The Ascending Way of Prayer, Part II


The Ecstasy of St Paul – Nicolas Poussin

This is Part II of a two-part series. Click here for Part I.

In the first part of this series, I listed the nine levels of prayer and described the first four, which exist along what is called “the Purgative Way.” In this second part, I will explore the second and third ways of prayer — the Illumative and the Unitive — and within them, the final five levels of prayer that are possible as we ascend towards perfection in the spiritual life.

The Illumative Way

The Dark Night of the Senses
Most people are familiar with the work of St. John of the Cross called “The Dark Night.” However, not many have actually read it or really understand what he means by “Dark Night.” First, there are actually two Dark Nights: the Dark Night of the Senses and the Dark Night of the Soul (or Spirit). The first forms the bridge between the Purgative and Illuminative Ways and the second is the bridge between the Illuminative and Unitive Ways of prayer.

Unfortunately, “Dark Night” has become a term used very loosely to designate any difficult or depressing time in life. But this is not the meaning St. John of the Cross gives to “Dark Night.” These two stages are not brought about by external events, such as the loss of a job or the death of a loved one. Instead, they are brought about by God alone, who uses the Dark Nights to purge the soul of attachments to the things of this world.

Let us look at the first Dark Night, that of the senses. As said previously, this stage of prayer forms the bridge between the fourth and fifth levels of prayer, or between the Purgative and Illuminative Ways. At this stage, God becomes the primary initiator of prayer, not man. Whereas in the Purgative Way, man’s primary duty is to actively cooperate with grace, at this level, man’s duty is to be passively receptive to grace.

But what does the Dark Night of the Senses consist of? Primarily it involves a prolonged series of aridities in which the soul experiences dryness in prayer. It is a painful state that tests the soul to see if it desires prayer for the consolations or because it desires God Himself. At this stage, the ability to meditate becomes difficult, even painful, as no fruit comes from it. The Holy Spirit desires that the soul move from meditation to contemplation.

Why is this painful stage necessary? Why is it the bridge between the Purgative and Illuminative Ways? It is necessary so that the soul can be purged of defects that still exist within it, defects which prevent the soul from being passively receptive to God’s grace. At this stage the person is very spiritual and is basically living a life of virtue. But that does not mean that the soul does not still have defects that keep it from God. What are some of these defects? There are three primary ones:

(a) Spiritual Gluttony: The soul has an inordinate attachment to consolations and begins to see them as ends, not means to the end.

(b) Spiritual Sloth: A laziness which creeps into the soul which does not strive for perfection anymore but is content with mediocrity in the spiritual life.

(c) Spiritual Pride: Since at this stage one is truly advancing in virtue, it is easy to become spiritually proud and to look down on others. But of course pride is the worst of sins and keeps one away from God.

This stage too is a spiritually dangerous one, perhaps the most dangerous of them all. Until this Dark Night the soul has advanced in virtue, holiness and prayer. Yet at this stage it appears that one is backsliding: consolations disappear, temptations become greater and meditation dries up. So a person might flee from the Dark Night and regress into lower levels of prayer. The proper response to this temptation to regress, however, is renewing one’s trust in God, continuing to utilize Acquired Recollection in prayer, abstaining from seeking consolation, and seeking counsel from a good spiritual director.

If one does progress through the Dark Night of the Senses, then he can move into the Illuminative Way of prayer, in which God becomes the primary initiator.

With the fifth level of prayer, a soul has moved through the Dark Night of the Senses and into the Illuminative Way of prayer. It has moved from prayer that is initiated by man to prayer initiated by God. It has moved from meditation to contemplation.

Level 5: Infused Contemplation
One of the most important things to note about this level of prayer is this: every Christian is called to Infused Contemplation. It is a common belief that only contemplative nuns or monks are called to Infused Contemplation; however, all followers of Christ can – and should – eventually be at this level of prayer.

What is Infused Contemplation? It is the experiential knowledge of God that is infused into the soul by God. In other words, it is the invasion of the soul by the supernatural. In this stage, the soul is permeated and penetrated by Someone else. Note that to reach this level, the soul must be in the state of sanctifying grace; someone in mortal sin is not a receptive vessel for the Holy Spirit. Also, the soul who reaches this level of prayer does not discontinue the practice of virtue or charity; in fact, it usually will intensify.

There are a number of characteristics of this level of prayer, including:

(a) The impossibility of producing this mystical experience by one’s own efforts. One cannot “turn on” Infused Contemplation or turn it off, for that matter.

(b) The soul is more passive than active. In the previous forms of prayer, the soul was actively reaching for God; in this stage, the soul reclines and waits to receive God.

(c) The knowledge gained through Infused Contemplation is indescribable. When reading the writings of a St. Theresa or St. John of the Cross, one often notes how these saints struggle to actually describe their mystical experiences. They use metaphors, but even these must fall far short of the mark.

(d) A dramatic new living of Christian virtue. At this stage, one can truly do what St. Paul so often writes about: live “in Christ.” It is truly “no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

Level 6: Prayer of Quiet
In the next stage of prayer, the “Prayer of Quiet,” one is still practicing Infused Contemplation, but it now includes a special captivation of the will. It is “Infused Contemplation plus,” so to speak. This level of prayer brings great spiritual delight, as the soul is absorbed in contemplating the presence of God. Whereas level five has a special emphasis on the intellect (knowledge of divine things), this stage has a special emphasis on the will (love of divine things). There is an analogy between levels five and six and levels two and three: levels two and five primarily work in the arena of the intellect, whereas levels three and six are involve the will.

One of the great benefits of this level of prayer is that often it can be experienced while the intellect is otherwise occupied. For example, the farmer tending his garden can experience the Prayer of Quiet during his gardening. St. Theresa said that at this level, the person experiences such an interior peace and quiet that even speaking wearies it.

The Prayer of Quiet is the highest reaches of the Illuminative Way of prayer; the next stages are part of the Unitive Way. And just as there was a bridge to cross between the Purgative and Illuminative Ways, so also there is a bridge between the Illuminative and Unitive Ways, and it too is a Dark Night: the Dark Night of the Soul.

The Unitive Way

The Dark Night of the Soul
“The Dark Night of the Soul” is a commonly used phrase, but as was the case with the first Dark Night (that of the Senses), it is most often misunderstood and misused. The true Dark Night of the Soul is the bridge between the Illuminative and Unitive Ways, in which the soul is purged not of the lower elements of the soul (which have already been purged), but instead of the higher faculties of intellect and will.

At this stage, even Infused Contemplation is not possible; every faculty of the soul experiences dryness. In many ways, it is like a purgatory before death. But God reveals Himself in this darkness, leading to total union with Him.

But why is this necessary? Like the first Dark Night, it purges the soul of defects. One might be tempted to think that a soul at this advanced stage of prayer has no real defects, but this is not the case. A few of the defects the Dark Night of the Soul purges include:

(a) Involuntary distractions in prayer. At this stage one can still encounter the inability of the intellect and will to keep focus.

(b) Dullness in prayer. As one grows accustomed to Infused Contemplation, he can begin to lack full sensitivity to spiritual things. It is a type of spiritual sloth.

(c) Temptation to over-zealousness instead of charity. One naturally desires the same joys he is experiencing for his brothers and sisters in Christ, but in his zeal, instead of relying on God to move them forward, he tries to force them along.

During this Dark Night of the Soul, the person experiences the final purification of the will. Any egotism, either conscious or unconscious, is replaced by a complete acceptance of the will of God. And that is the point of this stage: to unite one’s will completely with God’s will, so that the soul wants nothing other than what God wants.

After passing through the Dark Night of the Soul, one moves onto the last stages of prayer, the Unitive Way. This is the way of the “perfect,” those who have totally abandoned themselves to God and His holy will. At these stages, the soul does not experience distractions and has a complete certitude of intimate union with God. There is no tedium or weariness in prayer, even though it is quite intense at this level. This is the highest level of purification and the saint can only make a naked act of faith. He is not dependent on any consolations, either of the senses or the higher facilities of intellect, will or memory; in other words, he does not believe in and love God because of what God does for him, but instead simply because He is God.

Level 7: Simple Union
During the prayer of Simple Union, all internal faculties, including the intellect and the will, are gradually captivated and occupied with God. What is not captivated? Only the external bodily senses. Otherwise, the soul is totally united to God.

Level 8: Conforming Union
This is also called “spiritual betrothal,” where both the internal and external senses are absorbed in the presence of the divine. At this stage, the person is in “ecstasy” – the body no longer responds to outside stimuli and is completely captivated by God.

Level 9: Transforming Union
If Level 8 is “spiritual betrothal,” then Level 9 is “spiritual marriage.” Conforming union involves the consent of the will to union, but Transforming Union is the union itself. This is the highest grade of perfection in prayer, and St. John of the Cross said it is “nothing less than a transformation into God.” It is at this stage that deification occurs, and by grace a soul becomes more divine than human. One’s entire being is captivated by God and everything he does is completely united to God. The soul and God are so united at this stage that they cannot be separated. This is the goal toward which all Catholics should be striving.

The observant reader of these articles might notice that I spent much less space describing these last three levels than any of the other six. The reason for this is simple: they are so beyond human language, and they have been experienced by so few people, that detailed explanations are impossible. At these stages, one must simply follow the promptings of God as He leads the soul into complete union with Him.

If this series has whet your appetite for learning more about Christian prayer, then I would recommend the following books to help you in that process.

Of course, when studying a topic, it is always best to read the primary sources, and these books are the best to get started for understanding this tradition of prayer:

Sometimes it is difficult to dive right into the primary sources, however, so if you want to better understand the teachings behind these writings, I would recommend these books by Fr. Thomas Dubay. They give the “lay of the land” that may help you better understand the works of the Spanish saints:

But by far the best way to learn about prayer is to actually pray yourself. Here is a classic resource to lead you in daily meditations:

Whatever you do, be sure to make prayer an integral part of your daily life – our destination in life is union with God, and the only way to reach this destination is the Way of Prayer!

Originally published on Sep 28, 2015

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