Stages of the Spiritual Life
St. Alphonsus Ligouri, in his classic writing Uniformity with God’s Will , tells a story about John Tauler that illustrates well the goal of the spiritual life.
“The devout Father John Tauler45 relates this personal experience: For years he had prayed God to send him someone who would teach him the real spiritual life. One day, at prayer, he heard a voice saying: “Go to such and such a church and you will have the answer to your prayers.” He went and at the door of the church he found a beggar, barefooted and in rags. He greeted the mendicant saying: “Good day, my friend.”
“Thank you, sir, for your kind wishes, but I do not recall ever having had a ‘bad’ day.”
“Then God has certainly given you a very happy life.”
“That is very true, sir. I have never been unhappy. In saying this I am not making any rash statement either. This is the reason: When I have nothing to eat, I give thanks to God; when it rains or snows, I bless God’s providence; when someone insults me, drives me away, or otherwise mistreats me, I give glory to God. I said I’ve never had an unhappy day, and it’s the truth, because I am accustomed to will unreservedly what God wills. Whatever happens to me, sweet or bitter, I gladly receive from his hands as what is best for me. Hence my unvarying happiness.”
“Where did you find God?”
“I found him where I left creatures.”
“Who are you anyway?”
“I am a king.”
“And where is your kingdom?”
“In my soul, where everything is in good order; where the passions obey reason, and reason obeys God.”
“How have you come to such a state of perfection?”
“By silence. I practice silence towards men, while I cultivate the habit of speaking with God. Conversing with God is the way I found and maintain my peace of soul.”
Union with God brought this poor beggar to the very heights of perfection. In his poverty he was richer than the mightiest monarch; in his sufferings, he was vastly happier than worldlings amid their worldly delights.
This is a wonderful story of a man who truly knows where his kingdom lies. We are each kingdoms unto ourselves, and we are kings in union with Christ the King. St. John of the Cross reminds us that “At the center of the Soul is God.” As such, God reigns inside of us and gives us a share in his kingship by making us free individuals created in his image and likeness. The goal of the spiritual life is union with God.
The Development of the Spiritual Life
It should come as no surprise to anyone that the Spiritual Life, like every other aspect of the human person, is developmental. This means that the spiritual life grows through stages. Even though different saints propose different stages, within the tradition of the Church all of these proposals can be reduced to three basic stages: the Purgative, Illuminative and Unitive stages. These three basic stages are marked by growth in communion with God and neighbor. They can be distinguished by task, experience and types of prayer.
Prior to the initial stage of the spiritual life is an awakening. There must come a point in a person’s life when he or she realizes that there is more to life than just selfish pursuits. The voice of God speaks in the depths of their conscience and the person wakes up and begins seeking God. This awakening can also be called conversion or metanoia. As St. Paul says,
“Forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God's upward calling, in Christ Jesus. 15 Let us, then, who are "perfectly mature" adopt this attitude. And if you have a different attitude, this too God will reveal to you .”
Those who seek to be perfectly mature must leave what lies behind and strain for what lies ahead. It is at this point that one’s spiritual life begins.
The Purgative Stage
The purgative stage is the initial stage of the spiritual life. It is the stage of beginners. Its task is to purge one’s spirit of its attachment to sin. Its special focus is to leave behind mortal sin and to learn to habitually live in the state of grace.
Sin is contrary to nature. It damages nature. Mortal sin in particular kills God’s life within the spirit and places us at enmity with God. The purgative stage is the stage where we purge our nature of all the desires that go against God. As such, one can say that this is the stage where we learn to purify our human nature.
As the name suggest, this is a stage of testing and trial. To purge something is to forcefully remove its impurities. Smelting is an example of purging. In order for iron to be used it must be purified. That is, the impurities must be taken out of the raw iron ore in order to have usable iron. In order to do this the iron ore is smelted in fire. The fire melts the iron out of the rock and separates it from all its impurities. The result is pure iron.
In the same way the purgative stage of the spiritual life purges the soul. As Jesus says,
“Everyone will be salted with fire .”
Our human nature must be purified. The act of changing our desires and purifying our nature is done only through effort and struggle. In this stage we learn to fight against temptation, choose what is good, and enter into a solid prayer life.
The actions by which we overcome our sins and purify our human nature are mortification and penance. To mortify means to bring to death. We mortify our unruly passions and we mortify our concupiscence. The process of mortification is penance, particularly prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Like John Tauler, through penance we bring our human nature under the control of our reason, our reason under the control of our intellect and will, and our intellect and will under the control of God.
As beginners the prayer of the purgative stage is primarily devotional. Devotional prayers are the memorized prayers that we learn growing up. The Act of Contrition, the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory be and so on.
Yet devotional prayer should begin leading to meditation, the second type of prayer in the purgative stage. Meditation is the prayer of the mind. Meditation is our activity directed toward God. It is the act of imagining the scriptures or of thinking about the truths of faith in such a way that Christ speaks to us through the meditation.
The Illuminative Stage
The next stage is the illuminative stage. As this stage suggests, it is the stage where one is illuminated or enlightened. After one has purified one’s human nature he or she is now at a point to imitate Christ’s human nature. So in the purgative stage we purified our personal humanity, now in this stage we seek to conform ourselves to Christ’s humanity. This is called the imitatio Christi.
Whereas in the purgative stage we were working against sin, in the illuminative stage we are working toward virtue. Thus, the illuminative stage is a positive stage, toward virtue, while the purgative stage is a negative stage, away from sin. As such, the illuminative stage seeks to imitate the virtues of Christ.
Having overcome our habits of mortal sin in the purgative stage, we now turn to focus our attention on deliberate venial sins. Sin, all sin, damages our human nature. Even venial sin is a block between the self, God and neighbor. As a result, in imitation of Christ, this stage seeks to rid oneself of even venial sins.
Here, too, we practice penance and mortification but this time it is not marked with the sadness of testing and trial. Rather the penance and mortification of this stage is marked by the joy and excitement of acquiring virtue. It is still a challenge, but it is a challenge with a sweet reward.
Perhaps the hallmark of the illuminative stage is the experience of enlightenment. The person, set free from the hokey-pokey of mortal sin and forgiveness, now experiences a stability of spirit. This stability opens the person to understand and to possess profound convictions of faith. Thus, they are enlightened.
The prayer of this stage is high-level meditation and low-level contemplation. Meditation has become such a regular part of one’s life that one moves easily from the imagination into an experience of Christ. This habit of meditation opens one up to low-low level contemplation. Whereas meditation was our activity toward God, contemplation is God’s activity toward us. Contemplation is the action of God within the soul where we experience God’s life within us. At this point this is low-level contemplation because the person is still developing the habit of prayer and is still mortifying themselves from venial sins.
The Unitive Stage
The purgative stage was the stage where we acquired our humanity. The illuminative stage was the stage where we acquired Christ’s humanity. The unitive stage is the stage where we acquire Christ’s divinity through a sheer act of grace. As Peter says,
“We have become partakers in the divine nature .”
In the illuminative stage, the soul has been purified from deliberate venial sins and has learned to imitate the virtues of Christ. Now, a certain mystical marriage takes place between one’s spirit and Christ such that the two become one. This is why it is called the Unitive stage.
In this stage, one continues to practice penance and mortification to keep from regaining old habits of sin but, more importantly, to win grace for the conversion of souls. This stage is marked by various movements of the heart ranging from the painful to the sublime but no matter what the experience the spirit has been wedded to God and God is operative within the soul.
Whereas in the purgative stage we rejected sin and in the illuminative stage we acquired Christ’s virtues in the unitive stage the only virtue that operates is charity. Charity is the sum of all virtues. As St. Paul says,
“Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience… forgiving one another… And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection.”
The person who has attained to the Unitive stage through the grace of God lives the two great commandments of Love of God and Neighbor to their fullest. In everything they do they do the loving thing. As such, their life is not marked by the complexity. They are not divided within themselves. They have obtained perfect interior integrity within themselves as well as perfect communion with God. Thus their life is perfectly simple. The person who has attained the unitive stage simply loves God and loves neighbor.