The Degrees of Prayer: Following the Story

The first in a series of articles

Developing your prayer life can feel like a project to be planned and completed–like installing a patio, earning a degree, or learning French cooking. It might be satisfying to ‘accomplish’, and even enjoyable at times, but in the end it is a task. And we don’t tend to relish having tasks. Too often, our projects get stalled and then start to become a source of irritation and regret: I should be working harder at this … I should be making more progress … If I were more organized … If I were a better person … Anyone who has tried to develop a life of prayer has probably felt like this at times.

I want to suggest a different sense of what is happening when we get serious about prayer. It’s based on my lifelong love of reading. Books were my constant companions from early youth, and the ones I liked best had adventure, drama, a bit of comedy, and even a little romance.

When you begin to make prayer a serious focus of your life, you begin to follow a story. It has adventure, drama, comedy–and romance because it is a love story. In many good stories, the character of the hero starts off in pretty unlikely circumstances. He might look more likely to be the fool or even the villain. But in the course of the plot, things happen, and hidden virtues are revealed, until, against all odds, he turns out to be the hero after all.

The post-modern culture tells you to be the hero of your own story. Like so many post-modern platitudes, it has a grain of truth. In a sense, you do have to accept the role of a kind of hero, at least in the sense of having to do something meaningful with your life. But you are not the hero of your own story, because it is not your story. It is God’s story, the one He is composing, about you.

A well-composed story has a beginning, and a middle, and an end. In the opening chapters, things don’t always look very promising. But then the story takes off, and people are drawn into adventures, which are strenuous and even dangerous but make for interesting reading. In the end, we see where the adventures have led, and how the conflicts are resolved. And the best endings are the ones that are both satisfying and unexpected: we knew things would turn out well, but little did we anticipate just how well. The hero is still, in some ways, the unlikely character you saw at the start. Yet he or she has become something more.

This isn’t just the pattern of a worthy story; it’s the pattern of a worthy life.

I would like to suggest that we can apply this understanding to St. John of the Cross’ teachings about the three stages of progress in prayer: the Purgative Way, the Illuminative Way, and the Unitive Way.  The first part involves purgation or purification, and it is the focus of his books The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night. In the Purgative Way, the soul is purified of attachments to things of the senses (the night of the senses) and attachments to spiritual things (the night of the spirit). This is an intense and difficult process, but eminently worth the effort, for the goal is none other than God Himself.

In the Illuminative Way, is when you are really separated, not necessarily from the things you used to enjoy, but from the enjoyment of them.

The adventure is well underway.

The Unitive Way is represented poetically and metaphorically in The Living Flame of Love, although, in truth, it appears in all the saint’s writings. The final verse of the poem “The Dark Night” presents a portrait as a lovely and compelling image of the union:

… I forgot myself,

And rested my face on the Beloved,

All ceased and I left myself

Leaving my cares

Forgotten among the lilies

The higher degrees of prayer defy description, and St. John assures us that his illustrations are wholly inadequate. Yet, he still has much to say about the degrees of prayer. We can gain some understanding of the way God’s grace works in us.

When you pursue, with all your heart, a life of prayer, then you are following the plot of the story God is telling in your life. The story is about God, but it is also about you. He is the hero, but you also are a kind of hero.  When you are stumbling and hesitating, and even betraying the commitments you made, don’t lose heart. That would be like closing the book while the hero is still in the early stages, still becoming the person he or she will later be. In many stories, these early failures eventually take on a kind of relish, when we see how far the hero has come in the tale. They serve as reminders of reasons to remain humble, always. And when the final, glorious triumph is revealed, we can only say: What a good story!

That is why we should not only pray but progress in prayer.


Image courtesy of Unsplash.

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