Watering Our Soul’s Garden (Levels of Prayer) (6 minutes)
Updated: Oct 18
Would you like to get better at prayer? Here are some insights from a great saint to help you move forward in this area of being with God.
St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) practiced and wrote on a type of prayer known today as “contemplative prayer”. Contemplative prayer concentrates on what God is offering to us in our prayer time[i] instead of focusing on our words and activity towards God,
St. Teresa explained the degrees of prayer in her autobiography entitled Life. St. Teresa says our soul is like a garden. There are four possible ways of watering our garden. These symbolize four ways of practicing/experiencing prayer.
The first degree of prayer requires the most effort on our part. We draw our own water from a well using a bucket and rope. St. Teresa says this type of prayer is certainly better than no prayer at all and the discipline of it does us much good. Reading and studying the Bible is also important. The first degree of prayer involves such practices as
Vocal prayer, Bible reading, lists of requests, attempts at telling God how wonderful he is in long prayers or songs, etc. St. Teresa said we seek to impress God with our “long speeches." [ii] The benefits we reap are mostly from our own efforts. I know this level of prayer well having spent almost the first twenty years of my Christian life practicing it! exclusively.
A Water Wheel
The second level is less labor intensive on our part, it involves using a waterwheel. Waterwheels in St. Teresa's day were used to help move water closer to homes and fields so people would not have to carry it bucket by bucket.
Here we begin to position ourselves to be receivers of whatever God would like to offer us. We "recollect" ourselves. This simply means we quiet our mind and heart before God and become mindful of His presence. Around 1995 I began to become interested in feeling God's presence. It was something new for me to rest and wait on God to give me something rather than putting all my efforts into "accomplishing" something for Him in my prayer time. Over the next five years, I gradually grew in being able to tolerate the sensation of God's manifest presence around me, although it was very mild. I was frightened by Him at first and the idea of someone, anyone, being so close to me was disturbing! Over time, I became more and more happy with God being close.
A Flowing Stream
The third degree of prayer brings in the water through irrigation: a running stream. There is no human effort involved. The soul has begun its sense that it no longer belongs to itself. This mystical experience begins an awareness of the union between God and the human soul that we have “in Christ.”. At this stage we don’t realize that our union with Christ is already complete, we are only waking up to that reality. To a greater degree than ever before, we are caught up in the person of God. At this stage, it is increasingly difficult to pull away from Him and take back control of our bodies and minds. Around the year 2000 I began meditating on Song of Songs. By 2005, I was having visions and supernatural experiences introducing me to the prayer of union. At times I could not open my eyes or move any part of my body while the presence of God overwhelmed me and left me caught up in His presence.
I know others who also speak of such “Bridal Love” experiences. One person had a vision of being dressed as a bride, escorted down an aisle of a cathedral by God, the Father. Awaiting her at the altar was Jesus, the Son. Once she was given to the Groom by the Father, they turned to the altar and there stood the Holy Spirit, ready to perform the marriage vows. I don’t believe this vision was particular to the person who had it but refers to everyone. God woos us all to participate in a life lived together with Him in ever intensifying degrees. Hopefully for all of us, becoming His spouse is what the remainder of our lives will be about. We get to have the wonderful delight of bearing fruit in union with Him.
Falling rain symbolizes the fourth degree of prayer. It is a totally mystical moment not dependent on human effort at all. It is complete awareness of union where the person has been absorbed into the person of God and has no feeling of being alive apart from Him. St. Teresa had this intense, all-consuming experience of God. She had realized the mystery of the union with Christ (Ephesians 5:32)
Whever we are in our prayer life; God is happy we turn our focus on him in prayer to whatever degree we pursue. He is always interested in drawing us further along into the awareness of our connection with him through Jesus Christ.
[i] . It is "the effort the soul makes to withdraw from and forget everything created so as to allow itself to be penetrated by the divine action."[i] St. Teresa, Volume I, p. 23, Intro and quoting St. Teresa from chapter 20, no. 27 of her Life. [ii] Ibid,, Chap. 13.