To classify kinds of prayer, and to allow me to make general points on the nature of prayer, I sketched out a typology of seven stages of prayer, using the image of stages of education.The three most elementary types of prayer are a kind of K-12 education. Then there are three forms of prayer which could be likened to being in spiritual college. The seventh type of prayer I likened to “graduate school.” Finally, I mentioned in a sentence the perfection of prayer beyond death.
A. Public school of prayer (3 distinct levels). The ﬁrst level of prayer, most elementary, is rooted in the literal meaning of “pray” as “ask.” One asks “God” for something, or for some beneﬁt for oneself or for someone else. This form of prayer is a an expression of the self’s desires, and to a degree, remains self-centered.
The second level of prayer, rising a little higher, is not asking God for things or beneﬁts, but thanking God for blessings received, either for oneself, or for others. A thankful heart is gradually transcending the conﬁnes of the contracted self, the primary spiritual problem of our age. One could take as a model some of the Psalms of thanksgiving: “I thank you, God, with all my heart. You have heard the words of my mouth.”
The third level of prayer is, in effect, spiritual-mental high school: Without thinking about oneself, one praises and worships God for Who He Is, or for what God has done in creating us and saving us. The prayer of praise is a salutary form of self-transcendence, and makes one more like God in simple goodness. Opening words of St. Augustine’s Confessions come readily to mind—and he borrows from the Psalms: “You are great, O LORD, and highly to be praised….”
B. The next three types of prayer I would not arrange on a ladder of ascent, because they not only interact, but one can advance towards union with God through any of these three types of prayer. All are beneﬁcial, and represent genuine self-transcendence. This is “college level praying,” so to speak, because mindfulness of self is being left behind. Loving union is growing.
One of these types of prayer is simple, ongoing awareness of the presence of God. When one is engaged in his or her daily activities, one may be ever aware of being in God, and working with God in one’s tasks at hand. Whether or not one pauses explicitly to offer prayers in words to God (asking, thanking, praising), one is aware of the One here and now. Last week we considered the story of Martha and Mary. Had Martha been content to prepare a meal and serve it, happy and at peace to be in the presence of the LORD, she would have been engaged in this kind of prayer. Instead, she was on level one, telling God what to do for her: “Lord, tell my sister to help me serve.” Martha was self-absorbed; Mary’s attention was lovingly absorbed in Christ’s presence. And of this Mary, sitting at the Lord’s feet and listening to his Word, Jesus said, “Mary has chosen the better portion, and it will not be taken from her.”
In a second type of “college level prayer,” one actively seeks God, responding to the Lord’s command, “Seek, and you will ﬁnd.” One questions God, as Abraham did in the reading from Genesis: “Lord, should not the God of all the world act with justice?” The biblical tradition may raise a question, but does not actively pursue it, until Jewish-Christian spiritual experience merges with Greek philosophy, the life of the mind. The Church has produced a number of men and women through the centuries who devoted much study and effort to seeking God with questioning consciousness. And these questioners drew directly or indirectly on the well-spring of philosophy, on Plato and Aristotle. A favorite example of mine of a mind seeking God is the great St. Anselm (c 1050): “Lord, if you are here, why do I not see you? If you are absent, how can I seek you? Surely you `dwell in inapproachable light.’ Who will lead me into this light?… I do not understand in order to believe, but I believe in order to understand (credo ut intelligam). His habit of questioning God, of actively seeking God in prayer makes St. Anselm a great model of genuine prayer. I highly recommend to those interested the Prayers and Meditations of St. Anselm, and especially his masterful Proslogion.
The third “college level” type of prayer is most simple and direct. Rather than being active and also mindful of God, and rather than using discursive reasoning in the search for God, one sits still in the presence of the One who is present. Without words, images, thoughts, the one praying simply and lovingly attends to the present of the Lover-Beloved, the God beyond all words and images. This kind of prayer uses the highest faculty of the human soul, the divine-human intellect, which works by simply gazing. The classic text of this kind of prayer is the masterful Cloud of Unknowing. This kind of prayer deserve to be called “contemplative prayer.” The one who is doing the work is not the self, but the divine Spirit—the divine partner in the human-divine process we call “the soul.” Indeed, in all genuine prayer, to be true and salutary, it is the Spirit who gives life, who works; and the human partner lovingly cooperates.
C. Graduate school of prayer: mystical union with God. A number of Christian mystics have left accounts of their experiences of being taken up into divine union. Outside of the New Testament and early Church fathers (such as Origen and Clement of Alexandria), nearly all of the mystical traditions in Christianity have drawn from the works of the Egyptian-Roman philosopher, Plotinus (d. 270 AD). I referred to Plotinus in the homily, for he elaborated astoundingly beautiful experiences of mystical union with the One in his voluminous writings. Plotinus writes about the experience of ekstasis, of being lifted out of himself and absorbed in awareness of divine presence. In one such visionary state, he wrote of seeing the All present in each, and each creatures in All. They were not dissolved, but fully penetrated by the One who is “all in all.” Written of a present experience, it is the most moving description of what Christians call “heaven” I have ever found. Mystical union is not someone’s fancy or imagination, or a human achievement, or a futuristic dream, but the fruit of years of cooperation with the Good, or with that which Christians usually call “God.”
Two summary points: First, we heard in the Gospel today Whom to ask to “teach us to pray.” It is the LORD, Christ, who is the divine Master and Teacher, ﬁrst and foremost. Secondly, Jesus tells us what to ask for, and what to receive: not this or that, but “the Holy Spirit who will be given to you.” All genuine prayer is the work and fruit of the Holy Spirit, the divine presence at work in the hearts of the faithful. It is the Spirit alone who opens up the self into the realm of God.