Reflection, Contemplation, and Prayer:
A Triad of Spiritual Awareness
Part 4: Interlude Two
Stages of Prayer
When we began this journey together, I said to you that we were undertaking a “four-week walk toward spiritual awareness.” Did I lie? This is the fourth week, and we are not finished. Perhaps I meant four weeks separated by other weeks, or maybe I misjudged, or I am illustrating a point. I will go with that last one.
How desperately we want our progression into the depths of God to be smooth and speedy. With leaps and bounds, we joyfully ascend the heights of spiritual maturity, basking in the divine light of God’s companionship! How wonderful that would be. Alas, we all know that our desires for easy and constant progression through spiritual discernment are fraught with difficulty, punctuated with loneliness, desperation, and doubt.
Your first decision when undertaking this adventure thus, is whether you are serious enough to embrace the punctuations and deal with the disappointments. Four weeks turn into forty, time stands still; the unexpected becomes the norm. Our life experience, as badly as we might want to regularize and systematize it, is a series of random interruptions and constant adjustment after another. At our best we flow with the undulations; at our worst, we rebel in destructive fury; but neither way will change the system. “The best-made plans of mice and men” are companions in futility, if we believe that we can muscle or wish our lives into perfect order.
Embracing the punctuations and disappointments of life with optimism and grace acknowledges the power of the system and our mastery over it. Yes, mastery! When St. Paul proclaims, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8-9) he is proclaiming victory over the forces of this world. Jesus never told us or implied that all troubles, or even interruptions, would go away when we follow him. St. Paul emphasizes Jesus’ teaching by sharing his own difficulties in the missionary journeys he undertook and in his personal life. His and our mastery over the forces of “sin and death” does not mean bending reality to our will, but embracing all we encounter with Jesus Christ.
As believers, we claim the promises Jesus made as he proclaimed: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20b) Our confrontation with the random and often disagreeable forces of life can be with optimism and grace as we remain aware that we are not alone—even when we feel we are.
Stages of Prayer
As you undertake your prayer you will find, as we discussed in Part 1, that it will quickly fracture and degrade; this is unavoidable. This is the normal progression, the same system of life we struggle with—or embrace—every moment of every day. Can you relate? But when we turn to God to grow spiritually, we often believe that this system will be healed, even overwritten by God. When that does not happen, when the system breaks our vision of perfection, then we are in the most danger. Without some kind of intervention, you may write all this off as a fantasy, or as some overrated emotional fiction. Let me assure you it is neither.
That God can and will heal the fracture with focus and peace and will overwrite the degradation with presence and love, is without question. You will get glimpses (you may already have), but it may be a while before it becomes a constant respite. To progress along the path, you must be constantly aware of the stages of prayer. By this I do not mean the method of praying or even the order of prayers, but the stages of victory and failure, light and darkness, knowledge and unknowing.
Stage One: Encounter
You receive immediate and blessed contact with the divine as you release yourself to God in prayer. This is God’s gift to you and is intended to strengthen you for what is to come.
Stage Two: Dedication
You dedicate yourself to prayer and the process of prayer. Empowered by the Encounter, you are energized and elated, filled with optimism and love.
Stage Three: Distortion
You have “a bad night” or a “hard day,” which will explain your lack of focus and feeling at your prayer time. You move into your own thoughts and explain away the distant feeling you have as a product of outside forces.
Stage Four: Rally
You redouble your efforts and force yourself through your prayers with the sheer force of will. With personal resolve, you power through your prayers, aware of your own effort.
Stage Five: Fracture
You are unable to find peace or focus even before you pray. Even the thought of prayer seems exhausting. You decide to “take a break” until you feel better.
Stage Six: Disillusionment
Thinking about the prayer experience, you decide it didn’t work because it is “not for you,” or that it may not even be real. You convince yourself that the great feeling you had when you started was of your own making, as when you get excited to go to a party. You don’t go back.
Maybe I should have called these,
The Stages of Response to the Call to Communion
by God through Prayer
by My Own Power.
The time that we are spending together here is intended to short-circuit these stages. At any stage, you are capable of breaking out and reinitiating your journey. At any point in your prayer process, you can interrupt the stages and begin again. The secret is to be aware of the stages themselves. Remember what St Paul proclaims, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Roman 8:38-39) While St. Paul is absolutely correct, he did not mention the greatest power of all: our ability to turn away from God. Jesus will always be with us, but we can ignore, or even try to run away from him. My thoughts, my power, my practice, and my rationalization will keep me from feeling and knowing the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
You must expect the fracture and the distortion, the degradation of your thoughts, and the breaking of your expectations as you fail to pray and fail to feel the presence of God. At that moment, you must recognize that Jesus is with you and knows what you are thinking and feeling and will save you from yourself.
Stage Zero: Awareness and Relinquishment
Know what you are doing, and embrace doing and thinking it. See yourself in the moment and give that person to God. Relinquish your thoughts and breathe the holy breath of calm surrender. Start again with this thought: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
In Him as He is with me,
Father Bill Burk†