Conversatio Divina

Part 2 of 14

Stages in the Journey of Prayer

Joan Nesser

Do not awaken love until its time.
 –Song of Solomon 3:5

It is difficult to talk about stages of development without feeling as if we should be somewhere other than where we are. This seems to be particularly true of spiritual development and prayer. We all want to be spiritually mature. But we need to remember Jesus’ teaching that maturity involves becoming like little children.

Perhaps, therefore, we should talk about diminishment rather than growth. John the Baptist said he must decrease as Jesus increased. The Christian spiritual journey growth has to do with letting go of control of our own lives and dying to our false selves so that our true selves can be born. It is as we die that we can live and say with the apostle Paul, “It is no longer I who live, it is Christ who lives in me.” Galatians 2:20. All Scripture quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

The false self is the part of us that is fearful, grasping, competitive, controlling, and all the other things we would rather not be. The true self is a person of goodness who dwells deep within and shines forth with the attributes of Christ. Our true selves are set free as we learn to receive and trust in God’s unlimited love and forgiveness. This internal battle and the challenge of becoming our truest self should inform our spiritual formation and growth in prayer.


01.  The Transformational Journey

It is also important to remember that stages of spiritual growth are descriptive, not prescriptive. They are not something to accomplish. They are simply ways of mapping the journey.

Just as there are features of each stage of biological or psychological development, the same is true in spiritual development. For example, teenage years are associated with separation from parental control and becoming an independent adult, just as midlife typically involves an increase in introspection as people begin to be more attentive to the realities of their inner worlds. These are not mandates. They are simply stages of the passage through life.

In the same way, a serious God-seeker will usually go through different ways of experiencing God in prayer. In her book, Interior Castle, Teresa of Avila speaks of seven stages of this prayer journey.Teresa of Avila. Interior Castle. Classics of Western Spirituality. (New York: Paulist Press, 1979). These can be easily coordinated to the classic Christian description of purgation, illumination, and union. In more contemporary language we can describe purgation as the stage of cleansing, healing, and renewal; illumination as the beginning of conscious awareness of the Holy Spirit; and union as the experience of oneness with God and with God’s will.

Each of these stages of the journey involves important soul work that requires bringing one’s needs, sorrows, anger, depression, joys, and gratitude to God in prayer. Honesty and openness to God in prayer are the route to inner healing and transformation. Sometimes in our desire to be mature, we sit in silence and try to quiet our spirits when we should be pouring out our inner realities to God.

02.  The Purgative Way

Times of purgation can be filled with pain and tears as well as joys and gratitude. They are times of learning to trust God and to receive God’s love. This is an important process that should not be rushed. No matter who we are or how abusive or loving a home we were raised in, we all need healing and conversion.

Purgation is a time of letting go of old ways of doing things—our competitive nature, our perfectionism, and our self-centered focus, to name but a few—and a time to discover the amazing grace of God’s unconditional love. The journey to wholeness is a journey of growth in trusting God’s unconditional and unrestricted love.

Whatever stands in the way of complete union or oneness with God and the fullest expression of the image of God will be revealed and brought to the surface as we journey. If we are willing, it will be healed, and we will be transformed.

God wants us to be whole and holy—to be all we can be. God wants to love us and wants us to be able to receive his love. One could say the journey of prayer is the process of falling in love.

We can trust that whatever we encounter in life can be used by God. God doesn’t send hardships, but we can count on their arriving. The good news, however, is that God uses whatever happens in our lives to bring to the surface that which hinders love—either receiving love or giving love.

Prayer during the purgative stage is mostly active —consisting of meditation on Scripture and humbly listening to what is surfacing within us. As we meditate and listen we learn what obstacles hidden in our depths keep us from receiving God’s love.

In seeking to know God and become all God has created us to be, we find our true selves. We grow in self-knowledge. Teresa of Avila tells us that growth in knowledge of God requires growth in self-knowledge. Teresa of Avila, 42–43. We cannot love God or our neighbor freely and fully unless we first love ourselves. Nor can we love whom we do not first know.

03.  The Illuminative Way

Letting go and realizing God’s desire for good in our lives bring illumination and a shift in how we relate to God. The relationship begins to be centered more in God’s activity and our possible responses than in our own needs or wants. We also discover that we are developing a greater awareness of God’s presence in and through life, as well as a resting in God.

It is the letting go and resting in God that often brings an experience of the transcendence of God. This is the beginning of a more interior relationship with God. It also sometimes brings the experience of the charismata as described in 1 Corinthians 12. In the language of Teresa of Avila, we are now leaving the outer rooms of the Interior Castle, and our relationship with Christ is becoming more interior.Teresa of Avila, 67.

We now begin to learn to listen to God who dwells within. Before this time of illumination, we have been accustomed to gaining knowledge through our senses of sight, touch, taste, hearing and smell. God could communicate with us only “through external means such as books, sermons, good friendships, and trials.”Teresa of Avila, 22.

As we continue on this journey, God helps us gradually to turn our attention inward, where the Spirit dwells in the center of our souls. We now begin to experience God as Spirit. While our prayer remains more active than contemplative, we are being prepared for a greater experience of union with God. And ever so gradually, we begin to notice that our prayer is less what we do than what God is doing in us, and we are drawn to silence and toward union in God.

04.  The Unitive Way

The experience of prayer gradually becoming more silent and the feeling of being drawn toward solitude often suggest the beginning of unitive prayer. You may now feel closer to God in silence than in worded prayer. And you may find that when you attempt to offer worded prayer, your prayer is empty and meaningless.

At this time, you may even find a need to step away for a time from spiritual activities that have previously been a blessing. You may also experience a strong desire to be alone, yet that aloneness may often be filled with emptiness and dryness in prayer. This is God’s invitation to contemplative prayer. This is the time to let old ways of praying go and trust that God is working in the silence.

Contemplative prayer can seem very empty. Because you have been accustomed to more activity, it may seem you aren’t really praying. The fourteenth-century classic, The Cloud of Unknowing, is well titled. In contemplative prayer we must let go everything we have known of prayer and God in the past. We must let control of our own life go.

The mystics speak of dark prayer. Contemplative prayer is dark to the understanding. We do not know what is happening or what God is doing. We feel as though we are losing our spiritual lives. We are brought to self-abandonment. This is true diminishment. It is when we become comfortable in this “not knowing” that our prayer is truly contemplative.

But the darkness of unknowing also has guideposts. We now know where we are by the fruit we see in our lives. For we now begin to notice greater love for God, neighbor, and ourselves.

05.  Contemplative Prayer

Prayer from this stage onward involves movement through varying degrees of contemplation. The journey of prayer is the journey of life, a journey to faith, not sight. It takes a lifetime to be drawn to union with God. Getting on to the next stage before its time is not more necessary than expecting a twenty-year-old to experience mid-life. All stages of the journey are important. We are always in God’s loving care, and God knows what is best for us at each stage.

Teresa of Avila says that the worth of one’s prayer is not judged by its passive character; rather, “it is in the effects and deeds following afterward that one discerns the true value of prayer.”Teresa of Avila, 24.

True contemplative prayer is a gift from God. But it is also appropriate to seek to grow in this more interior, life-transforming prayer. It is a great grace—an invitation from God for the Church today. It is a call not just to a form of prayer but to a way of life that incorporates silence, solitude, and simplicity and allows prayer to be a response to God rather than an action of our initiative. God will “stir up [and] awaken love” when we are ready.Song of Solomon 3:5.

The journey of growth in prayer is not direct and once-for-all, and we often cycle back through the stages we have been discussing. However, what is happening at any point in time in one’s life and prayer will usually fit one stage better than another. God is doing important interior work in each stage, so it is essential to pay attention to what is going on inside and not try to “hasten love.”

06.  Spiritual Direction and the Prayer Journey

When we begin to experience mystical or interior prayer, it is important to meet with someone who is experienced in the spiritual life in order to help us discern what is happening. We don’t always understand ourselves and can easily get confused and not really hear God at all. We may, in fact, totally miss the grace God is offering us. John of the Cross reminds us that the person who has only himself as spiritual guide has a fool as a guide.

As a spiritual director, I have known people who have sat in silent meditation twice a day for years and never confronted their own anger or woundedness. An experienced spiritual guide is a great asset to help you be where God is inviting you to be in the present and not bypass the best God has for you.

For example, think of someone who has recently had a conversion or renewal experience and is very excited to be a good Christian. Soon after, however, she may find that nothing is working right for her. She has volunteered to help out with Sunday school and serve on the women’s committee, but it seems no one accepts her ideas, and some may even show signs of not liking her. Her husband may resent her new-found commitment, and there may be tension at home. As a consequence, she may find herself filled with anger and disappointment.

As she takes this issue to prayer and reflection, she may realize that she is dealing with issues of control, low self-image, pride, or other emotions. Or she might discover that she has deep inner wounds of rejection from childhood that have never been resolved. Sharing these thoughts and feelings with a spiritual guide helps to make these deepening experiences rather than times of further woundedness. This is the way in which the stuff of ordinary life becomes grist for the mill of inner transformation.

This directee is in the purgation stage, and at this point needs to be talking with God about her feelings. She should be spending time in reflection on Scripture to hear of God’s loving care for her and the invitation to let go and trust God in her circumstances. She should be writing her feelings in her journal so she can notice patterns in her responses to her life circumstances and what might be God’s invitations to her. These are the things with which a spiritual guide can help her.

There is always a place for silence and reflection in prayer. Taking time for silence releases the subconscious debris that has been dormant for years. But in times of silence the person who has not encountered this inner debris needs to be able to pour out his or her heart to God and not feel that the only real way to pray is to sit mute. Sitting in silence can be a way to avoid dealing with one’s brokenness and can hinder one’s relationship with God just as unexpressed feelings can cause tension in any relationship.

This is also true for many who have faithfully prayed prayers of intercession and petition for years. In this case, their prayer time is filled with words directed at God, telling God what needs to be done without allowing God a chance to respond. Even though it seems such people are praying much, they still don’t allow true feelings to be expressed. Their one-way conversations don’t allow for the inner healing that must happen before there can be real contemplative prayer.

If you have never taken time for silence in prayer, doing so may make you aware of your hidden hurts and wounds. Talk with God about these. This is the route to divine healing and transformation.

07.  In Conclusion

Talk about stages and types of prayer can easily lead us to forget what prayer is really all about. St. Paul speaks of being apprehended by God. All our efforts and discussions about the spiritual life fade in importance when we are touched by God’s incredible, unabashed, unrestrained love. Our spiritual practices simply put us in a position where God is able to “kiss [us] with the kisses of his mouth” as the Song of Solomon says.Song of Solomon 1:2. We are then apprehended! We see God! We taste eternal life! There is no turning back.

When we fall in love, we can’t help ourselves. We want to be with the beloved. We can’t stop thinking of the beloved. Our prayer becomes mute in the wonder of God’s healing, transforming love. When this happens, prayer isn’t something we are obligated to do but something we desire—in fact, can’t live without.

This is what makes prayer the core of our relationship with God. It is right at the heart of the spiritual journey. Prayer is not just one of many spiritual practices. Through prayer, the spiritual journey becomes one of ongoing discovery and deepening love of God, ourselves, and others.

Listen, therefore, to how your heart is drawing you to prayer. And dare to follow your heart as one who has fallen in love. Then you can say with Paul, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what has prepared for those who love God, these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.”1 Corinthians 2: 9–10.


Joann Nesser has been a spiritual director and retreat and conference speaker for over twenty-five years. She founded Christos Center for Spiritual Formation in Lino Lakes, Minnesota, in 1978 and retired as executive director in 2003 to devote more time to being a grandmother and watercolorist, as well as sharing from her experience in prayer and spiritual formation.