Making Progress in Stages of Prayer

How do we trace progress in our prayer relationship with God? An author by the name of Mark Thibodeux wrote about The Four Stages of Prayer that may give us a helpful framework to reflect on our personal answer to this question.

Firstly, talking at God. This is where all believers start their prayer life. It revolves around telling God our needs, problems, and desires. We even tell God how he can resolve them. At this level, God is nearly treated like an object, a gigantic prayer answering vending machine. Its a I-it kind of relationship if we go by Martin Buber’s categories. Sadly, many Christians stay at this stage and never move on, even after many years as a follower of Christ.

Talking to God as to a friend

The second stage is where we talk to God. At this stage prayer still revolves around words. The improvement is that we are more aware and conscious of God as a person, usually as a friend with whom we could share our needs, desires, thoughts and ideas, and what has been happening in our daily lives. There is a greater care to treat God as a person, a friend capable of and desirous of mutual love.

The third stage is where we learn to listen to God. This of course is a natural build up from stage two, for when you are conscious that God is a personal friend, you naturally wonder if this Friend has anything to share with you: his heart – thoughts, desires, emotions, goals. The main way of course is through meditation on the word of God. Taking passages and reading and reflecting on what God may be saying to us is listening to God. There are many other ways that God speaks to us too (creation, dreams, visions, objects, events, prophecy, signs)  and we should not limit what he chooses. However, the truths of the Bible is God’s main and sure way of sharing with us what is on his heart. Do not mistaken this for Bible study or exegesis and these are important, but what this is about is the experiential truth encounters with God in scripture meditation and prayer.

The final stage is being with God. This is where we go with God beyond communication to communion. This is similar to human relationships where through knowing a person more intimately there is no need to use words all the time to nurture the relationship. Presence and silence and keeping company would do. We may feel his awesome presence, his overwhelming love, or his compassion or power even though no words are exchanged and we are merely sitting with eyes closed and mouth shut in prayer. At this stage it does not mean you do not interact with God anymore with words. It is a build up of previous stages but each stage layer by layer becoming richer and richer, and deeper and deeper.

So once we know where we are, we can make it our desire and prayer to move to the next stage of prayer and intimacy. We can consciously seek to relate to God as a personal friend and share more of our life without always coming to him only when we need help. Or we may want to listen to God more attentively in prayer, meditation and all the other ways God speaks to us and learn to record what we heard in a notebook. For those who want to go even deeper they will find themselves brought to a place of helplessness and dependence – and usually silence and stillness. Better still, instead of having to go through a trial that brings you to such a place, cultivate times of stillness, silence and solitude with God. Learn to wait on God silently for 15 minutes and progress to longer periods of wordless intimacy.

What do you think of these four stages of prayer? Are they easy to relate to? Do you know of other frameworks of progression in prayer? Do share in the comment below.

Silence, solitude and prayer

This simple message was preached at New Horizon Church. It expresses my conviction about the great need for a more contemplative approach to prayer in the church. If we want to live a life that pleases God, we need to learn to silence the inner noise and listen to God. We need to learn spiritual discernment. This contemplative spirituality is akin to the old Pentecostal tradition of waiting on God. We Pentecostals should not be overly cautious about wading into the waters of contemplative spirituality.

Refreshed at Seven Fountains Spirituality Center

The Ignatius Block where most men stay

It had been six years since I last had my silent retreat at Seven Fountains Spirituality Centre under Fr David Townsend. Church friends who have gone there recently have told me of changes in the center, as well as outside. Like the newly tarred roads and new animal residents in the center; the gentrification of the surrounding areas; the barring of Chiangmai University and its lake to outsiders; and the new shopping malls and cafes that have opened.

Pastor Eng Hwa and me at the BOAT restaurant

Eng Hwa, a pastor from Praise Evangelical Free Church kindly did all the bookings. The week we wanted was fully booked. We asked if there were available dates earlier or later and praise be to God we took the five days available the week before. We also booked a hotel room nearby for a few days, so we could extend our prayer retreat, as we were graciously permitted to use the retreat facilities and grounds, during the extended stay outside the center. Both of us were assigned a local Thai spiritual director, a Fr Saichon. When the dates were finalised we booked the Scoot tickets at SGD$233 each.

My spartan bedroom with attached bathroom
With insect gauze and nice greenery for room view

We arrived at the center around one plus on a hot afternoon and after settling in our rooms went out to look for food at the BOAT restaurant. During the light leisurely late lunch we decided to start silence from dinner onwards. After unpacking, I needed a bath and a nap. It had been a long day.

The next day spiritual director saw me and he got to know my background and experience in prayer retreats. Then he handed me the prayer and meditation for the day. I was asked to do a “faith history” for the first day, and on the second and third day, a “vocational history” with several passages of scripture each. Over the several days I set aside time to pause, pray and ponder, and allow the Lord to lay on my heart what He had for me. I had no major decisions to make nor much processing to do, so I was more relaxed and open. Suffice it to say that at the end of the retreat, I felt very grateful, enlightened, reassured, strengthened, and left the retreat with a sense of assurance, anticipation and excitement about what laid ahead for me.

I had to tackle some emergency work from the church though. The retreat center does not allow for retreatants to use the wireless (though they have wireless equipment installed). So I had to retreat to a Art Cafe nearby, buy a cup of coffee for 60-80 Thai baht to access free wireless to complete two pieces of urgent work. Thank God this did not affect the rhythm of the retreat.

Bird in the glasshouse (Art Cafe)

The Art Cafe is a unique cafe. It looked like a glasshouse and it housed the owner’s pet merbuk, a lovely songbird. Initially I was taken aback but later I got used to this energetic friendly bird.

I was glad that the local Jesuit priest was my spiritual director. It is good that Asian spiritual directors have been trained so that there is less dependency on the Caucasian priests. We have this bias that prefer the Caucasian as we think they are superior. I think we need to break that mentality, and learn to trust the Lord to use the locals to give good direction. How else can they improve unless they have more and more experience? I was blessed by Fr Saichon and I could sense the Lord was using him to direct my meditation and prayer times. “Some trust in horses and some in chariots, but we will trust in the Lord”. Praise God.

Fr Saichon local Thai Jesuit priest

I could not sleep well the first night due to an overdose of caffeine. So the next day it was only one cup a day and an hour of brisk walking in the evening at the park at the Chiangmai University entrance. All apprehension about not being allowed into the university disappeared, and so I got bolder and went farther to the Angkaew lake. No security officer stopped me. The lake was such a peaceful place for exercise and relaxation.

Breakfast in BED hotel

After the retreat we moved to the BED hotel and spent mornings in prayer at the retreat center and the afternoons and evenings in long walks, and having our meals at the Maya Shopping Mall about 15 minutes walk away. We caught some movies too: “Walk With Me” a documentary about mindfulness; “Kingsmen” – an action comedy that ends up being good at neither; and “American Assassin” that feels as fast-moving and exciting as Bourne Identity. I saw more movies at Maya Mall in those few days than in two years in Singapore. I returned home refreshed, recharged and reassured.