A description of the soul's journey to full union with God

The sources of the interior life and its end (cont)


Ch 15: The Three Ages of the Spiritual life According to the Fathers and the Great Spiritual Writers (cont)


St. Thomas (74) compares the three ages of the spiritual life with those of the corporeal life: childhood, adolescence, and maturity. We should note this analogy, and in particular the transition from one period to another.

It is generally admitted that first childhood ceases on the awakening of reason about the seventh year. This period is followed by a sort of second childhood which lasts until the period of adolescence, about the fourteenth year. Adolescence extends from the fourteenth to the twentieth year; then comes maturity, which is divided into the period which precedes full maturity, and that which, from about the thirty-fifth year onward, follows before the decline of old age.

Psychologists point out that mentality changes with the transformations of the organism. The child follows chiefly the imagination and the impulses of the sensible appetites. He does not yet discern, nor does he organize rationally; even when his reason begins to awaken, it remains extremely dependent on his senses. On leaving childhood, about the fourteenth year, at the period of puberty, there is not only an organic, but a psychological, intellectual, and moral transformation. The adolescent is no longer content to follow his imagination; he begins to reflect on the affairs of human life, on the necessity of preparing himself for a certain profession or life-work. This period of transition, called the awkward age, is not without difficulty: then, about the fourteenth year, the adolescent's moral personality begins to take shape with a sense of honor and of good reputation, or he may become perverted and begin to go wrong, unless he becomes a retarded, unstable, abnormal person.

Here the analogy throws light on the spiritual life. We shall see that the beginner who does not become a proficient, as he should, turns out badly or remains a retarded, tepid soul, and, as it were, a spiritual dwarf. As the fathers, particularly St. Bernard,(75) so often say: "He who does not advance, falls back." To refuse to become better, is to fall back, whereas to tend persistently toward perfection, is, in a sense, already to possess it.(76)

To continue the analogy, if the crisis of puberty, which is at once both physical and moral, is a difficult period through which to pass, the same is true of another crisis, which may be called that of first liberty, which introduces the adolescent into maturity at about the twentieth year. The young man, who is then fully formed physically, must begin to take his place in the life of society. Some pass through this period badly, abuse the liberty given them, and, like the prodigal son, confound liberty with license. On the other hand, the adult who develops normally and takes the good road concerns himself with matters of individual, family, and social life in a manner superior to that of the adolescent. The adult is engrossed in more general questions. Unless he has received a higher vocation from God, he himself founds a home that he may in his turn become an educator.

Something similar exists in the spiritual life. When the proficient who is, so to speak, in the period of spiritual adolescence, reaches the more advanced age of the perfect, his mentality rises as it becomes spiritual, and it grows more and more supernatural. He sees with increasing clearness not only the things that pertain to individual, family, and social life, but those that have to do with the reign of God or the life of the Church in their relation to eternal life.

We should like particularly to emphasize here the differences which separate the three ages of the spiritual life and to explain how the transition is made from one to the other. As St. Thomas observes: "The divers degrees of charity are distinguished according o the different pursuits (studia) to which man is brought by the increase of charity. For at first it is incumbent on man to occupy himself chiefly with avoiding sin and resisting his concupiscences, which move him in opposition to charity. This concerns beginners, in whom charity has to be fed or fostered lest it be destroyed. In the second place, man's chief pursuit is to aim at progress in good, and this is the pursuit of the proficient, whose principal aim is to strengthen their charity by adding to it: man's third pursuit is to aim chiefly at union with God and enjoyment of Him: this belongs to the perfect who 'desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ' (Phil. 1:23)." (77)

These are the three stages of progress toward sanctity; but what is important to add, and has been admirably observed by St. John of the Cross, is the transition from one spiritual age to another, a transition analogous to that in the order of corporeal life. As there is the crisis of puberty between childhood and adolescence, there is a similar crisis between the purgative life of beginners and the illuminative life of proficients. This crisis has been described by several great spiritual writers, notably by Tauler,(78) especially by St. John of the Cross, under the title of the "passive purification of the senses," (79) by Father Lallemant, S.J., under the name of "second conversion." (80) As a matter of fact, this crisis recalls the second conversion of Peter during the dark night of the Passion.

At this point, the generous beginner, who runs the risk of standing still in many unconscious defects, in particular of dwelling on sensible consolations in his spiritual exercises, is deprived of these consolations that he may be introduced into a spiritual way that is much more detached from the senses, a way in which he finds in aridity a beginning of contemplation which the Holy Ghost grants him in order to make him advance. This is St. John's teaching: "The first night, or sensual purgation, wherein the soul is purified or detached, will be of the senses, subjecting them to the spirit. . . . The night of sense is common, and the lot of many: these are the beginners." (81) They begin to understand clearly that one must be truly poor in spirit, truly humble, in order to grow in charity. One must renounce all the more or less gross or subtle follies of vanity, pride, and spiritual sensuality. The holy doctor adds: "When the house of sensuality was at rest, that is, when the passions were mortified, concupiscence quenched, the desires subdued and lulled to sleep in the blessed night of the purgation of sense, the soul began to set out on the way of the spirit, the way of proficients, which is also called the illuminative way, or the way of infused contemplation, wherein God Himself teaches and refreshes the soul without meditation or any active efforts that itself may deliberately make (at least quite generally in prayer). . . . Such. . . is this night and purgation of the senses." (82)

The words we have italicized in this text are very significant and reproduce exactly the original Spanish. Following the example of St. Augustine, Cajetan, St. Bernard, St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas, Tauler, and others, St. John of the Cross, it should be noted, speaks of the illuminative way in the full, strong meaning of the term, and not of an illuminative way that is, so to speak, diminished, such as exists in those who have only partially profited by the passive purification of the senses, as the saint points out.(83)

Finally, farther on when speaking of proficients,(84) St. John of the Cross treats of the imperfections proper to the advanced or proficients. He declares that there is still in them natural rudeness, a distraction and dissipation of mind, presumption, and subtle and secret pride. These defects show the necessity of the passive purification of the spirit in order to enter the perfect unitive way, that of those who, as St. Thomas says: "aim chiefly at union with God and enjoyment of Him. . . and who 'desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ.' " (85)

This trial of the passive purification of the spirit is a crisis analogous to that which occurs in the natural order when the adolescent becomes an adult and makes use of his liberty, sometimes to his cost. At this point in the spiritual order, there is, as it were, a third conversion,(86) or better a transformation of soul which recalls what Pentecost was for the apostles, when, after being deprived of the presence of Christ, who had ascended into heaven, they were enlightened and fortified by the Holy Ghost, who thus prepared them for the severe persecutions they would have to undergo and who made them perfect ministers of the Savior.(87)

St. John of the Cross is assuredly describing spiritual progress as it appears especially among contemplatjves, and more particularly in those who are the most generous in striving to reach union with God as directly as possible. He thus shows the superior laws of the life of grace in all their loftiness. But these laws apply also in an attenuated manner in many others who do not reach such a lofty perfection, but who, nevertheless, advance generously without turning back. Attentive reading of the history of the interior life of the servants of God, reveals, in their interior sufferings and their progress, this profound purification of the senses and spirit, so that all their faculties may at length be fully subjected to God present in them in the depths of their souls.

St. John of the Cross, better than anyone else, noted these two crises of the transition from one age to another, and he rightly called them the passive purifications of the senses and the spirit. Manifestly they correspond well to the nature of the human soul (to its two parts, the sensible and the spiritual). They correspond also to the nature of the divine seed, to sanctifying grace, the germ of eternal life, which ought more and more to vivify our lower and higher faculties and to inspire all our acts until the depths of our souls are purified of all egoism, of all more or less conscious self-love, and in truth belong entirely to God.(88)

Keeping this fact in mind, we can understand that Vallgornera should have followed this lofty idea of the three ages of the spiritual life in dividing his work Theologia mystica divi Thomae. In doing so he concurred, as we said in the beginning of this chapter, with the Carmelites, Philip of the Blessed Trinity, Anthony of the Holy Ghost, and many others. Thus is preserved the tradition of the fathers, of Clement of Alexandria, Cajetan, St. Augustine, Dionysius, St. Bernard, St. Anselm, Hugh, Richard of St. Victor, St. Albert the Great, St. Bonaventure, and St. Thomas, whose doctrine on the gifts of the Holy Ghost thus appears in its full development.

To sum up what we have just said, we shall give a table that coincides approximately with one agreed on by several of the authors we have just named.(89)

In beginners may be noted, with the first degree of charity, the initial virtues or the first degree of meekness, patience, chastity, and humility. Interior and exterior mortification makes them more and more avoid deliberate venial sins, or induces them to rise immediately from mortal sin should they fall into it. Their prayer is vocal, their meditation is discursive and tends to be transformed into simplified affective prayer. In them the gifts of the Holy Ghost begin to appear, but they are still rather latent. From time to time they have special inspirations from the Holy Ghost, but as yet little aptitude to profit by them. Docility to the Holy Ghost remains feeble; the soul is, above all, conscious of its activity and must frequently recognize its indigence. (90)

The soul experiences its poverty in the crisis of sensible aridity of the passive purification of the senses, a painful purification more or less well borne, which marks the transition to the illuminative way, which has not been diminished and is truly worthy of its name.(91)

In proficients, with the second degree of charity, appear the solid virtues which are no longer merely initial virtues; in particular, meekness and patience, a more genuine humility, which leads to benevolence toward one's neighbor, and the spirit of the three counsels of poverty, chastity, and filial obedience to God recognized as present in the superiors placed over us. With these solid virtues, the gifts of the Holy Ghost begin to manifest themselves, especially the three less elevated gifts of fear, knowledge, and piety. The soul, more docile now, profits more from interior inspirations and illuminations. If the proficient is truly generous, then infused prayer ordinarily begins by isolated acts of infused contemplation in the course of the acquired prayer of recollection. Then, if the soul is faithful, little by little come the prayers of supernatural recollection and of quiet (arid or consoled), in which may be seen a manifest influence of the gift of piety, which makes us cry: "Abba, Father," as St. Paul says.(92) Here, truly, the soul's intimate conversation with itself becomes a conversation with God. Then, if the soul is generous, it sees in itself faults of subtle pride, of lack of benevolence toward its neighbor, sometimes of hardness, of lack of zeal for the salvation of so many souls that are being lost. These defects which did not at first appear to the soul, require a new passive purification, that of the spirit.(93)

In spite of certain, as it were involuntary, imperfections, the perfect have, with the third degree of charity, eminent and even heroic virtues: great meekness, almost unalterable patience, profound humility which does not fear scorn and loves even humiliations, a great spirit of faith which leads the soul to see all things as coming from the hand of God, great confidence in God, magnanimity which causes the soul to tend to great things in spite of obstacles and rebuffs, and perfect abandonment to the will of God. The gifts of understanding and wisdom then manifest themselves more strikingly and frequently. The soul is, as it were, dominated by the Holy Ghost, who inspires it also to a more perfect practice of the virtues.

Ordinarily at this time, there is the infused prayer of union under the more and more marked influence of the gift of wisdom.(94) The center of the soul is finally purified; and the higher and lower faculties are fully subject to God intimately present in the inner sanctuary. In the penumbra of faith, this is eternal life begun, or the normal prelude of beatitude which ought never to end.

(purgative way)
Ascetical life
(illuminative way)
Threshold of the mystical life
The Perfect
(unitive way)
Mystical life
Degrees of Charity
Initial virtues, first degree of charity, temperance, chastity, patience, first degrees of humility. Solid virtues, second degree of charity, obedience, more profound humility; spirit of the counsels. Eminent and heroic virtues, third degree of charity, perfect humility, great spirit of faith, abandonment, almost unalterable patience. Virtues
Gifts of the Holy Ghost rather latent, inspirations at rare intervals, slight aptitude as yet to profit by them. The soul is especially conscious
of its activity.
The gifts of the Holy Ghost begin to manifest themselves, especially the three inferior gifts of fear, knowledge, and piety. The soul, more docile now, profits more from inspirations and interior illuminations. The higher gifts manifest themselves more notably and frequently. The soul is, as it were, dominated by the Holy Ghost. Great passivity in His regard, which does not exclude the activity of the virtues. Gifts
Active purification of the senses and of the spirit, or exterior and interior mortification. Passive purification of the senses, under the influence especially of the gifts of fear and knowledge. Concomitant trials. Entrance into the illuminative way. Purification of the spirit under the influence especially of the gift of understanding. Concomitant trials in which are manifested the gifts of fortitude and of counsel. Entrance into the perfect unitive way. Purifications
Acquired prayer: vocal prayer, discursive prayer, affective prayer, which becomes more and more simple, called the prayer of active recollection. Initial infused prayer, isolated acts of infused contemplation in the course of the acquired prayer of recollection; then, prayers of supernatural recollection and of arid or consoled quiet. The gift of piety. Infused prayers of simple union, of complete union
( sometimes ecstatic), of transforming union, under the more and more marked influence of the gift of wisdom. Concomitant favors.
First and second mansions Third and fourth mansions Fifth, sixth, and seventh mansions Mansions of St Teresa

This spiritual progress may be expressed by the preceding summary, which should be read from the bottom up in order better to see that the passive purifications of the senses and the spirit are found at the entrance to the illuminative and unitive ways.



74. See IIa IIae, q. 24. a.9.

75. Epist., 34, I; 91, 3; 54, 4: "Not to advance, is to fall back."

76. Ibid.

77. See IIa IIae, q. 24, a.9.

78. Second Sermon for Lent, and Sermon for the Monday before Palm Sunday (nos. 3 f.), which, in the Latin translation of Surius, is attributed to the first Sunday after the octave of the Epiphany.

79. The Dark Night of the Soul, Bk. I, chaps. 9 f.: "Characteristic signs of the night of the senses." "How they are to conduct themselves who have entered the dark night."

80. La doctrine spirituelle (Paris, ed. Gabalda, 1908), 2nd principle, chap. 6, a.2, sec. 2, p. 113; cf. pp. 91, 123, 143, 187, 301 ff.

81. The Dark Night, Bk. I, chap. 8.

82. Ibid., chap. 14.

83. Ibid., chap. 9.

84. Ibid., Bk. II, chap. 2.

85. See IIa IIae, q.24. a.9.

86. Tauler spoke also of this great purification in the Sermon for the Monday before Palm Sunday: no. 7: Trials by which the life of the third degree begins; no. 8: Reason for these trials; no. 9: Divine union in the superior faculties.

87. We developed these ideas at length in a little treatise, Les trois conversions et les trois voies, pp. 42-50, 123-80.

88. The objection has sometimes been raised that this lofty idea of St. John of the Cross notably surpasses the common idea of spiritual writers, and, it has been added, it seems that the beginners who are discussed in The Dark Night (Bk. I, chap. 8) are not those generally spoken of but those who are making a beginning, not in the spiritual life but in the mystical ways. To this objection it is easy to reply that the idea of St. John of the Cross corresponds admirably to the nature of the soul (sensitive and spiritual), no less than to that of grace, and that the beginners he speaks of are indeed those to whom this name is generally given. To be convinced of this, it suffices to see the defects that St. John finds in them: spiritual gluttony, an inclination to sensuality, to anger, to envy, to spiritual laziness, to pride, which leads them, to "go to a stranger to confess their sin, that their usual confessor may think they are not sinners but good people" (The Dark Night, Bk. I, chap.2. Such people are real beginners who have made no progress in asceticism.

When he speaks of the three ways, the purgative, the illuminative, and the unitive, St. John understands them, not in a diminished sense but in their normal plenitude.

It should be noted also that, following several other writers, Father Cayre (Precis de patrologie, histoire et doctrine des peres et docteurs de l'Eglise, II, 886 ff.) rightly says: "There is certainly no reason to distinguish in the spirituality of St.. John of 'the Cross two parallel ways, the one ascetical and the other mystical, each leading by its own means to perfection. The active and the passive ways, spoken of in the two great treatises (The Ascent and The Dark Night), represent not two distinct states, but two aspects of the one and only way of sanctity. . . . St. John of the Cross considers the transform of union the normal end of the journey toward perfection." With this in view, he points out in The Ascent what the soul must do, and in The Dark Night what it must receive with docility. Several Carmelite theologians have recently made the same observation.

89 In particular, with the table proposed by Father Cayre, op. cit., II, 811, 834.

90. This stage corresponds to the first and second mansions of St. Teresa.

91. As we shall see, it is the third mansion of St. Teresa with a beginning of the arid prayer of quiet.

92. This stage corresponds to the fourth mansion of St. Teresa, and in part to the fifth. In this fifth mansion, we shall see farther on, there are extraordinary graces that do not belong to the normal way of sanctity.

93. St. Teresa speaks of this purification in the sixth mansion.

94. St. Teresa speaks of the various degrees of the infused prayer of union in the fifth, sixth, and seventh mansions.