The Nine Ways of Prayer

The human person is both body and soul, and it is our goal to take care of both. Ideally, a healthy body will help us do the things that lead to a healthy soul. And a healthy soul will naturally relieve the anxiety, etc. that can lead to an unhealthy body. After 50 days of working out, I came, rather unexpectedly, to see the genius in the nine ways of prayer of St. Dominic in their integration of body and soul.

St. Dominic’s nine ways were introduced to me during my novitiate with the Dominicans. The basic point to the ways of prayer is that we are a union of body and soul, and need to engage both to worship God. This idea comes rather naturally to Catholics. Ours is a very tactile religion. We use many physical signs to convey spiritual realities. When you walk into Church, you bless yourself with holy water. When you enter the pew, you genuflect out of reverence for the Real Presence in the tabernacle. So it is only natural that we would extend these bodily motions to our private prayer as well. By integrating body and soul, we give back to God everything that He gave us–and in the way that He gave it to us.

Dominic’s nine ways of prayer were not written by Dominic himself. Rather, it was a collection of observations about how St. Dominic prayed. Dominic used his body to express the longings of his heart, and to pursue the goods of the soul. As St. Thomas notes,

For man’s being consists in soul and body; and though the being of the body depends on the soul, yet the being of the human soul depends not on the body, as shown above; and the very body is for the soul, as matter for its form, and the instruments for the man that puts them into motion, that by their means he may do his work. Wherefore all goods of the body are ordained to the goods of the soul, as to their end. Consequently happiness, which is man’s last end, cannot consist in goods of the body.

Summa Theologiae, II.I q.2, a. 5

The soul does not rely on the body for its existence, but the body is the instrument that allows us to do God’s work. Thus, the goods of the body are ordered to promoting the goods of the soul. And so too the movements of the body in prayer help to express our inward desires. The nine ways of prayer include many different ways that St. Dominic expressed his soul to God. Let us imitate these methods in our own prayer and spirituality.

First Way: Profound inclination

Dominic recognized the presence of Christ not only in the Eucharist, but also in the altar of the church. He humbled himself before the altar and the image of Christ with a profound bow, expressing his humility before God. Dominicans still make this profound bow when reciting the Glory be.

Second Way: Prostration

O God, be merciful to me, a sinner” Dominic would recite as he prostrated himself before the altar. He likened this action to the Magi who came to worship the Christ child: “When those devout Magi entered the dwelling they found the child with Mary, his mother, and falling down they worshipped him. There is no doubt that we too have found the God-Man with Mary, his handmaid.

Third Way: Penance

St. Dominic was very aware of his own sinfulness before God and sought to share in the Lord’s passion through the discipline of penance. Today, Dominicans recall St. Dominic’s action by reciting the De profundis before taking the evening meal. There should be in our lives too a sense of sin that leads us to fall on our knees and say “Out of the depths, I cry to You, O Lord.”

Fourth Way: Genuflections

There is something powerful about remaining before the crucifix, gazing at the pierced One and contemplating the mystery of the Cross. To this contemplation, St. Dominic added the act of genuflecting before the Cross. Repeatedly, Dominic would kneel before the Lord and give Him praise, acknowledging that he knelt as a sinner before the One Who died for his sins. Let us too gaze at the Cross and see the love the Father has poured out in giving us His only Son.

Fifth Way: Contemplation

One way to define the Dominican mission is through a familiar Latin phrase: contemplare et contemplata aliis tradere. To contemplate, and to give to others the fruits of that contemplation. Dominic knew the power and importance of contemplation in the spiritual life. He would remain sometimes for hours standing before the Lord, meditating as if reciting Scripture. This was Dominic’s time to be still before the Lord, to listen to all that God had to say to him and to fill up the well of his soul to do God’s work.

Sixth Way: Cruciform

In order to recall the power of the crucifixion, it only makes sense to stretch one’s arms to imitate Christ on the Cross. This method of prayer was for St. Dominic reserved for moments that required particularly powerful intercession. Through this form of prayer, Dominic prayed for God to raise a boy from death, which He did. Imitating the prophets of old like Elias, Dominic called down the power of God to transform His people.

Seventh Way: Supplication

Dominic would often stand before the cross with arms outstretched like an arrow. At these moments, it was as if he was caught up in some blessed state in which he experienced the full grace of God poured out to strengthen him for his work. Dominic lifted his arms as he lifted his mind and heart to God.

Eighth Way: Study

The ancient practice of lectio divina was something St. Dominic practiced regularly. He would contemplate the words of Scripture, often those recited during the Liturgy of the Hours, and seek to learn more from God in the silence of his cell. It is this way of prayer that is linked to the Dominican tradition of seeing study as prayer. As we go through our day, it is often difficult to see work or study as an act of prayer. But, because God’s truth cannot be contradicted by any other truth, when we are studying something that is true and good, we are in some way studying about an aspect of God.

Ninth Way: On a journey

While traveling, Dominic would fall behind his companions and pray to God, often reciting the words of Scripture that he had meditated on earlier. It was Dominic’s conviction that the Lord would speak “in the wilderness” and that St. Paul’s admonition to “pray always” took concrete form while on a journey. Dominic’s extensive knowledge of Scripture allowed him to meditate on these words even while he was without his books.

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