My recent blog post, Praying to find Harmony, discusses various thoughts on how prayer may be most effective – specifically, having a consistent practice of prayer and doing things that help you invoke the feeling behind the thought. In discussing prayer, though, I also want to comment on types of prayer, according to St. Teresa of Avila.
Caroline Myss, in her book, Entering the Castle, summarizes St. Teresa’s mystical work called The Interior Castle – a treatise explaining how to become close to your soul and hence, close to God. She uses the metaphor of a beautiful, protected soul’s castle into which we may enter and safely dialogue with our own soul, the divine aspect of ourselves, receiving guidance about ourselves and our choices. Myss explains:
Once inside your Castle, you imagine the soul as a companion with whom you also communicate through prayer and contemplation…Give up thinking life owes you anything. Give up being lazy and wishing things were easier all the time. In short, give up wishing your life were other than the way it is and do something with the life you have. (104)
Prayer is our way to communicate with our soul, and as we progress on our path, we go through sequential stages of prayer. Myss explains Avila’s “stages of prayer.”
The first is what we call Repetitive Prayer. “For Teresa, repetitive prayer, such as saying the rosary or a mantra, is the most basic form of prayer, but it reflects a soul afraid to approach God. When repeating words, you have no chance to listen and receive” (Myss 106). Repetitive prayer is, however, a good way to establish a daily prayer practice. Also it can alter consciousness. Through the repetition and the habit, one can slip into a more mindful, feeling-based connection with something greater.
The next, more advanced type of prayer is Prayer of Recollection.
In a recollection prayer you re-collect yourself and pray yourself into wholeness. You gather together parts of your spirit that you have neglected, forgotten, or attached to others. In recalling your spirit to yourself, you detach from all outside influences…Engage in conversation with your soul in each room. Pray and listen. Pray and listen. What do you hear? (Myss 106)
This is more akin to a conversation. Pray and listen. It seems that the listening part is not taught in many of our mainstream religions, but this is profound to discover that in prayer, you can and should listen for the answer to your question.
The third type is Prayer of Contemplation.
You enter into silence for the purpose of self-reflection…reflect on your actions, thoughts, and deeds…You’re mining these chunks of raw emotions so that you can find the value hidden within them. Sit with each discovery until you can see through the raw ore to the gold or jewel it holds. Be fearless! (Myss 107)
Once you have mastered this inner knowing, you move forward to The Prayer of Quiet.
At this stage, you have matured past the need to use prayer for petitioning favors or for a personal safety net. You have detached from the quest for psychological or emotional tranquility into a state of soul tranquility. Doubts and fears about your ability to survive the physical world are gone. You have moved into an unconditional trust that yields a mystical “quietude,” as Teresa describes it, a divine bliss that is given to you spontaneously, a taste of heaven. (Myss 108)
Finally, though it seems that the bliss of quietude would be one of the highest gifts, there is yet a fifth category, The Prayer of Union, where “you experience a mystical state of union with God…In such a state, your senses and mind are numbed, in a state of suspension.” In fact, “in one of her experiences, Teresa noted, her senses wanted to go with her when God called, but they and her mind were simply too fragile. Only her soul could withstand the presence of God” (Myss 108).
This union with the Divine is the ultimate realization, and those who have experienced it are changed forever, it seems. It may come through other mystical experience, this feeling of union with the divine, but when it comes, you want nothing but that feeling!
Sophy Burnham, in her book The Ecstatic Journey, explains, “When the mystic has merged with God, in the extreme ecstasy of divine union, all physical rules give way. ‘What do you want me to do now?’ she asks her God. ‘Where do I go now?’ For she is burning in the fire of Love” (97).
Burnham’s spiritual journey is profound, and I recommend the book. She has a deep relationship with the Divine, and her practice of prayer is powerful. She says, “During the twenty years that have passed since my ecstasy on Machu Picchu I have learned ways to converse with what I’m satisfied are beings of great spiritual beauty and delight. I ask them questions and they answer with deep wisdom and delight” (249-250).
Through this ability to ask and then listen, she received insight into prayer that resonates with me. Let me present this in her words:
Once we were talking about this and that. I asked a questions, and the answer came back, Pray.
I thought about that for a moment. “Why should I pray? I asked. “You already know what I want. What’s the point?”
Instantly the answer came back telepathically in three parts, but seen as a whole, the way you see a painting in its totality and only afterward analyze its brush strokes and colors and lines.
The first answer was, So we will know what you want, in order that we may give you what you need.
The second reason was, Because when you pray, for a few moments you surrender – – it may only be fifteen seconds out of fifteen minutes of attempted prayer. But in that moment of surrender, you open a window through which we can enter to execute the desires of your heart.
The third reason I would never have been able to make up in my wildest imaginings. Because your prayers give us the energy to do our work.
With our thoughts we give or drain their energy. Our doubts, despair, and fear serve as hindrances for these spiritual creatures, who must expend energy combatting our anxiety before being able to do their work. It was only then that I understood that we stand in relationship to angels, to the spiritual beings that surround us. They need us as we need them. Their task is to serve and help us, and they need our help to do their work. (250)
“They need our help to do their work.” It is good to pray.
Burnham, Sophy. The Ecstatic Journey. NY: Ballantine Books, 1997.
Myss, Caroline. Entering the Castle. NY: Free Press, 2007.