Vocal, Meditative, and Contemplative Prayer: What’s the difference?

Levels of Prayer

“…pray, and never give up praying. If you pray, you will be certainly saved; if you do not pray, you will be certainly damned.” –  St. Alphonsus De Liguori’s Conclusion to a Short Treatise on Prayer

Masters of communication with God are those who in a constant state of prayer. However, ‘a constant state of prayer’ is not necessarily sitting in a monastery all day long chanting holy scriptures and hymns (although that is an option!) Prayer like anything else is something that is a sanctifying skill – a holy practice that which feeds you grace from God and praise, honor, and glory back to God. As we are called by God to be holy, Jesus also asked of us,

Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect.  – Matthew 5:48

This word from Our Lord may sound shocking as we normally write off our failures and shortcomings by saying, “well, I’m not perfect!” but spiritually that’s exactly what He wants us to be. Just remember, Our Lord would not ask something of us that was not possible with God’s help. This is why we read the lives of the saints that inspire us and give us personal direction to follow in their footsteps toward holiness. Just one of many saints that mastered prayer was St. Teresa of Avila where she experienced what we call ‘ecstasy’ – this occurred by tuning into God’s marvelous love for her and all mankind during many many hours of prayer. But prayer is not just simply words of thanksgiving or requests to God. In fact, prayer has a kind of hierarchy to it in which prayer becomes more intense and spiritually fulfilling as we practice it for God’s glory. The Church teaches us there are three major expressions (or forms) of prayer – Vocal, Meditation, and Contemplation.


The most common form of prayer is what the Church calls Vocal Prayer. The Compendium of the Catholic Church describes vocal prayer: “Vocal prayer associates the body with the interior prayer of the heart. Even the most interior prayer, however, cannot dispense with vocal prayer. In any case, it must always spring from a personal faith. With the Our Father Jesus has taught us a perfect form of vocal prayer.


Meditation is a higher form of prayer than vocal prayer as it utilizes the power of your imagination with focus on holy truths. Meditation has been referred to as one of the more difficult forms of prayer as many have not yet mastered their imagination and distraction becomes common-place. The Compendium of the Catholic Church states: “Meditation is a prayerful reflection that begins above all in the Word of God in the Bible. Meditation engages though, imagination, emotion and desire in order to deepen our faith, convert our heart and fortify our will to follow Christ. It is a first step toward the union of love with God.” Or as St. Padre Pio has said, “The final purpose of meditation is the love of God and one’s neighbor. Love the first with all your soul and without reservation, love the second as another self, and you will have arrived at the final purpose of meditation.” And this beloved saint, knowing how difficult meditative prayer gives us hope in saying, “When you do not succeed in meditating well do not, for this reason, cease to do your duty. If there are many distractions do not lose heart. Make a meditation on patience; you will profit all the same. Fix the time, the length of your meditation, and do not rise from your place until you have finished it even at the cost of being crucified.”


Contemplative prayer is one some of us can relate to especially if we take silent time let’s say outside. Taking time to “find God” in nature or sit quietly in Eucharistic adoration to simply adore God and allow Him to adore you. The Compendium of the Catholic Church teaches us: Contemplative prayer is a simple gaze upon God in silence and love. It is a gift of God, a moment of pure faith during which the one praying seeks Christ, surrenders himself to the loving will of the Father, and places his being under the action of the Holy Spirit. Saint Teresa of Avila defines contemplative prayer as the intimate sharing of friendship, “in which time is frequently taken to be along with God who we know loves us.”

Here are a few good books on prayer:

Ways of Mental Prayer

The Way of Prayer

33 Days to Morning Glory

Prayers for Beginners

About the author, Adam

Adam is the Vice President St. Michael Catholic Radio in Tulsa and the co-host of The Catholic Man Show.

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