PRAYER: The Degrees Of Prayer by Evelyn Underhill

The Degrees Of Prayer by Evelyn Underhill

Printed for the Guild of Health, 1922

The subject of this paper is man’s fundamental spiritual activity – prayer.  Every religious mind is, of course, familiar with the idea of prayer; and in one degree or another, with the practice of it.  Yet we sometimes forget how very little we really know about it; how personal and subjective are the accounts spiritual writers give of it; how empirical and how obscure in its deepest moments, even for the best of us, our own understanding of it must be.  Here we are, little half-animal, half-spiritual creatures, mysteriously urged from within and enticed from without to communion with spiritual reality.  If and when we surrender to this craving and this attraction, we enter thereby – though at first but dimly – on a completely new life, full of variety, of new joy, tension and pain, and offering an infinite opportunity of development to us.  Such is the life of prayer, as understood by the mystics, and as practiced with greater or less completeness of surrender and reward by all real lovers of Christ.

Now because of its truly living richness and variety, these men and women of prayer do not always describe their experience in the same way.  Hence the attempt which is made in many devotional books to reduce their statements to a system, turn their art into a science, often leads to failure and confusion.  I do not want, primarily, to study and compare these specialists, or discuss the subject of prayer in too technical a way; though we cannot avoid some use of psychology if we are to bring it into line with our thoughts about other aspects of life – a mental necessity for us all.  I wish rather to consider our own prayerful activities in the light of the certain fact that there are quite definite and different grades and sorts of prayer, which do appear to be the normal expressions of different grades and sorts of souls at various periods of their growth.  It seems to me well that all those truly in earnest about the practice of the inner life, and especially those trying to help other souls, should realize and study this; not in order that we may always be feeling our own devotional pulses – for nothing is worse than that – but in order that we may learn to deal wisely with our own souls, and better understand the problems of those who come to us for help.  Surely all Christians ought to possess a general conception of the normal development of the religious consciousness; and this conception should be present with us, as a general conception of the right functioning of the body is present with us.  It should govern our own prayer, truing up and correcting it, and control all our dealings with the problems of the spiritual life.

In prayer, we open up our souls to the divine energy and grace perpetually beating in on us; and receive that energy and grace, in order that it may be transmuted by our living zest into work – may cleanse, invigorate, and slowly change us.  It is therefore of primary importance to all Christians to know how best to set up and maintain the contacts of prayer.  This is a difficult art – we should bring intelligence as well as love to bear on it.  It is all very well to say that you will find it all in Saint Teresa.  For persons of mature experience, the writings of Saint Teresa are the most exact of guides; but they are guides to the mountains, and can be misunderstood by the novice, or even lead into danger those who are hasty and untrained.  Emotional temperaments, too, can find in such books an excuse for reveling in mere devotionalism; and this is contrary to the true ethos of Christian spirituality.  Christian spirituality seeks untion with God in order that we may better serve the purposes of his will; and one of the ways in which this is done is by the expansion of the prayerful consciousness.  Anything, therefore, which we can find out about this is a true extension of our knowledge of the kingdom of Heaven.

The first thing that occurs to us is, that all the machinery of prayer has but one very simple object – our loving intercourse with God – and that all progress in it can be described as an increased closeness in the intercourse and an increased perfection in the love.  The varieties and degrees of the machinery have in themselves no intrinsic importance, except in so far as they contribute to this.  We study them, as we study the normal development of bodily or mental activity, because we find, in practice, that they occur; and it is better and more healthy to know this, than to be baffled and puzzled when, for instance, we find ourselves for the first time plunged in the prayer of simplicity, and unable to make use of our ordinary forms.  But, in considering our own prayer, it is of little importance to ask ourselves whether we have attained this or that degree, but of great importance to ask ourselves what is the condition and attitude of our souls in the degree which we find ourselves to be practicing – whether this prayer is truly humbling, bracing, and vivifying us, or merely inducing a state of emotional languor or spiritual strain.  All the greatest masters of prayer bring home to us the simple, natural, unforced character of real intercourse with God.  They say again and again that prayer is nothing else but a devout intent directed towards him; and this intent expresses itself in various ways.  The beginner must be shown these ways, and often be helped to use them; but in the mature man or woman of prayer their exercise is free and spontaneous.  Perhaps there is no other department of the spiritual life in which Saint Augustine’s great saying, “Love, and do what you like,” becomes more completely true.  Julian of Norwich says at the end of her Revelations, that what she has found and felt most fully is “the homeliness, courtesy, and naturehood of God.”  So the soul’s real progress is not towards some mysterious, abnormal and trance-like condition; but rather towards the unspoilt, trustful, unsophisticated apprehension of the little child.  This is what matters; not the special degree in which it is experienced.  Thus a badly held, distracted attempt at the prayer of simplicity, involving tension and effort, and therefore self-consciousness, has far less spiritual content than an unforced, humble, and natural vocal prayer.  In prayer, will and grace cooperate.  Neither a limp abandonment to the supposed direction of the Spirit, nor a vigorous determination to wrestle with God on our own conditions the reception of grace: grace conditions the power of the prayerful will.  Hence it is useless to endeavor by willed struggle, or by obeying the rules in ascetic manuals, to reach a level of prayer to which we are not yet impelled by grace.  We cannot by stretching ourselves add an inch to our stature; the result will be strain, not growth.  All this means that we should be very chary of taking at face value the advice given in little books about “going into the silence” and so on: and should never treat this advice as though it were applicable to every soul at every time.  Real inward silence is not achieved by any deliberate spiritual trick.  It develops naturally; and most often from the full exercise of mental prayer, which is in its turn the child of properly practiced vocal prayer.  Therefore I think that no one ought to set to work to practice such inward silence until they feel a strong impulse so to do.  If we try such artificial methods, we probably drift into a mere quietistic reverie; and such reverie, though pleasant, has nothing in common with real contemplative prayer.

So, we shall do best if we enter on the study of the degrees of prayer safeguarded by this principle: that whilst keeping in mind the highest ideal of attainment, we are never to struggle for a degree or condition of fervor in which we do not naturally find ourselves.  People are often encouraged to do this by indiscriminate reading of ascetic and mystical literature, a practice to which real dangers are attached.  They browse among descriptions and counsels intended only for advanced souls, and struggle to produce states of consciousness far beyond their power.  These states will arise within us naturally and simply, only when and if we are ready for them.  In all normal cases, God feeds and leads the soul very gently.  Growth is gradual.  The many adjustments necessary to the full establishment of the prayerful consciousness take time; and often its advance is checked by periods of dullness, fatigue, and incapacity which are explicable by psychology, and must be borne with patience as instruments of our purification.  All the great masters of prayer refer to them, and insist, too, that humble surrender, not constant fervor, is the best index of the soul’s goodwill.  Thus Walter Hilton says: “When thou disposest thee to think of God, if thy heart be dull and dark, and feels neither wit nor savor nor devotion for to think, but only a bare desire and a weak will that thou wouldst think of God, but thou canst not – then I hope it is good to thee that thou strive not much with thyself, as if thou wouldst by thine own might overcome thyself.”  Here Hilton shows himself to be intuitively aware of that which psychologists now call the Law of Reversed Effort – the fact that such desperate striving with ourselves merely frustrates its own end, and increases our baffled sense of helplessness.  And again, to the soul dissatisfied with its ordinary prayers and hankering after contemplation, he says: “Press not too much thereafter, as if thou wert abiding or gaping after some strange stirrings or some wonderful feeling other than thou hast had.”  And another old English mystic tells us not to be like “greedy greyhounds” snatching at God’s gifts, but to come gently and willingly to his outstretched hand and take what he gives us.

Psychology could gloss all these counsels, and prove their validity from its own point of view.  Indeed, the more we read of the directions for education and practice in prayer which are given by the mystics, the more we are struck by their psychological exactitude.  All that we are at present able to say about the technique of prayer and contemplation as a part of the psychology of religious experience has been said by them more beautifully and incisively.  I think that nothing gives one more strongly the sense of belonging to a supernatural society committed to the practice of the spiritual life than the discovery of this identity: finding on one hand our own difficulties and errors noted and dealt with centuries ago, on the other hand those psychological conceptions of the unconscious, of affective thought and of suggestion, which we like to think so modern, merely translating the discoveries of the mystics into the language of the present day.  The degrees of prayer can therefore be described either in terms of psychology or in terms of grace.  We ought, I think, to study them on both levels; for the more we are able to come to terms with modern forms of expression the more we are likely to be able to spread the news of the kingdom of God.

We take, then, as our first principle the humble and diligent use of the degree of prayer natural to a soul at any particular stage of its course, and not the anxious straining towards some other degree yet beyond it: and as our second principle, that prayer has its psychological as well as its spiritual side, and in the effort to understand it better we should keep our eye on both.  It has been well said that our Lord in all his acts and teaching kept his eye on man as he really is; and here, in particular, we should make a humble but persistent effort to follow him.  From this point we can go on to consider what the degrees of prayer really are.  Spiritual writers give them various names and divisions, but as a matter of fact they shade into one another, forming, as it were, a sliding scale from the simplest prayer of the Christian child to the infused contemplation of the soul absorbed in God.  I propose now to make five divisions: and these are – Vocal Prayer, Meditation, the Prayer of Immediate Acts, the Prayer of Simplicity, the Prayer of Quiet.  Beyond these are the higher degrees of contemplation, which are outside our present scope.

First, then, comes Vocal Prayer.  We all know what this is; but we do not always remember, in our eagerness for something more spiritual, that apart from its devotional aspect its educative value for the soul that uses it is greater than is sometimes supposed.  In vocal prayer we speak, not only to God, but also to ourselves.  We are filling our minds with acts of love, praise, humility, and penitence, which will serve us well in times when the power of mental prayer seems to fail us and the use of these formulas becomes the only way of turning to God left within our reach.  Moreover, psychology insists that the spoken word has more suggestive power, is more likely to reach and modify our deeper psychic levels, than any inarticulate thought; for the centers of speech are closely connected with the heart of our mental life.  Therefore those who value the articulate recitation of a daily office, the use of litanies and psalms, are keeping closer to the facts of existence than those who only talk generally of remaining in a state.  I feel sure that some vocal prayer should enter into the daily rule even of the most contemplative soul.  It gives shape and discipline to our devotions, and keeps us in touch with the great traditions of the church.  Moreover, such vocal prayers, if we choose them well, have the evocative quality of poetry: they rouse the dormant spiritual sense, and bring us into the presence of God.  “Oft it falls,” says Hilton, “that praying with thy mouth gets and keeps fervor of devotion, and if a man cease from saying, devotion vanishes away.”

As the life of prayer begins to exert its full power, such vocal prayers will gradually but steadily become slower and more pondered.  The soul finds in their phrases more and more significance, makes of these phrases special applications, and is led on by them to petitions and aspirations of its own.  This means that it is drawing near to the next stage, that of meditation.  This is the first degree of mental prayer; that is to say, prayer in which we do not repeat set forms, but do something on our own account.  Meditation is a word which covers a considerable range of devotional states.  It is perhaps most simply defined as thinking in the presence of God.  And since our ordinary thoughts are scattered, seldom poised for long on one point, but evoked and influenced by a multitude of external things, real meditation requires as its preliminary what ascetic writers call recollection – a deliberate gathering of ourselves together, a retreat into our own souls.  This is more easily done by a simple exercise of the imagination, a gentle turning to God, than by those ferocious efforts towards concentrating which some manuals advise, and which often end by concentrating attention on the concentration itself.  I will not go further into their technical descriptions of method; which seem so difficult when we read them, and often worry people needlessly.  There is no virtue in any one method, except in so far as it succeeds; and different methods succeed with different souls.  For some, the slow reading of a passage in the Bible or the Imitation leads directly to a state of prayer: for others, a quiet dwelling on one of God’s attributes is a gateway to adoration.  Articulate speech is now left aside, but the ceaseless stream of inward discourse may persist, and become a secret conversation with God; while others will be led to consideration, a quiet ruminating on spiritual things.  As to three-point meditations and so on, it is perhaps enough if we keep in mind that every real meditation, however short, natural, and artless, does involve three points: for our mind, will, and feelings are all exercised in it.  We think in some way of the subject of our meditation.  We feel the emotion, whether of love, penitence, or joy, which it suggests to us.  And finally, the aim of all meditative prayer is a resolution, or a renewal of our surrender to God: and this is an act of the will.

Practically every person who prays at all, and has not reached one of the stages of contemplative prayer, can meditate in a simple way if he chooses to practice this art; and it is most fruitful, especially perhaps in the early stages of the spiritual life, whilst the purgation and remaking of character is still in the foreground. It comes naturally to people of active minds, the reasoners, and the ponderers; who have only to occupy their normal thinking powers on spiritual material for a set period of each day in order to develop it. Many souls remain in this type of prayer throughout their spiritual course. Within its own limitations it gives ample scope for variety; and this is a great need if the life of prayer is to be kept in a wholesome state. It can be applied to a wide range of subjects and conditions of the soul; extending from the simplest reflections, considerations, and talkings to God, arising often out of our reading or our vocal or liturgic prayer, to the beginnings of those spontaneous acts of the will and heart which are really the first movements towards the next degree of prayer; that is to say, the Prayer of Immediate Acts.

The transition from meditation to immediate acts takes place only in those souls which have some tendency to contemplation; not perhaps much, but still an aptitude seeking expression.  By them it is commonly felt as a decreasing inclination to reason or discourse in prayer, and an increasing inclination to simple, spontaneous expressions of love and penitence.  It is true that the praying self does think; but not with the same method and completeness as before.  It now dwells more and more on the affections; on acts of love and adoration, meek aspirations to God, expressed in short phrases which may seem banal enough when we read them in books of devotion, but become charged, for the soul in this degree, with the most intense significance.  We remember the favorite aspiration of Saint Francis: “My God, my God, what art thou and what am I?”  Such aspirations, formed from memories of past reading and prayers, rise spontaneously into consciousness as the prayer proceeds; and those whose minds are richly stored with scripture phrases and liturgic forms will seldom be at a loss for them.  They are, however, only the expression of the act.  “Press thou towards God with the sharp dart of thy longing love,” says the author of The Cloud of Unknowing in his directions for this prayer, “and take no thought for words.”  Intuition here begins to take the place of logical considerations; and, as psychologists would say, affective thought as well as rational thought is taken up into the life of prayer, which not overflows its first boundaries and invades wider and wider regions of the self.   As this degree matures in those to whom it is appropriate, the “immediate acts” of the heart decrease and will grow simpler and rarer.  There is often a marked distaste and inability for meditation.  There are pauses, periods of deep silence, hushed communion which the soul feels to be more and more fruitful.  Here we are at the threshold of that progressive absorption which leads to the true contemplative state.  Gradually one act of will, affection, or aspiration comes more and more to dominate the whole prayer, say of half an hour’s duration or more: and is used merely to true up that state of attention which is the very heart of prayer.  When this condition is established, the soul has reached the degree which is sometimes called the prayer of simplicity, and sometimes that of repose, simple attention, or active contemplation.  It is thrown open with great love and desire to God, but in so simple a way that it cannot analyze its own experience.  Its whole impulse is to wait on him rather than to speak to him.  It was in the effort to describe the apprehensions of this degree that the author of The Cloud of Unknowing said, “God may well be loved, but not thought.  Therefore I will leave all I can think and take to my love that which I cannot think.”  Nevertheless I am sure it is a mistake to imagine that such prayer can be well developed and preserved, unless a certain care be given to its mental preparation.  It is far better to enter it with some idea or disposition in the mind, some special thought of God, some distinct orientation of the will, than in the state of vague blankness characteristic of quietism; for this will merely encourage distraction and religious day-dreams, and may even bring about a sort of self-hypnotization.  The ultimate object of all prayer is greater efficiency for God, not the limp self-abandonment of quietism; and therefore as the soul approaches the passive degrees a careful discrimination becomes necessary.  The direction of the mystics is that we should enter on simple contemplation with “a devout intent directed to God,” and there is something very definite about that.

We often confuse ourselves by speaking and thinking of contemplation as a “state.”  It is not a state in the sense of being static, a continuous unchanging condition.  In all those degrees of prayer which we are considering, a constant variety of acts is normal, wholesome, and inevitable.  Though a rapt attention to God dominate the prayer, within this attention must fluctuate, thoughts and acts must arise from time-to-time.  To say this is only to say that our mental life persists in it.  Now when these thoughts and acts, these ripples on the deep pool of contemplation, are born of that profound feeling of charity and compassion which cannot long remain untouched by our neighbors’ needs and griefs, then surely intercession of the very best kind is exercised by us.  For intercession is a special and deliberate way of exercising love, in completest union with the love of God.  And to be in perfect charity with all men is already to intercede for them; to put, as it were, our spiritual weight on their side of the scale.

These four degrees of prayer – that is, ordinary vocal prayer, mental prayer or meditation, immediate acts, and simplicity – are to a great extent within the self’s control.  In theological language they are natural and not supernatural degrees.  Once they are thoroughly established, the soul can normally and under suitable conditions produce them.  But with the real Prayer of Quiet, we pass beyond this condition.  It is wholly involuntary.  None can produce it of themselves; and it seems always to come as a distinct and irresistible experience from without.  In technical terms, it is “infused” or the work of grace.  In this real quiet, which may come suddenly upon the soul in the course of its ordinary prayer, it is not merely drawn towards a simple and imageless attention to God and aspiration towards him.  It is more or less intensely aware of his presence.  Here, in fact, we have the first faint emergence of the mystical consciousness, in stillness and humility receiving the obscure impression of the divine.  In the prayer of simplicity and aspiration, the deeps of the unconscious are opened up to God; and that this is veritably done in these degrees is proved by their effect on the impulsive sources of conduct.  But in the quiet, and the simple union which is the full development of quiet, this apprehension overflows into consciousness; and this is something which the self cannot effect by the exercise of will.  All great writers on prayer insist on this point.

Sometimes the establishment of this new degree comes by way of a painful inward struggle and aridity; what Saint John of the Cross has described as “the night of the senses” – a period of distress and obscurity, in which it seems to the soul that it is losing all it had gained of the life of prayer.  This is more especially felt by people who have real contemplative aptitude, and whom this type of spirituality is destined in the end to dominate.  It meets and must conquer many resistances in their active minds, must cut for itself new paths; and this may involve tension and suffering and the apparent withdrawal of the ordinary power of prayer.  Here is a point at which skilled and sympathetic guidance is of special service to the soul, which is often bewildered and disheartened by its own experience, its strange sense of dimness and incapacity.  Others, whose natural level is, and may always remain, the prayer of aspiration or of simplicity, may find themselves plunged in the quiet from time-to-time; and will obtain from this experience a refreshment, power, and absolute certitude which the other degrees of prayer cannot give.

Beyond this point it is hardly I think for us, as ordinary Christians, to explore; and indeed, the cold analysis of these living experiences can only be justified by a longing to help other souls on the path which leads to closer knowledge of God.  There is real truth in Hilton’s warning that “a ransacker of the might of God and his majesty, without great purity and meekness, shall be overlaid and oppressed of himself.”  And perhaps nothing could be worse for our own devotional life than perpetual exploration of that which lies far beyond us.  But, looking back at the degrees which we have considered, there are two points regarding them which it is well that we should bear in mind.  The first is of practical, the second of psychological interest.

The practical point is this.  The use of the higher degrees of prayer does not and should not ever mean the total abandonment of the lower degrees.  The soul adds on new ways of intercourse; but this does not involve the abolishing of the old ways – that because she has reached the quiet joy of simplicity she is never to use formal prayer, never to discourse or think out her ideas before God, or make deliberate acts of penitence and love.  To suppose this is the fundamental error of quietism.  The healthiness of our spiritual life, like that of our mental life, depends to a great extent on its suppleness, and on the variety which we are able to impart to it.  We should never, therefore, be afraid of such variety, or suppose we are losing ground if we find ourselves again using discursive prayer or formal acts after practicing the higher degrees.  The mystics are insistent on this point.  Thus Saint John of the Cross says, that when the soul is not in the prayer of simplicity it “ought to avail itself in all its exercises of the help of good thoughts and meditations, according to what brings it the greatest spiritual profit.”  And Saint Teresa still more strongly – “Since God has given the powers of the soul in order that we may use them, and the work of each has its reward, instead of trying to imprison them by a sort of enchantment let them freely perform their ordinary office, until it pleases God to raise them to a higher state.”

It is therefore best to be ready to go up and down the ladder of love: sometimes speaking and sometimes listening, sometimes thinking and sometimes resting in the communion which is beyond thought and speech.  A quiet and meek retreat to a lower degree of prayer, which one can do, is worth far more than the anxious struggle to tune oneself up to a degree which (anyhow for the moment) one cannot do.  Self-will in prayer is a subtle temptation, known to most religious people.  But there is always some way of turning to God which is within our reach, however distracted or weary we may be: and as a general rule, it is surely better to begin there, quite simply, though the crudity and childishness of our level of feeling and expression may deal a smart blow at our self-respect.  Constituted as we are, it is inevitable that our spiritual aptitude should fluctuate, as does the rest of our plastic and unstable psychic life.  This limitation ought not to depress us, but it ought to keep us in humility; and humility is the one grace which gives wings to the simplest prayer.

Finally, consider the ground we have traversed from the psychological point-of-view.  What does it come to?  Surely to a progressive abolition of concepts and reasonings, of realistic thought, a steady increase in the dominance of autistic thought or reverie – a bringing in of the marginal faculties, a widening of the arc of consciousness, and throwing open of fresh areas of the soul.  The sanctions of prayer of this type must therefore depend on the following factors:

First, the extent in which we are willing to allow that spiritual forces are thus brought to play upon the deep-seated impulsive life, and so caused directly to influence the conduct which that impulsive life actuates.  And here the tranquilizing, strengthening, and finally transforming effect of regular and persevering meditation is well known.

Secondly, on our acknowledgment that the peculiar clairvoyance of the unconscious mind, which has already been demonstrated (though not explained) in other directions, extends also into the spiritual sphere; and that therefore recourse to it may be recourse to a veritable organ of knowledge.  In the passive states of prayer, we give that unconscious mind the opportunity of presenting its results to the conscious reason and will.  In saying this, of course, we merely seek to give a psychological account of what happens in these degrees; an account which leaves their religious meaning untouched.  No experienced Christian will be willing to allow that in such prayer he merely explores his own buried resources.  He is aware, at least in his deepest and most surrendered moments, of real contact with a real spiritual order, however dimly and mysteriously known: and from this contact he does receive renewal of assurance and of life.  But without infringing the religious character of this experience or the proper reserves of the soul, I think we may and ought to seek some understanding of its psychology.  If, then, we look at the degrees of prayer as the great Christian specialists have usually taught them, in the light of this conception of the widening of the arc of consciousness, we perceive how their empirical methods receive the support of science.  For (1) all these teachers begin with vocal prayer, the most direct and powerful instrument of suggestion, tuning up the psychic deeps for the activities we are to ask from them.  (2) They proceed to meditation, bringing the imagination to bear on the soul’s desired achievement, whether this be increase of virtue and grace, clearer realization of the objects of faith or conquest of special weakness and sin.  By this exercise, the machinery of autistic though is set going in the right direction, the great inner world of reverie is given over to the love of God, and that which might only have been dream becomes the strong instigator of act.  Here the powers which commonly squander themselves on fantasy are rescued, and achieve their appropriate sublimation.  (3) In the following degrees, of immediate acts and simplicity, sometimes grouped together as affective prayer, the unified or “recollected” self directs its whole impulse longing in one direction.  By its so-called “acts” and “aspirations” – brief suggestive phrases charged with feeling – it maintains this fruitful psychic state, gradually passing more and more completely into the prayer of simplicity or loving and silent attention to God.  (4) In those temperamentally inclined to mystical prayer, the trained subliminal faculties may from time-to-time overflow, as it were, and dominate the conscious field.  This is psychology’s account of infused contemplation, as most simply experienced in the prayer of quiet.  Nor need we consider such an account irreligious.  We know in other departments of life that some of our greatest experiences and all our most fruitful intentions are undoubtedly prepared and matured in the subconscious deeps, and it is only their finished results that enter the conscious field.  And this I believe to be true of the soul’s deepest intercourse with God; abiding unbroken in the depths of personality, and then overflowing as a transforming, strengthening, and cleansing tide into the consciousness which is sufficiently pure, humble, and attentive to receive it.

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