GROWING DEEPER IN YOUR FAITH: Five Levels of Spiritual Awareness

I have uncovered five levels of spiritual awareness as I sat, one Sunday morning at Eucharist, thinking about how my attention span waxes and wanes as I listen to the Word. I usually must make an effort to keep my focus on the readings and the sermons, then try to grow deeper as I listen to the Eucharistic Prayer said by the priest. It usually does not vary and the temptation is to think it irrelevant because it is a recited prayer.

St. Augustine, I found out, was fond of saying that we must become what we pray, so I can’t claim that one. I find these find apply to many different prayers and charisms that I practice as a Lay Cistercian. I will take you through each of the five (you may have more than five) but these help keep me anchored on Christ and my attention focused on the Mystery of Faith.

For this example, I use the Word from John 1:1 because I thought of this while at Eucharist looking at all those people out there and wondering if any of this sinks in. From my traditional set in the Tax Collector’s seat in the last pew in Church, the one that is meant for sinners in the Scriptures who can’t even raise his eyes of the Heavens but in humility keeps asking Jesus, Son of David, to have mercy on him, I am jolted back into reality. I should not judge others as to their motives but focus on converting my own heart from my false self to my true self. I try to read Chapter 4 of the RB (Rule of St. Benedict) every day. Some days are better than others.Here is how I apply the five levels to reading the Liturgy of the Hours each day. Some day are better than others.

LEVEL ONE: READ THE WORD –– When the Word of God comes into my heart, it does so through my five senses and my mind translates it into something meaningful, some behavior that does something in me. Spirituality gives it finality in that the Word is made flesh in my heart and dwells among us. The power of the Word is energy (Faith). Reading it is an act of the will to try to find meaning in what is read. Reading or saying the Word is key to praying the universal prayer of the Church, the Liturgy of the Hours. Completing the reading is a reward in itself. But is there something deeper here?


  • To reach my heart, the Word must enter through my five senses.
  • I must be present to hear the word with my ears.
  • I translate it automatically into English so that it makes sense to my mind.
  • We all begin each Liturgy of the Word by saying or reading the words of the hour in question. How we do that is intention and meant to evoke meaning and move our praying from the head to the heart.
  • Each of us can hear the Word but receive it differently because of our assumptions about what it means. Assumptions come from how we look at the purpose of life, what our purpose in life is, what reality looks like, how it fits together, how we can love authentically, and what our approach to death is. For me, this is the foundations of spirituality and the bedrock on which all humans (especially Christ) discover anything about why they are here on earth and where they are going.
  • Reading the Liturgy of the Hours is probably different than reading the phone book or looking up a movie on YouTube. When you wake up and discover it is not, you need to recalculate where you are and move deeper.
  • The Word is alive and does something wonderful when it enters human beings. My dog can hear the Gospel read to him, but it does not benefit from the reading. Humans alone can hear the Word.
  • Humans alone can pay attention or let their mind wander. Because of Original Sin, it takes work to pay attention to what is behind the Word of God.
  • My attention tends to drift sometimes when I just hear the Word and it all sounds alike. I lose my train of thought. This is still preferable to not showing up at all and thinking that you can meet God on the golf course. You can, but God always makes a hole in one for each hole He plays. What is your handicap?

To grow deeper in Christ means I must use both my reason (to find meaning) and free choice (to choose to move to the next level of spiritual awareness). I call this Faith informed by reason.

There is an added dimension to the Liturgy of the Hours prayer other than mere reciting the text in private or in choir (with two rotating groups of people). It is an act of the will to take time to read the Liturgy of the Word at a certain time on a certain day. Religious monks and nuns devote their lives to living a schedule of prayer, where part of the prayer is showing up for Liturgy of the Hours. These hours have been one of our most cherished treasures of the Church Universal, dating back before the time of St. Benedict ( 540. A.D.) and his Rule, which sought to organize the reading of the Liturgy of the Hours for unruly and undisciplined monks. Our public prayers of the Church, especially Liturgy of the Hour, began to be recited on a daily basis for seven designated periods of prayer (Office of Readings or Vigils, Morning Prayer or Matins, Midmorning prayer, Midday Prayer, Midafternoon, Evening Prayer or Vespers, Night Prayer of Compline ). Why are they called public? Because they are designed for public prayer and private recitation is only used by exception.

Two dimensions of prayer are at work here: keeping up a habit of praying and the praying itself. If we only stay on this level, we do not move past reading the Word, as good as that is. But, there is more, much, much more.

LEVEL TWO: PRAY THE WORD– Prayer lifting the mind and heart to God. This is heavy lifting to be sure. It takes work. Imagine me trying to lift up a thirty pound weight over my head. I can do it but won’t be able to sustain it for very long without some form of relief. Read what Christ says in Matthew 11 (NRSVCE) – “At that time Jesus said, ‘I thank[i] you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.[j] 27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’”

You know you are at some deeper level when you are aware that the words you speak have meaning and that meaning leads you to adding your heart to what you say with your mind.

Contemplation is all about intensity of the mind and heart to seek God in prayer.

Saying prayer is just the beginning of approaching God. Praying prayer mean you say prayers with intensity and the yearning to have Christ in your heart.

Praying is communicating with God through Christ. The Holy Spirit helps each of us to pray as we can. Saying prayer is our initiative to approach God through Christ.

Praying is slowing down our prayers to savour the words and stress the you and your words.


  1. Mean what you say.
  2. Slow down your reading (outloud or in private)
  3. Slow down your reading even more
  4. Pause after each stanza (about one or two seconds)
  5. Pause after the Antiphons
  6. Try to pray with one voice with no one voice dominant
  7. Phrase the stanza

Let me give you an example from my own prayer of Morning Prayer. Read the whole Morning Prayer, but here is an excerpt. Read this Psalm through for the sense and understanding. Now read it again with the idea that it is a prayer that unites you heart with the heart of Christ. Remember, prayer means to slow down your reading.

Psalm 119
XIX (Koph)

I call with all my heart; Lord, hear me,
I will keep your commands;
I call upon you, save me
and I will do your will.

I rise before dawn and cry for help,
I hope in your word.
My eyes watch through the night
to ponder your promise.

In your love hear my voice, O Lord;
give me life by your decrees.
Those who harm me unjustly draw near:
they are far from your law.

But you, O Lord, are close:
your commands are truth.
Long have I known that your will
is established for ever.

  • You know you are at some deeper level when you are aware that the words you speak have meaning and that meaning leads you to adding your heart to what you say with your mind. Let me give you an example from my own prayer of Morning Prayer.
  • Slow down your prayers.
  • Pause between stanzas
  • Long to pray to the Lord using the words of the Psalmist.
  • Don’t be in a hurry to get in, get on, get over, then get out. Your Dunkin’ Donut coffee will be there when you finish praying.
  • Pray to Jesus as though he was sitting next to you on a park bench, praying with you (He is).
  • When my reason seems to have lifted all it can (the human attention span is even or eight seconds), I use my free will to choose this next level, moving ever deeper into the Word (words) with the help of Christ.

Prayer is like Faith, we take it for granted to the extent that we never plumb the depths of what is there. What is there is limitless, it is never-ending, it all ends in Heaven before the Throne of the Lamb. What is greater than Faith? There is something deeper. Do you know what it is?


  • Practically, I always go back and forth from level two and one, much like a yo-yo, except, with time, the swings get fewer and fewer as I settle into letting go of my personal agendas and seek to allow Christ to carry my burdens with me.
  • Our example for this article is saying the Psalms as part of Reading of the Hours, Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer at our Church at Good Shepherd in Tallahassee, Florida. Our group meets each day (except Sunday) to recite the Psalms and Prayers in choir. I remember the monks telling us not to hurry in our prayers, like we are reading the morning newspaper, but rather to pray them and make a conscious effort to pray as though Christ is there praying with us. He is.
  • I try to say it as though I pray it to Christ sitting next to you on a park bench in the middle of Winter. The Psalm become so much more than just “getting through them.” It is hard to imagine anything greater than prayer between you and Christ but there is.

LEVEL THREE: SHARE THE WORD –– What comes next happens so quickly that I don’t even realize the Levels at all. I do them but “doing them” become habit and I don’t consciously think, “I must go to Level Three.” I am at Level Three automatically because the Word must be shared with others. Not only shared, I might add, but where two or three are gathered with one mind, one heart, and one voice, there Christ is present in their midst.

Praying with others is Christ joining us all in the Liturgy of the Hours. Not only that, but my mind just instinctively links all those at Good Shepherd Chapel in the morning or evening with all those Lay Cistercians associated with the Monastery of the Holy Spirit (Trappist), then all Trappist monks and nuns who share the prayers each day, to all those Faithful who pray the Liturgy all over the world. It is the ceaseless prayer of thanksgiving linked with all those who share this prayer of the Church to give glory to the Father through, with and in the Son in union of the Holy Spirit. Not only that, but, in a nanosecond, I link up all those who have ever recited the Psalms in the past, back in time to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, to St. Benedict, to Robert of Molesme, back to the time of the Apostles and Martyrs to Mary’s first “Let it be done to me according to your word.” I join with all of them in Christ to ask for mercy first, for this broken-down, old temple of the Holy Spirit, then for those linked together in one glorious prayer of humility and obedience that God’s will be done now as it is in Heaven, now. The Word made flesh is the golden thread that we place through all those who have gone before us in faith, those struggling now with loving their neighbor as themselves, and those still awaiting final purification. This sharing is the Church Universal before the Throne of the Lamb, with no agenda other than love as Christ loves us. This is how deep this level of sharing goes in prayer. It only takes a nanosecond to do, without struggle or problems because Christ is with us. It is hard to imagine anything greater than prayer between you and Christ but there is.


  • Prayer doesn’t exist in a vacuum but rather in a community of fidelity and grace. Oneness seems to be a reoccuring theme throughout the Gospels. One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism. Prayer is a way to allow individuals to come together in praise and glory as one. Everyone saying the same prayer, in this case the Universal Prayers (Eucharist and Liturgy of the Hours) with one mind and one heart we sit with Christ and give glory and praise to the Father through the Holy Spirit. That is all there is, but it has the intensity of nuclear fission. It produces more than it consumes.
  • To those who are boring people, recited prayer can be very boring.
  • You must work for your bread, just as Adam did. We can pray to “give us this day our daily bread,” but there are consequences to what we ask and it is not without work that we struggle to move from our false self to our true self.
  • As an individual, you must pray with intensity and passion that what you pray might be realized in you. As part of a community of Faith, prayer takes on a cumulative effect, you receive multiple helps from the Holy Spirit working in each brother or sister in your midst.

It is hard to imagine anything greater than prayer between you and Christ but there is.

LEVEL FOUR: BE WHAT YOU READ, YOU PRAY, YOU SHARE. — My purpose in my life is just eight words: Have in you the mind of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 2:5). It has been my only Lectio Divina (thought) since I began my Lectio prayer in 1960. At this level of prayer, Eucharist becomes transforming, and you are content with just sitting on a park bench in the dead of Winter with no agenda, longing for Christ to come by and sit with you. You don’t demand that he does so, you Hope he will. Your prayer is not anything resembling words, or human thoughts. It just is. In that sense you being just waits to become Being itself. This is what I think the Lay Cistercians mean by converting yourself from your false self to your true self as adopted son or daughter of the Father (conversatio morae). At this level, you realize it is not you at all who heals others, who prays individual prayers, who seeks forgiveness with Christ to make all things new. You have put on the new Christ, a garment glowing as in the Transfiguration of Christ to the glory of the Father.


  • One of the things that is happening to me as I approach my death is the realization that my mind and body are not what they once were. Now that I don’t have a job to keep my mind focused on what is meaningful, all I have is me.
  • What I like about becoming what you pray is that I still have the opportunity to grow and find meaning, although now it is through Christ and through prayer.
  • What I like about becoming a Lay Cistercian is that I still have the opportunity to grow from my false self (seven deadly sin) to my new self (seven gifts of the Holy Spirit). On this level I actively seek ways to make that happen. Just when I think I am hot stuff and have humility or obedience to the Abbot or my senior Lay Cistercians, something comes along to remind me of my weakness and lack of Faith.
  • The unintended purpose of prayer is activity. When the Sun hits a simple leaf, photosynthesis occurs. The Leaf does it automatically. The purpose is to make chlorophyll, life itself. To become what you pray means you realize the importance of the Word to give new life, to place you in a situation where you may receive love from Christ next to you in order for you to share that love with the one next to you as you seek God in your daily living.
  • Each day, I must begin my trek to be what I read during the Liturgy of the Hours and Eucharist, and each day, I fail to reach that which I seek, to have in me the mind of Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5).
  • Love, I have discovered, is not the attainment of anything, but it is the process that leads to love and the daily failures that accompany it, that is my transformation, if only for a day. Next day is a new lifetime with Christ.
  • It is hard to imagine anything greater than prayer between you and Christ but there is.

LEVEL FIVE; THERE ARE NO WORDS TO APPROACH THE WORD MADE FLESH. It takes time to reach this Level Five. Not just the months and months of practice involved, but also going from Level One to Level Five in one sitting. Ironically, this is not temporal time at all, but spiritual time, the eternal now (a good definition of Heaven) being present with the one you love. As someone who knows enough about existential phenomenology to know that I don’t know enough as I should, I use the writings of the Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, to begin to make sense out what what does make sense at all to the World (the ontic possibility of the minifestibility of all being encountered). This means that I try to approach all being (living things) with an I-Thou relationship, not making them into little carbon copies of myself with all my biases and peccadillos. I allow them to be. I can remember reading Martin Buber as he tells about having a relationship with a tree. How can you have a relationship with something that is obviously not human? By allowing the tree to be who it is, consistent with its nature. Here are some quotes from Martin Buber to give you a flavor of which I write.

  • “When people come to you for help, do not turn them off with pious words, saying, ‘Have faith and take your troubles to God.’ Act instead as though there were no God, as though there were only one person in the world who could help — only yourself.” ~ Martin Buber
  • “The true meaning of love one’s neighbor is not that it is a command from God which we are to fulfill, but that through it and in it we meet God.” ~ Martin Buber
  • “Every person born in this world represents something new, something that never existed before, something original and unique.” ~ Martin Buber
  • “Our relationships live in the space between us which is sacred.” ~ Martin Buber

I am reminded that God created Adam and Eve, our archetypal parents, to live forever in a place of ultimate happiness, the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve threw it all away. He could have, but did not abandon them to oblivion. Because of His Divine Love, He gave all of us human reason for a reason and the ability to chose not only what is good for us but what is bad for us. He told us what is bad for us (don’t eat that tree of the knowledge of good and evil). We did. There were consequences to this act of disobedience. We experience pain, and all of us, without exception, dies (so does matter and time). In the Garden of Eden, God made Adam and Eve because it was not good for man to be alone. God wanted us to join him in Heaven, but Adam and Eve said, “No.” The only person other person to say “No” to God, the Archangel Lucifer, remember, tempted Adam and Eve to say “No” to God. Ironically, it took until the time of Christ for the second Adam to ungo what that “No” meant to all humans (Read Romans 5) and the second Eve, the Blessed Mother to also reverse the “NO” with a resounding “Let it be done to me according to your Word (get that?).” That YES still resounds throughout eternity.


  • This is a level that bridges the gap between Heaven (only the Now) and Earth (temporal time).
  • It takes God’s help to enter this realm.
  • Some of the great mystics used to walk in the Cloud of the Unknowing for long periods of time. Most of us never approach Level 5 in our lifetime. I have only approached it a few times and only for seemed like a second or two. The feeling of Christ’s peace, is indescribable. The Catechism describes it as “Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety, and Fear of the Lord. They belong in their fullness to Christ, Son of David. They complete and perfect the virtues of those who receive them. They make the faithful docile in readily obeying divine inspirations. (CCC, 1831)”
  • There is no sin on this level.
  • You can’t be on this level without Christ as your Guide. Christ reveals to you the mysteries of the Mystery of Faith.

This last level is not one of nothingness, but is where everything has meaning. Standing before the Blessed Sacrament in Eucharistic Adoration is being present to The One Who Is. This One fills up in us that which is lacking by His love, by His very Being. It is in this sense that I find myself transformed from my old or false self to my new self, making all things new in, with and through Christ.

ACTIO (Action)

Read Passing from Self to God: A Cistercian Retreat by the late Robert Thomas, O.C.S.O.

Look up these Lay Cistercian books on how to move from self to God k=Dr.+Michael+F.+Conrad&i=stripbooks&ref=nb_sb_noss_2

  1. It takes time to move from Level I to Level V. Be patient.
  2. You don’t start out your spiritual journey with Level V, but by sitting on a park bench in the dead of Winter, waiting for Christ to pass by and sit down next to you.
  3. Pray slowly and deliberately. Pray the Psalms as though you were sitting next to Christ and asking him to be with you.
  4. Before you Recite the Liturgy of the Word ask for the Word to come into your heart and dwell there.
  5. Praying the Liturgy of the Word with others helps you to keep focused on what is deeper.
  6. Don’t seek to reach Level V to the exclusion of the other steps. Seek God where you are as you read the Liturgy.
  7. In choir, seek to be present for as many of the Hours as possible (I recommend Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer to begin).
  8. Praying privately is still sharing with all those all over the world that join with you in asking for God’s mercy and giving praise and glory to the Father.

Let grace happen to you by approaching the Sacred in humility and with a contrite heart. If you hear the voice of the Lord, says Psalm 95, harden not your heart.

Praise be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and forever. The God who is, who was, and who will be at the end of the ages. Amen and Amen. –Cistercian doxology

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