A description of the soul's journey to full union with God

The Illuminative Way of Proficients


Ch 30 : The Degrees of Contemplative Prayer in Proficients

We have seen the nature of contemplative prayer and the difference between the last acquired prayer and initial infused prayer. We shall now consider the various degrees of infused prayer in proficients. These degrees are set forth in the works of St. Teresa (1) and in those of St. Francis de Sales.(2) We shall give the essential part of their teaching and then apply this doctrine to fervent Communion.


The degrees of contemplative prayer are chiefly those of the growing intensity of living faith, of charity, and of the gifts of the Holy Ghost which correspond to them. This growing intensity of union with God manifests itself in a way by the progressive extension of this state to the different faculties of the soul, which are gradually captivated by God, so that little by little the distractions which come from an agitated and intractable imagination cease. Besides, and this point is especially important, the virtues grow as a rule with the progress of prayer.

St. Teresa (3) makes this truth clear by comparing the degrees of prayer to four ways of watering a garden. First, water may be drawn from a well by main force; (4) this is the figure of discursive meditation, which contributes to the growth of the virtues. The second way of watering consists in drawing up the water with a waterwheel, called a noria; this is the symbol of the prayer of quiet, which is prepared by work that disposes the soul to it. At this time the flowers of the virtues are about to appear.(5)

A third way of watering consists in irrigating the garden with running water from a river; the virtues draw far more vigor from this prayer than from the preceding one, and their flowers bloom.(6)

Lastly, the fourth water, which is rain, symbolizes the prayer of union given by God without human labor. "The soul draws from this prayer much more abundant fruits, its humility increases. It is here that are born heroic promises and resolutions, burning desires, horror of the world (of its spirit), the clear view of vanity." (7)

Consequently Pius X, in his letter (March 7, 1914) on St. Teresa's doctrine, says: "The degrees of prayer enumerated by her are so many superior ascents toward the summit of Christian perfection." (8)

St. John of the Cross speaks in similar terms. He shows in particular that in the night of the senses, or passive purification of the sensibility, there is in the midst of aridity an initial infused contemplation, accompanied by an ardent desire for God.(9) It is an arid quiet, often spoken of by St. Jane de Chantal, which prepares the soul for the consoled quiet described by St. Teresa in the fourth mansion.


In sweet quiet, which corresponds to the second way of watering, that is, with the pump, "the will alone is captivated" (10) by the living light that manifests the sweet presence of God in us and His goodness. At this moment the gift of piety, which is in the will itself, disposes it to an entirely filial affection toward God. This state has been compared to that of a little child who relishes the milk given it. Or better, it is like the springing up of the living water which Jesus spoke of to the Samaritan woman. "The other fountain. . . receives the water from the source itself, which signifies God . . .We experience the greatest peace, calm, and sweetness in the inmost depths of our being. . . . The whole physical part of our nature shares in this delight and sweetness. . . . They [the celestial waters] appear to dilate and enlarge us internally, and benefit us in an inexplicable manner, nor does even the soul itself understand  what it receives."(11)

However, in this state, the intellect, the memory, and the imagination are not yet captivated by the divine action. Sometimes they are the auxiliaries of the will and are occupied in its service; at other times their cooperation serves only to trouble it. Then, says St. Teresa, the will should "take no more notice of the understanding (or imagination) than it would of an idiot." (12)

This sweet quiet, called also the prayer of divine tastes or of silence, is, moreover, often interrupted by the aridities and trials of the night of the senses,(13) by temptations which oblige the soul to a salutary reaction. The effects of the prayer of quiet are greater virtue, especially greater love of God and ineffable peace, at least in the higher part of the soul.(14)

The prayer of quiet described by St. Teresa in the fourth mansion has three distinct phases: (I) passive recollection, which is a sweet and loving absorption of the will in God by a special grace; (2) quiet, properly so called, in which the will is captivated by God, whether it remains silent or prays with a sort of spiritual transport; (3) the sleep of the powers, when, the will remaining captive, the understanding ceases to discourse and is itself seized by God, although the imagination and the memory continue to be disturbed. (15)

The conduct to be observed in the prayer of quiet is that of humble abandonment in the hands of God. No effort should be made to place oneself in this state, which can come only from a special grace of the Holy Ghost, who at times inclines the soul to a loving silence, at others to affections which gush forth as from a spring. If the understanding and imagination wander, the soul must not be disturbed about it, or go in search of them; the will should remain and enjoy the favor it receives, like a wise bee in the depths of its retreat.(16)


If the soul is faithful not only in attentively accomplishing all its daily duties, but in listening with docility to the inspirations of the Holy Ghost, who becomes more exacting in proportion as He gives more, what happens as a rule? The soul is then raised to a higher degree, called "simple union." The action of God at this time becomes strong enough to absorb completely the interior faculties of the soul; God is the object of all its activity, which no longer wanders abroad. Not only the will is captivated by God, but also the thoughts and the memory; in addition, the soul has, as it were, the certitude of the divine presence. The imagination is no longer restless, but calmed; at times it is as if asleep, in order to allow the higher faculties of the intellect and will to be united to God. The special grace given by the Holy Ghost is then like running water coming from a river.

It even happens that all the soul's activity occurs in its higher, part, to such an extent that there is suspension of the exercise of the exterior senses, that is, a beginning of ecstasy, or ecstasy properly so called. If the mathematician who is absorbed in his research no longer hears what is said to him, with even greater reason is this true of him who is thus strongly drawn by God.

The soul then receives the salutary water that refreshes and purifies it like rain falling from heaven. According to St. Teresa, God "will leave us no share in them [His wondrous works] except complete conformity of our wills to His." (17) "How beautiful is the soul after having been immersed in God's grandeur and united closely to Him for but a short time! Indeed, I do not think it is ever as long as half an hour." (18)

St. Teresa points out also that the prayer of union is quite often incomplete, without suspension of the imagination and the memory, which sometimes wage a veritable war on the intellect.(19) It is of this incomplete mystical union that St. Teresa is speaking in The Interior Castle when she says: "Is it necessary, in order to attain to his kind of divine union, for the powers of the soul to be suspended? No; God has many ways of enriching the soul and bringing it to these mansions besides what might be called a 'short cut.' " (20)

The effects of the prayer of union are most sanctifying; there is something like a transformation of the soul similar to the metamorphosis of the silkworm into a butterfly. The soul feels great contrition for its sins; it experiences an ardent zeal to make God known and loved and to serve Him, suffers greatly at the sight of the loss of sinners, glimpses what the sufferings of our Lord must have been. Then the heroic practice of the virtues really begins, especially perfect submission to the will of God and great love for one's neighbor.(21) The martyrs have at times had this prayer in the midst of their torments.(22)

These prayers of sweet quiet and of simple union correspond to those which, in the opinion of St. John of the Cross, are found between the passive purification of the senses and that of the spirit.(23) St. Teresa, in the first chapter of the sixth mansion, speaks clearly of the purification of the spirit, as we shall see later on when we treat of arid union and of ecstatic union which precede the transforming union.(24)


Contemplative prayer, which we have just discussed, enables us to glimpse the depths of the Sacrifice of the Mass and of Communion, in which the Word of God made flesh gives Himself to us to be the food of our souls and to incorporate us more intimately in Himself, while quickening us.

St. Thomas Aquinas must have had a high degree of contemplative prayer when he composed the Office and the Mass for the feast of Corpus Christi. We shall note here some of its principal parts.

In Vespers, the responsory recalls the parable of the guests. Several, preoccupied with their own affairs or pleasures, declined to come; then the Lord invited the poor and at the Holy Table gave Himself to them as food. This is the loftiest interpretation of the parable of the guests.(25)

In the antiphon of the Magnificat at First Vespers, we read: "How sweet is Thy spirit, O Lord, who, to show Thy tenderness to Thy children, hast given them a most sweet bread from heaven; Thou dost fill the hungry with good things and sendest the rich, who have not this hunger, away empty."

The Introit of the Mass recalls the words of the Psalmist: "He fed them with the fat of wheat"; (26) this wheat is Himself, for the bread has been changed into the substance of His body, which suffered for us on the cross. When we receive it, there is a spiritual and vivifying contact, which should daily become more intimate, between our poor soul and the holy soul of the Word made flesh, for He Himself said: "He that eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood abideth in Me, and I in him." (27)

Contemplation rises with the sequence:

Lauda, Sion, Salvatorem,
lauda ducem et pastorem,
in hymnis et canticis.
Quantum potes, tantum aude,
quia major omni laude,
nec laudare sufficis
Sion, lift thy voice, and sing,
Praise thy Savior and thy King,
Praise with hymns thy Shepherd true;
Strive thy best to praise Him well;
Yet doth He all praise excel;
None can ever reach His due.

The end of the sequence shows us in Communion the prelude of the life of heaven:

Tu, qui cuncta scis et vales,
qui nos pascis bic mortales:
tuos ibi commensales,
Coheredes et sodales,
fac sanctorum civium.
Amen, Alleluia.
Thou, who feedest us below!
Source of all we have or know!
Grant that with Thy saints above,
Sitting at the feast of love,
We may see Thee face to face.
Amen. Alleluia.

In our pilgrimage toward eternity, we are nourished by the Eucharist, like the prophet Elias who, when obliged to walk even to Mount Horeb, was sustained by a loaf of bread brought to him by an angel. (28)

The hymn for Matins of this feast of the Blessed Sacrament ends in the contemplation of infinite riches inclining toward extreme poverty:

Panis angelicus fit panis hominum;
Dat panis coelicus figuris terminum.
O res mirabilis! manducat Dominum
Pauper, servus et humilis!
The bread of angels becomes the
bread of men.
The bread of heaven puts an end to figures.
O wonderful truth! Man, the  poor, the slave, the humble,
Eats his Lord.

It is the saving Host which draws infinite Mercy down upon us:

O salutaris Hostia,
Quae coeli pandis ostium:
Bella premunt hostilia,
Da robur, fer auxilium.
O saving Victim,
Opening wide the gates of heaven:
Our foes press on,
Give us strength, bring us help.

We receive this help especially during severe trials or persecutions, when faced with the enemy's attacks. At such times we more particularly need to live by penetrating and living faith and by the Contemplation of the Eucharistic mystery, and to convince ourselves in fervent Communion of the fact that God alone is great, that He alone is of Himself, that the strongest and most formidable creatures are as nothing in comparison with Him and can do no harm without His permission. Not a hair of our heads will perish unless He has willed or permitted it, says the Gospel. (29) We must convince ourselves in the living light of contemplation that when we say, "God permits evil only for a higher good," we are uttering not simply a sacred formula, but a truth replete with life. We must firmly and deeply believe that the higher good which God is beginning to realize in us in the midst of our struggles is an eternal good that will not pass away. We need to believe that profound Christian life is eternal life begun. We must nourish ourselves with these divine truths and, better still, we must nourish ourselves with Christ Himself who is divine subsistent Truth. We need to be vivified by Him, defended by Him, and to receive from Him that living flame of charity which will make us always aspire higher, even to the end of our journey. Such are in every faithful interior soul the fruits of mental prayer and fervent Communion.

What the great spiritual writers tell us about contemplative prayer is within the reach of the interior soul if it is willing to follow the way of humility and abnegation, and if it daily grasps a little better the following verse of the Magnificat: "He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble."

What the masters of the life of prayer tell us is not beyond attainment by the faithful soul which believes with lively faith that in baptism it received the seed of eternal life, and which feels the need of being daily more deeply penetrated by the infinite value of the Mass. Then the soul understands how important it is to receive from God all that, in His infinite mercy, He wishes to give souls that He may draw them to Himself and make them share eternally in His inner life, in His eternal beatitude, as the prologue of St. John's Gospel, read daily at Mass, reminds us: "But as many as received Him, He gave them power to be made the sons of God." Those who are "born of God," and not only of the flesh and of the will of man, should live especially by the divine life which, once begun in us, ought not to end. This is why Christ Himself says to us: "If any man thirst, let him come to Me, and drink. . . . Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water," (30) "a fountain of water, springing up into life everlasting." (31)



1. The Interior Castle, fourth and fifth mansions.

2. Treatise on the Love of God, Bk. VI, chaps. 8-12.

3. Cf. Life, by herself, chaps. 15-19.

4. Ibid., chap. 11.

5. Ibid., chaps. 14 f.

6. Ibid., chaps. 16 f.

7. Ibid., chaps. 18 f.

8. "Docet enim gradus orationis quot numerantur, veluti totidem superiores in christiana perfectione ascensus esse."

9. The Dark Night, Bk. I, chap. 9.

10. The Way of Perfection, chap. 31.

11. The Interior Castle, fourth mansion, chap. 1.

12. The Way of Perfection, chap. 31; The Interior Castle, fourth mansion, chap. I.

13. The Way of Perfection, chaps. 34, 38; The Interior Castle, loc. cit.

14. Life, by herself, chap. 15.

15. Ibid., chap. 17.

16. Cf. St. Francis de Sales, Treatise on the Love of God, Bk. VI, chap. 10.

17. The Interior Castle, fifth mansion, chap. I.

l18. Ibid., chap. 2.

19. Life, chap., 17.

20. Fifth mansion, chap. 3. This short cut and the delights found in it are not infused contemplation (which may be arid); it is only the suspension of the imagination and the memory or a beginning of ecstasy, which sometimes accompanies mystical union and greatly facilitates it. Cf. J. Arintero, a.p., Evolucion mistica, 2nd ed., p. 667, and Cuestiones misticas, 2nd ed., p. 330. Cf. also A. Saudreau, Degres de la vie spirituelle, 5th ed., II, 101, no. 2. The short cut is thus the absence of distractions and fatigue, and an abundance of very sensible joy.

21. The Interior Castle, fifth mansion, chap. 2.

22. In Lettres de Rome sur l'atheisme moderne (June, 1936, pp. 125 ff.), there was a letter from Spain, dated May 7, 1936, which was written by a young Christian girl who was soundly thrashed as the result of a calumny uttered against her by the Communists. She writes: "How the Lord gives necessary strength to those who pray! I, who am so cowardly, saw death near with a peace which I should never have imagined possible in myself. In spite of the nervous tension of two hours of anguish, I did not lose my serenity, since I was sure of going to heaven immediately after death which awaited us."

23. The Dark Night, Bk. II, chap. I; A Spiritual Canticle, st. 26. There is generally a period of calm between the night of the senses (which corresponds to the beginning of the fourth mansion of St. Teresa) and the night of the spirit (which is indicated in the sixth mansion).

24. Cf. infra, chap. 51.

25. Matt. 22:1-14.

26. Ps. 80: 17.

27. John 6:57.

28. Cf. III Kings 19:6.

29. Luke 21: 18.

30. John 7:37 f.

31. John 414.