical writers, speaking according to what they felt and experienced in themselves, have said that in pure contemplation the will without the understanding was only operative. As for the mortifications proper to this state, they are as inexpressible as the prayer; indeed, prayer and mortification seem to be now become the same thing, for the light in which the soul walks is so clear and wonderful, that the smallest imperfections are clearly discovered, and by prayer alone mortified. Prayer is the whole business of the life, interrupted by sleep only, and not always then neither; true it is that by other necessities of corporal nature, refections, study, conversation, or business, it may be depressed a little from the height in which it is when the soul sets itself to attend to God only; but still it continues with efficacy in the midst of all those avocations. And this is truly and properly that which mystics do style the unitive way, because herein the soul is in a continual union in spirit with God, having transcended all creatures and herself too, which are become as it were annihilated, and God is all in all.

14. There is no state of spirituality beyond this, but yet this 402state may infinitely increase in degrees of purity, the operations of the soul growing more and more spiritual in time, and divine without all limitation. In this state it is that the soul is prepared for divine inaction, passive unions and graces most admirable and most efficacious to purify her as perfectly as in the condition of this life she is capable. Now it is that God provides for souls dearly beloved by Him trials and desolations incomprehensible to the inexperienced, leading them from light to darkness, and from thence to light again; in all which changes the soul keeps herself in the same equality and tranquillity, as knowing that by them all she approaches nearer and nearer to God, plunging herself more and more profoundly in Him. A soul that is come to this state is above all instructors and instructions, a divine light being her guide in all manner of things; in a word, it is not she that now lives, but Christ and His Holy Spirit that lives, reigns, and operates in her.

l5. These are the three states of a spiritual contemplative life, distinguished according to the three states or degrees of internal prayer. As for vocal prayer, it is not to be esteemed a peculiar degree of prayer; but it may and doth accompany all these states without any change in the substance of the prayer, though with very great variety in the actuation of the soul during its exercise; for whilst the soul is in the imperfect degree of meditation, she performs her vocal prayer with the use of grosser images and much distractedness; but being arrived to the exercises of the will, she recites them with less multiplicity and some good measure of recollection, and being in the exercise of aspirations, her vocal prayers become likewise aspirative and unitive, not at all distracting her, but rather driving her more profoundly and intimately into God.

16. Now God being both the principle and object of all our internal exercises is, after several ways, represented to the mind in them; for, 1. In meditation the soul, as yet much immersed in sense, is forced to make use of a distinct grosser image by which to apprehend Him, as the Humanity of our Lord and the mysteries belonging thereto, and sometimes such attributes of the Divinity as are most obvious and easy to be conceived, and 403which do produce more sensible motions in our imperfect souls, as His justice, mercy, power, &c. 2. But in the practice of the acts of the will, the understanding endeavours to apprehend God in the obscure notion of faith; and when she is sometimes forced to make use of more particular sensible images, the mind, after a short reflection on them, gives place to the recollected actuations of the will alone. 3. But being arrived to aspirations (which is active contemplation) the soul makes use of no particular express images at all, but contents herself with the only general obscure notion of God which faith teaches her.

17. Now though it may seem that the most perfect have no great advantage in this regard over the more imperfect, since all that are imbued with ordinary knowledge do sufficiently believe and are assured that God, being infinite and incomprehensible, cannot be truly represented by any particular images and notions which are creatures of our own framing, notwithstanding we are to consider that there is a great difference between the acknowledging of this truth in the speculative judgment, and the operating according to such a truth by the will; for imperfect souls, notwithstanding the foresaid judgment, when they are to apply themselves to prayer, are forced in practice to contradict such their speculative judgment, and to represent God to their minds not only by particular and distinct, but even grosser sensible images, because they find that the said true and perfect notion of God by a general, negative, obscure conception of faith, will have little or no efficacy on their wills, the which will remain arid and void of all good affections, except they exchange the said notion for others more particular and express. Whereas, on the contrary, perfect souls having by long practice purified their internal operations, in time do come to such a state that they cannot, if they would, receive benefit, or warm their affections by sensible or particular images; except they do silence not only the imagination but understanding also, the will remains without motion or vigour; yea, in the particular case of the great desolation, the elevations of the will also become so wonderfully pure, delicate, and even imperceptible, that the soul itself can scarce perceive or so much as believe that she 404operates towards God, insomuch as, on the contrary, she is oft perplexed with great fear and doubt that in truth she does not love God.

18. Now the foresaid division of the three states of prayer, together with the successive purification and spiritualizing of images, is so grounded on reason and even nature, that every one that experiences prayer will perceive it, and others cannot except against it. For as we see in all arts and sciences, as (for example) music or poetry, a person that sets himself to learn them is at the first obliged to make use of a world of gross distinct images, the which he applies particularly and leisurely to every string, every stop, and every finger moving the instrument, as likewise to every word and syllable in a verse; but by exercise having attained to a moderate skill, a far less number of images will serve to direct him; and the reason is because the images, by practice, becoming more pure and spiritual, are, by consequence, more universal, so that one will come to have the virtue of a great number which formerly were requisite; and at last the person becoming perfect in those arts will be able to make a verse exact, according to the rules of poetry, without any perceptible reflection upon any particular rules, and to play on an instrument not only in the dark, but even whilst he is conversing with another, by reason that the images are become so pure and universal, that the person using them perceives them not, neither knows by what he is directed.

19. Now if the operation of a soul in natural sensible things may come to be so pure and subtle, much more in spiritual and divine matters, in exercising about which her endeavours ought to be to exclude all manner both of sensible and intellectual images, or rather in exercising about which the will alone strives to be operative.

20. Notwithstanding what hath been said of the distinction of these three ways of a contemplative life, we are to observe that they are not so absolutely distinguished but that sometimes there may be a mixture of them; for it may happen that a soul, being as yet in the most imperfect purgative way, may in some fits be so abundantly supplied with grace, as that during the 405exercise of meditation she may oft be enabled to produce immediate acts of the will, yea, and perhaps aspirations too, so joining together exercises both purgative, illuminative, and unitive in one recollection; yea, it may be possible for such an imperfect beginner to spend the whole time of a recollection in those nobler exercises; but yet when such grace and devotion (which ordinarily lasts not long) does come to cease, she will be forced to return to her imperfect exercise of meditation; or, if out of an aversion from descending lower, she will needs stick to those higher exercises (which to her are but temporary), she will, by means of aridity and indevotion, lose all the fruit of her recollections, which will indeed become insupportable to her.

21. So, on the other side, it may well happen that a soul that is ascended to the exercise of immediate acts, may sometimes for some short space find it necessary for her to help herself now and then, by using meditation and seeking motives in the understanding to move her affections. Therefore these three states are to be distinguished and separated with relation to the proper and constant exercises of souls.

22. Before we quit the present subject of the degrees of prayer and a spiritual life, it is, for the preventing of mistakes, to be observed that those writers likewise which teach and know no more sublime exercises than meditation do, notwithstanding, divide the whole course of their spirituality also into these three exercises of the purgative, illuminative, and unitive way, although the perfection both of their doctrine and practice reaches no further than the active life which they profess, as we may see in the books of De Ponte, Rodriguez, &c., to which we may add Louis of Granada also, &c.

23. But these three ways of active livers, though agreeing in name with the forementioned mystic exercises, yet are much different in their nature and qualities; for all the said three ways are exercised by the help and with the use of discourse, and do never arise to the exclusion of particular sensible images, so that the perfection of their exercise is to discourse with more subtlety, and from such discourse to derive and draw more fervent affections and good purposes of the will. Further than this active 406exercisers cannot go, because their life does not afford the leisure, freedom, and vacancy from external businesses which is necessary for enabling souls to contemplative exercises, which begin with those that I call proper aspirations, arising upon the expiration of imaginative exercises, as being the perfection of them.

24. And, indeed, if active livers should proceed further, they would then relinquish their institute, that refers all the doings of it to the exterior, which cannot be without the use and help of particular images, so that the forementioned general image of God, or rather non-image, is not at all proper for their course. They do not, therefore, ordain these their external imaginative exercises in order to contemplation, but only to enable them to perform their external deeds of charity with greater perfection and purity of intention. As therefore they do not themselves practise contemplation, so neither do they teach it to others, nor indeed can they, for want of experience.

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    Five Degrees of Prayer

    With respect to prayer, there are five levels of people. [The lowest] is he 'who wrongs his own soul'; who is remiss; who curtails his ablution and the times, limits and essential elements of prayer.

    At the second level is he who keeps the times, rules and elements of prayer; who keeps its ablution but is taken away by distractions, which he lacks the inner strength to resist.

    At the third level is he who keeps the limits and essential elements of the prayer, and struggles against distractions. This person is preoccupied with striving against his Foe, 'lest he rob him of his prayer'. In prayer, he is in sacred combat [jihad].

    At the fourth level is he who, standing in prayer, completes its requirements, its essential elements and its limits. His heart is absorbed in safeguarding the rules and requirements of the prayer 'lest he miss any of them'.

    In fact, his entire concern becomes performing the prayer as it should be, completely and perfectly. In this way, his concern for the prayer and for worshipping his Lord absorbs his heart.

    At the fifth level is he who, standing in prayer, performs it in the manner of the fourth, but in addition places his heart before his Lord.

    With this he beholds God - ever vigilant before Him, filled with His love and glory - as if, seeing Him, he were physically present before Him.

    Therefore, the distractions vanish, as the veil between him and his Lord is lifted. The difference between this person in his prayer and everyone else is as vast as the distance between heaven and earth, for he is occupied [only] with his Lord Almighty in prayer, in which he finds his source of gladness.

    [Of these five persons], the first will be punished, the second admonished, the third redeemed, the fourth rewarded and the fifth brought near to his Lord - for his source of gladness has been placed in prayer.

    And whoever is gladdened by the prayer in this world will be gladdened by nearness to his Lord in this world and the next. He who finds gladness in God, gladdens others [in turn]. But whoever does not, leaves this world a loser.

    Compiled From:
    "The Invocation of God" - Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya, pp. 29, 30

    Sister Amy


Prayer and the unknowable God

Gregory Thorn  |  20 May 2008

Prayer is a process of becoming, not an act of doing

“When you go apart to be alone for prayer, put from your mind everything you have been doing or plan to do. Reject all thoughts, be they good or be they evil…. See that nothing remains in your conscious mind save a naked intent stretching out towards God.”

This advice on prayer begins one of the great classics of Christian writing, The Book of Privy Counselling, written in the 14th century by an anonymous Englishman.

It doesn’t sound at all like prayer in today’s church and even seems impractical, considering the disjointed and busy lives of contemporary society. In fact a scientific and technological age might ask, “Why pray at all?” However, this way of prayer has influenced the church for centuries and continues to challenge simplistic interpretations of prayer.

A number of questions related to prayer are concealed within the normalcy of church life, and yet they have a marked impact on our spirituality. Two stand out:

• The question of the nature of God: what might God look like, sound like, taste like and feel like?

• The question of salvation: what is it, and how does it work?

The God commonly approached in prayer is construed as similar to human beings in behaviour, perceptions and emotional experiences. This is an anthropomorphic or human image of God, and prayer with this image in mind is largely rhetoric, pleading and for various needs, hopes and desires. Intercessory prayer often is directed at this image of God.

Another way of understanding God is to recognise God as unknowable. By definition, God must be more than “every possible object of [human] knowledge”. Prayer practised from this understanding is therefore more likely to be about what we aren’t than about what we imagine we are.

Salvation also is open to various interpretations, but an understanding where “Jesus does not save once and for all but in every moment” offers a more dynamic and inclusive God relationship and means that participation in prayer is participation in salvation itself.

Here movement is from a static notion of God to one of salvation that collapses perceptions of time and space and reclaims the vitality of now and presence. As a consequence the ego-centred personhood diminishes and a place of unknowability arises: unknowability similar in nature to the unknowability of God.

In the 16th century St John of the Cross used the motif of a dark night of the soul to convey this experience. However, it’s difficult to experience not knowing when the psyche (soul) craves sensory input, knowledge and information to carry on believing that it substantially exists!

The teacher of The Book of Privy Counselling acknowledges this difficulty and suggests engaging a faculty over which there is some control: thinking. Not that this was new. From the 4th century CE, contemplatives used a short piece of a psalm to focus the habitually wandering mind. A favourite verse was, “O Lord make haste to help me,” from Psalm 71.

Some traditions, like the Hesychast tradition in the Eastern church, developed sophisticated approaches to prayer, including the Prayer of the Heart or Jesus Prayer, which seeks a growing relationship with God. Bishop Theophan the Recluse describes it in this way:

“There are various degrees of prayer. The first degree is bodily prayer, consisting for the most part in reading, in standing. … The second degree is prayer with attention: the mind becomes accustomed to collecting itself in the hour of prayer and prays consciously throughout, without distraction. The mind is focused upon the written words to the point of speaking them as if they were its own. The third degree is prayer of feeling: the heart is warmed by concentration so that what has only been thought now becomes feeling. Where first it was a contrite phrase now it is contrition itself; and what was once a petition in words is transformed into a sensation of entire necessity. Whoever has passed through action and thought to true feeling, will pray without words, for God is God of the heart. So that the end of apprenticeship in prayer can be said to come when in our prayer we move only from feeling to feeling. … When the feeling of prayer reaches the point where it becomes continuous, then spiritual prayer may be said to begin. This is the gift of the Holy Spirit praying for us, the last degree of prayer. But there is, they say, yet another kind of prayer which cannot be comprehended by our mind, and which goes beyond the limits of consciousness.”

Here constructed preconceptions about the self and the world are relinquished. No longer are we the centre of the universe. An enhanced experience of God and being human arises, albeit one difficult to articulate apart from poetry, parable and metaphor. Matthew Fox underscores this when he paraphrases Meister Eckhart, the 13th century German theologian and mystic: “God is beyond all expression and understanding.”

This prayer takes discipline. Self-motivated grasping is relinquished and the mind stilled by “naked intent” described in the Book of Privy Counselling. Through the grace of the Holy Spirit, scripture and wise counsel, our mind is merged into the unknowability of the heart of God – but it can be hard work. The moment an attempt is made to focus thoughts and calm the mind every spurious thought, worry and lost memory from time immemorial will surface, and the more these unwanted guests are refused entry the more they harass for attention.

Such is the challenge of prayer. Even when our prayers are more like a review of the previous day and preparation for tomorrow’s work, we need to avoid the temptation to give up. Slowly but surely the mind will settle and the aroma of God will suffuse the heart. Not the fleshy vessel that pumps blood around the body but the centre of humanity and of our own personhood, from which our whole world extends. From the heart come our most sublime qualities as well as the underbelly of our personality. And via the heart are we transformed into a personhood reflective of Christ himself.

Aids to prayer that have evolved over time relate to body posture, breathing, places of prayer and items of focus. A cycle of prayer as found in A New Zealand Prayer Book, He Karakia Minihare o Aotearoa will also help form our spiritual consciousness.
Prayer is a process of becoming, not an act of doing. Becoming is to get behind the ego and allow the grace of God to shape and form in ways that are by and large hidden, even though they might become apparent with hindsight. Prayer of the heart is a delicate task and one where familiar religious signposts can be obscured.

Having a companion along the way is important because the ego can be a devious friend when threatened or ignored, and all sorts of irrelevant ideas and infatuations may arise. In the end the prayer will become the air we breathe, a fragrance of hope continually drawing us back into the intimacy of the God of unknowing.

1. William Johnston, The Cloud of Unknowing and the Book of Privy Counselling, ed. Anonymous (London: Fount, 1997), 118
2. Vladmir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998), 25.
3. Alphonse and Rachel Goettmann, Prayer of Jesus, Prayer of the Heart, 167.
4. E. & Palmer Kadlobovsky, G.E.H., The Art of Prayer (London: Faber and Faber, 1966), p52.
5. Matthew Fox, Breakthrough: Meister Ekhart’s Creation Spirituality in New Translation (New York: Doubleday, 1980), 182.

Fox, Matthew. Breakthrough: Meister Ekhart’s Creation Spirituality in New Translation. New York: Doubleday, 1980.
Goettmann, Alphonse and Rachel. Prayer of Jesus, Prayer of the Heart.
Johnston, William. The Cloud of Unknowing and the Book of Privy Counselling. Edited by Anonymous. London: Fount, 1997.
Kadlobovsky, E. & Palmer, G.E.H. The Art of Prayer. London: Faber and Faber, 1966.
Lossky, Vladmir. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998.
Gregory Thorn is Retreats Co-ordinator at Vaughan Park, Auckland.


Prayer 101

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For religious Jews, prayer is an obligation, fulfilled several times daily by reciting a prescribed liturgy containing praise of God, requests, and expressions of appreciation. The texts and practices of prayer, while broadly common to all Jewish communities, vary according to local customs, ethnic origins, and ideologies. The study of Jewish prayer thus affords insights into the history and anthropology of the Jews and an introduction to Jewish theology.

Themes and Theology

Jews pray for various reasons, categorizable as communication with God and communion with other Jews. As communication with God, Jewish prayer--in forms cast in antiquity and reshaped by succeeding generations--gives expression to the values and the needs of individuals and of the Jewish people. Jews give thanks to the Creator for the wonders of the universe, express loyalty to the One who imparts instruction (“Torah”) about bringing holiness into one's life, and ask for the Redeemer to heal the wounds suffered by body and soul. As communion with other Jews, prayer gathers the community for collective introspection and instruction--and strengthens Jewish social bonds.

The Synagogue

This institution began as the Jewish community’s gathering-place, whose primary function was the public recitation of Scriptures. After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, daily communal prayer soon became an established Jewish practice, and it too took place in the synagogue. The complexity of Jewish prayer and the expectation that prayer-leaders demonstrate musical training and improvisational ability led to the creation of a cadre of trained cantors, whose profession continues even now to enrich synagogue life.

Rabbis, on the other hand, were originally teachers of Torah independent of synagogue affiliation. Only in modern times, as the synagogue has developed into a voluntary membership association, have most practicing rabbis become employees of synagogues. Although synagogue buildings are equipped similarly worldwide, there is no independent tradition of synagogue architecture or interior design.

Prayer, Music, and Liturgy

Certain key prayers are recited only in the presence of a quorum (minyan) of ten adults (in traditionalist communities, ten adult males). The musical traditions of Jewish prayer include a complex system of notation and performance of biblical passages, known as ta'amei hamikra (or in Yiddish, "trop"), rendered with different styles in different keys for Torah, Prophets, and various biblical "scrolls." Another musical tradition is nusah, modes for various occasions that provide a basis for improvised renditions of the liturgy. Hebrew, the classical language of Jewish prayer, remains in use everywhere in varying degrees.

Prayer Apparel

The biblical requirement to set fringes in the corners of one's garment is observed by many during prayer by donning a special prayer-shawl (tallit). Biblical passages calling for binding the memory of the Exodus as "a sign upon your hand and a symbol upon your forehead" are understood in rabbinic law as requiring Jews to wear tefillin--pairs of leather boxes containing those biblical selections, worn on the upper arm and forehead, with a leather strap bound on the forearm. In most congregations, all men--and some women--cover their heads in prayer.




compiled by
Igumen Chariton of Valamo
translated by
E. Kadloubovsky and E.M. Palmer
edited with an introduction by
Timothy Ware

I. The inner closet of the heart by St. Dimitri of Rostov
II. What is prayer? by St. Theophan the Recluse
a. The test of everything
     b. Degrees of prayer
III. The Jesus Prayer
     a. Secret meditation
     b. Unceasing prayer
     c. The Jesus Prayer
     d. Remembrance of God
IV. The fruits of prayer
     a. Attention and the fear of God
     b. Divine Grace and human effort
     c. The burning of the spirit
V. The kingdom of the heart
     a. The kingdom within us
     b. The union of mind and heart
VI. War with passions
     a. War with passions
     b. Know yourself
     c. Work, inner and external
     d. Solitude
     e. Times of desolation
     f. Illusion
     g. Humility and love
VII. Teachings of the startsi of Valamo Monastery
Further Reading


Saint Benedict on personal prayer
Andrew Nugent OSB explores the Rule of St Benedict for what it might teach us about personal prayer.

At a time when many people are exploring spirituality, first-time readers of Rule of Benedict (RB) are sometimes disappointed to find so little about personal prayer and nothing at all about contemplation or mysticism. No mention is made of different stages or degrees of prayer. No techniques are suggested for meditation, nor is there any advice about coping with dryness or distractions. Most surprising of all in a rule where everything is minutely timetabled, apart from the periods of lectio, no explicit provision at all is made for private prayer. By reference to traditional monastic practice, Benedict seems less convinced about uninterrupted solitary prayer as the principal occupation of monks. He permits potentially distracting work which his forerunners would have disallowed (41:1; 57:1), and he downgrades the traditional preference given to asceticism over labour.

Prayer in the course of work
An inventory of what RB says passim about personal prayer reveals nonetheless a more copious treatment than one might at first sight have suspected. At the very outset comes the recommendation ‘First, when you set out to do some good work, beg (God) with most insistent prayer to bring it to completion’ (Prol. 4). Several of the tools of good works refer to prayer more or less directly. One should ‘prostrate oneself frequently in prayer.’ ‘With tears and sighing one should daily confess one’s past sins to God in prayer.’ We are urged ‘to love God from a full heart’, ‘to put nothing above the love of Christ’, to ‘entrust one’s hope to God’, and ‘to yearn for eternal life with all spiritual longing.’ Particularly during Lent we are encouraged to devote ourselves to ‘prayer with tears’, and specifically to private prayer, orationes peculiares (49:4).

One faith-inspired form of prayer that Benedict recommends is that we should praise and thank God precisely for those things and in situations when we might feel tempted to do the opposite. ‘Let him who needs less thank God and not be saddened’ (34:3). If the regulation hemina of wine is not available ‘but much less or none at all, those who live there should bless God and not complain’ (40:8). The arrival of guests in a monastery does not always occasion spontaneous rejoicing. Nevertheless ‘all guests who appear shall be welcomed as Christ…the abbot and the whole community shall wash the feet of the guests.…and sing this verse: "we have received, O God, your mercy in the midst of your temple"’ (53:1, 13-14). Even in very difficult situations the monk obeys ‘out of love, trusting in God’s help’ (68:5), ‘embracing patience silently and consciously’, knowing that ‘in all this we are more than conquerors because of him who loved us’ (7:35,39). There is no distinction to be made at such times between deep faith and continuous prayer, they are one and the same thing.

Obedience to God’s will
RB sometimes evokes our presence to God in the context of evil thoughts and temptations (Prol. 28; 4:50; 5:17-19; 7:14-18). At such times, and perhaps for long periods, a person may experience no other prayer than laborious obedience to God’s will (Prol. 2) or the embrace of suffering (7:35). Such prayer may indeed be unceasing and may render quite impossible all well-crafted aesthetically pleasing prayer of one’s own devising. ‘I was like a brute beast in your presence; yet with you I shall always be’ (7:50).

Benedict is very sensitive to the differences between people and how uniquely the Spirit acts in each individual soul. If he hesitates to legislate for other people’s eating and drinking (40:1-2), how much more reticent will he be about quantifying or measuring their personal prayer. Chapter 20, on reverence in prayer, is a model of this discretion. Benedict recommends ‘humility and pure devotion.’ He continues ‘let us realise that we shall be heard not in much speaking, but in purity of heart and in compunction and tears.’ His conclusion is equally forthright, ‘and that is why prayer should be brief and pure, unless it be prolonged by an inspiration of divine grace.’ Benedict repeats frequently his advice that prayer should be simple and heartfelt. ‘If at other times he wishes to pray more secretly by himself, let him in all simplicity go in (to the oratory) and pray, not with a loud voice but with tears and an attentive heart’ (52:4). Prayer with tears is a recurring theme (4:57; 49: 4). The emphasis is never on methods or techniques in prayer, always on sincerity, attentiveness, spontaneity, and quality rather than quantity.

Continuous prayer
Reflecting on Saint Paul’s instruction to pray without ceasing, Saint Augustine says: ‘If your desire is continual, your prayer is continual too’ (on Ps 37 et pass.). In this way he shows that continual prayer is not inconsistent with external occupations. Ceaseless prayer is a disposition of heart and soul rather than a consciously sustained activity. Benedict most often uses the word desire in a negative sense referring to our evil desires.

Even the verse of the psalm which Augustine uses to make his point about spiritual desire, ante te est omne desiderium meum, is understood by Benedict as referring to carnal desires (7:23). In two cases, however, RB uses the expression spiritual desire in a way entirely consonant with Augustine’s idea (4:46; 49:7). In both cases spiritual desire is clearly a state of soul which persists irrespective of external circumstances. It is ceaseless prayer.

A monastic rule of its nature is more likely to stress duties than aspirations. This may explain the rather different register of expressions which Benedict more habitually uses to situate the monk continuously in God’s presence. The disciple and, even more so, the abbot are repeatedly admonished to remember, to think, to consider, to say to themselves, to pay heed, to listen, to hear. Each of these expressions is a call to awareness of God’s presence. This is both a summons to duty and an invitation to prayer. To know oneself in God’s presence, to act accordingly, this is to pray, without any further ‘pious’ thought, and even in the presence of extraneous thoughts. The more habitual the realization of God’s presence, and of our presence to him in all our activities, the more constant is our prayer.

Contemplative vision of all creation
When Benedict says that the pots and pans of the monastery are to be treated like ‘the consecrated vessels of the altar’ (31:10), he is not engaging in domestic hyperbole or in pretty piety. He is sharing his own contemplative vision of all creation in the divine light. His insistence on cleanliness, order, and careful handling of material things goes deeper than a tyrannical super-ego or Roman fastidiousness. It is all of a piece with the reverence that has become second nature to him. It is an habitual attitude of soul which persists even without explicit thought. These are ideas that could resonate today.

Christ is everywhere present in others: in the abbot (2:2; 63:13), in the sick (36:1), in guests (53:1,7), in the poor and pilgrims (53:15). Those who are responsible for others must, therefore, be filled with the fear of God. This is especially true of the abbot (3:11), the cellarer (31:2), the infirmarian (36:7), the guestmaster (53:21) and the porter (66:4) To live thus in God’s presence is also a necessary characteristic of wise counsellors (65:15). To be possessed of such sentiments, to be consistently motivated by them, is to be a truly prayerful person.

Portraits of prayer
Benedict does not theorize about prayer. Instead he gives vivid word-pictures of prayerful people. There are the tears and sighs so frequently mentioned which betoken a heart repentant and full of love. Images of running and hastening evoke the cheerful generosity of those who ‘with the unspeakable sweetness of love race along the way of God’s commandments (Prol. 49). Chapter seven, on humility, starts with the inner dispositions of a soul but concludes with a detailed physical description of a man possessed by God, gentle, serious, humble in demeanour, free of arrogance and aggressiveness. ‘By the Holy Spirit the Lord will deign to demonstrate (demonstrare) these things in his workman, clean from vices and sins’ (7:70).

Similar portraits appear elsewhere in the Rule: the humble cellarer who does not sadden even the unreasonable brother but gives him a friendly reply (31:7,13), the young monk who soothes the upset of an elder by throwing himself at his feet (71:6-8), the porter, too old to move far, who nevertheless hastens to greet whoever comes, ‘filled with the gentleness of the fear of God’ (66:4), the senpectae, those wise and kindly old men who act out a little charade to console an erring brother, ‘lest he be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow’ (27:3).

We have in all this, not theory, but an invaluable phenomenology of the interior life, not in the melodramatic images of naive hagiography, but in cameo portraits as convincing as they are attractive. Here we sense the gentle strength of sanctity. ‘By their fruits you shall know them’ (Mt 7:20). Here we almost see and touch the reality of union with God. This is how Benedict teaches prayer. It is worth a thousand manuals.

This article first appeared in Spirituality , a publication of the Irish Dominicans.

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Thursday of 33rd week of Ordinary Time
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"Be still
and know
that I am God."

Psalm 46:10

In 1974, Father William Meninger, a Trappist monk and retreat master at St. Josephs Abbey in Spencer, Mass. found a dusty little book in the abbey library, The Cloud of Unknowing. As he read it he was delighted to discover that this anonymous 14th century book presented contemplative meditation as a teachable, spiritual process enabling the ordinary person to enter and receive a direct experience of union with God.

This form of meditation, recently known as 'Centering Prayer' (from a text of Thomas Merton) can be traced from and through the earliest centuries of Christianity. The Centering Prayer centers one on God.

The Cloud was written, not in Latin but in Middle English - which means that it was intended primarily for laymen rather than for priests and monks. Father Meninger saw that it was a simple book on the ultimate subject, with only 75 brief chapters.

He quickly began teaching contemplative prayer according to The Cloud of Unknowing at the Abbey Retreat House. One year later his workshop was taken up by his Abbot, Thomas Keating, and Basil Pennington, both of whom had been looking for a teachable form of Christian contemplative meditation to offset the movement of young Catholics toward Eastern meditation techniques.

Ten years later, Abbot Keating, now retired and a member of Father Meninger's community of St. Benedict's in Colorado, initiated his highly organized and effective Contemplative Outreach, Ltd. in order to facilitate a spirituality focused on Centering Prayer.

Like Abbot Keating and Father Basil, Father Meninger takes a limited time each year from his silent monastic life to travel the world and teach contemplative prayer. His book, The Loving Search For God is an effort to bring the message of The Cloud of Unknowing to men and women of the 21st Century.

This workshop has been videotaped and rendered as television and audio programs of approximately four and a quarter hours. Father recommends these recordings as a way to learn more about prayer in general and in particular how to practice contemplative meditation.

These recordings are available to you via this website's online store in many formats. You can view portions on your computer screen right now in the Chapel. Join us?

Curriculum Vitae

Father William was born, raised and educated in the Boston area in Massachusetts. His mother was born and raised in County Kerry and his father was a Quaker from Pennsylvania.

Ordained in 1958, after 8 years in St. John's Seminary, he was incardinated into the Diocese of Yakima, Washington. where he worked on an Indian Reservation and with Mexican traveling workers for 6 years. In 1963 he entered the Trappists at St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, where he served in the guest house for 15 years, taught Scripture, liturgy and patristics; served as subprior, prior and dean of the junior professed monks.

In 1979 he was transferred to a daughter house, St. Benedicts Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado, where he served as Prior, vocation director, novice master, and teacher of theology and scripture. He spent 3 years in Israel where he studied scripture and taught at the Center for Biblical Studies in Jerusalem and at the Trappist Monastery of Latroun.

He also did graduate studies at Seattle University, Harvard Divinity School, and Boston University. In 1974 he originated the workshop on Contemplative Meditation (later known as Centering Prayer) which he now teaches worldwide along with workshops on Forgiveness, the Enneagram, Sacred Scriptures, and Prayer. He leaves the monastery only 4 times each year to do this lest he lose his own monastic orientation while sharing it with others.



Contemplative Outreach

Centering Prayer

Centering Prayer is a method of silent prayer that prepares us to receive the gift of contemplative prayer, prayer in which we experience God's presence within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than consciousness itself. This method of prayer is both a relationship with God and a discipline to foster that relationship.

Centering Prayer is not meant to replace other kinds of prayer. Rather, it adds depth of meaning to all prayer and facilitates the movement from more active modes of prayer — verbal, mental or affective prayer — into a receptive prayer of resting in God. Centering Prayer emphasizes prayer as a personal relationship with God and as a movement beyond conversation with Christ to communion with Him.

The source of Centering Prayer, as in all methods leading to contemplative prayer, is the Indwelling Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The focus of Centering Prayer is the deepening of our relationship with the living Christ. The effects of Centering Prayer are ecclesial, as the prayer tends to build communities of faith and bond the members together in mutual friendship and love.

To visit the main site www.contemplativeoutreach.org

Fr. Thomas Keating
Fr. Thomas Keating is a founding member and the spiritual guide of Contemplative Outreach, LTD.





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Contemplative Prayer  

Welcome to contemplative prayer!  Do you long to know the Lord in a deeper way?  Have you ever found that your love and desire for God was greater than your ability to communicate with the Lord in words?  Contemplative prayer can develop our relationship with Jesus Christ so that we commune with God beyond words, thoughts, feelings, and actions. 

"My soul is at rest in God alone. (Psalm 62:1)

During contemplative prayer we center our full attention on the presence of God, on the will of God, and on the love of God.  Contemplative prayer is centered on faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, by which we can know the presence of God in very real ways.  We come before God and see Jesus with the eyes of our heart as we adore and worship God in quiet, silent prayer.  When we practice contemplative prayer we stay quiet before the Lord and wait longingly for God. 

"Be still and know that I am God"  (Psalm 46:10)

  • Centering Prayer can help you to become centered as you pray.
  • Listening Prayer offers guidelines for learning to listen in prayer  and the discussion questions facilitate sharing in a small group setting.
  • Stations of the Cross focuses on a labyrinth as a tool for prayer.
  • Teresa of Avila  provides a way to read, meditate, pray, and contemplate on the Word of God through "Lectio Divina"
  • Spiritual Direction explains the ministry of spiritual direction and the process of spiritual growth through the ministry.
  • ENTERING THE GATE CALLED BEAUTIFUL is a guided meditation of Acts 3: 1-10 that will lead you to a time of quiet prayer.  The text centers on healing prayer.
  • Anglican Prayer Beads fosters contemplative, meditative, and reflective prayer.  The use of prayer beads creates a rhythm that discourages distractions and focuses attention so that the one who prays can more readily move into the presence of the Lord.
  • Anglican Prayer Beads - A place to purchase A religious order in the Episcopal Church, Solitaries of DeKoven, makes and sells Anglican Prayer Beads.  This link also has information about the ministry way of life at the hermitage.
  • The Wreath of Christ, named by Martin Lonnebo, Lutheran emeritus bishop in Sweden.  This rosary serves as a practical tool to help in spiritual formation.  He named the rosary, "Fralsarkransen", which means "The Wreath of Christ", and focuses on the meaning of silence in prayer as we come to Christ with empty hands, just being in God's presence, ready to listen to the voice of the Lord..



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Home > About Us > Contemplative Practices > Centering Prayer

Centering Prayer

Centering Prayer is a method of silent prayer that prepares us to receive the gift of contemplative prayer, prayer in which we experience God's presence within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than consciousness itself. This method of prayer is both a relationship with God and a discipline to foster that relationship.

Centering Prayer is not meant to replace other kinds of prayer. Rather, it adds depth of meaning to all prayer and facilitates the movement from more active modes of prayer — verbal, mental or affective prayer — into a receptive prayer of resting in God. Centering Prayer emphasizes prayer as a personal relationship with God and as a movement beyond conversation with Christ to communion with Him.

The source of Centering Prayer, as in all methods leading to contemplative prayer, is the Indwelling Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The focus of Centering Prayer is the deepening of our relationship with the living Christ. The effects of Centering Prayer are ecclesial, as the prayer tends to build communities of faith and bond the members together in mutual friendship and love.

Informational Pamphlet on Centering Prayer

Pamphlet in Italian Il Metodo della Centering Prayer
Pamphlet in French La methode de la priere de consentement
Pamphlet in Spanish  El Método de la Oración Centrante
Pamphlet in Portuguese O Método da Oração Centrante
Pamplet in Dutch De Methode van het Innerlijk Gebed

Centering Prayer Workshops

Centering Prayer Retreats

Prayer Groups

Offered in partnership with Sounds True, this online course begins January 20, 2010.  A recorded version of the course will be available online after March 2010, which you can take anytime, anywhere.  For more information, click on the image below.

Sounds True, Inc.This new online course is useful for those who cannot attend an Introduction to Centering Prayer in person, or for those who would like to refresh their prayer practice.  The course includes guidance and teachings on video and audio from Fr. Thomas Keating, Gail Fitzpatrick-Hopler and Fr. Carl Arico.  The live course also includes community forums, live teleconferences and a mentorship option.


See also the in-home package, Centering Prayer:  A Training Course for Opening to the Presence of God.

Silence Solitude Service
  Contemplative Outreach, Ltd.