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

The Purification of the Soul in Beginners


We have spoken of the principles of the interior life, that is, of its sources and its end, which is Christian perfection; we must now treat in particular of each of the three ages of the spiritual life, and first of all of the purification of the soul in beginners.

We shall see, in this regard, what characterizes this age of the interior life, and shall speak at some length of the active purification of the sensitive part and of the intellectual part of the soul, of the use of the sacraments, of the prayer of beginners, and lastly of the more or less well-borne passive purification of the senses which marks the transition to the age of proficients, or the entrance into the illuminative way. In this connection, we shall have to speak of the abuse of graces. Beginners who have become retarded and tepid souls, are the ones that do not reach the higher spiritual age. This part of spirituality is very significant from a practical point of view, for many souls remain greatly retarded because they have not put it into practice, whereas those that really profit by it make great progress.

At this stage it is not important to read many books, to have many ideas, but it is important to become penetrated with the fundamental principles set forth in some substantial book and to put them generously into practice without turning back. Our Lord Himself stated this expressly at the end of the Sermon on the Mount: "Everyone therefore that heareth these My words, and doth them, shall be likened to a wise man that built his house upon a rock. . . . And everyone that heareth these My words, and doth them not, shall be like a foolish man that built his house upon the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew; and they beat upon that house. And it fell, and great was the fall thereof." (1)

When anyone reads the lives of beatified and canonized servants of God, in particular of several of those who in recent times have been proposed to us as models, he is impressed with the fact that many did not have great culture and had not read many books, but that they were profoundly penetrated with the Gospel, and had thus received its spirit, and that they practiced it with admirable generosity, at times in a very simple form of life which recalls that of St. Joseph. They thus attained a lofty wisdom, which at times showed forth in the profound realism of their reflections, and in an ardent charity that was most fruitful for the salvation of souls.

Ch 18: The Spiritual Age of Beginners

We have seen that St. Thomas, when speaking of the three ages of the spiritual life, remarks that "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." (1)

The Christian in the state of grace, who begins to give himself to the service of God and to tend toward the perfection of charity according to the demands of the supreme precept, has a mentality or state of soul which can be described by observing particularly knowledge of self and of God, love of self and of God.


Beginners have an initial knowledge of themselves; little by little they discern the defects they have, the remains of sins that have already been forgiven, and new failings that are more or less deliberate and voluntary. If these beginners are generous, they seek, not to excuse themselves, but to correct themselves, and the Lord shows them their wretchedness and poverty, making them understand, however, that they must consider it only in the light of divine mercy, which exhorts them to advance. They must daily examine their consciences and learn to overcome themselves that they may not follow the unconsidered impulse of their passions.

However, they know themselves as yet only in a superficial way. They have not discovered what a treasure baptism placed in their souls, and they are ignorant of all the self-love and the often unconscious egoism still continuing in them and revealing itself from time to time under a sharp vexation or reproach. Often they have a clearer perception of this self-love in others than in themselves; they ought to remember Christ's words: "Why seest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye; and seest not the beam that is in thy own eye?" (2) The beginner bears in himself a diamond embedded in a mass of gross material, and he does not yet know the value of the diamond or all the defects of the other material. God loves him far more than he believes, but with a strong love that has its exigencies and that demands abnegation if the soul is to reach true liberty of spirit.

The beginner rises gradually to a certain knowledge of God which is still very dependent on sensible things. He knows God in the mirror of the natural world or in that of the parables: for example, in those of the prodigal son, of the lost sheep, of the good shepherd. This is the straight movement of elevation toward God, taking its point of departure from a simple, sensible fact. It is not yet the spiral movement rising toward God by the consideration of the various mysteries of salvation, nor is it the circular movement of contemplation that ever returns to the radiating divine goodness, as the eagle likes to look at the sun while describing the same circle several times in the air.(3)

The beginner is not yet familiar with the mysteries of salvation, with those of the redeeming Incarnation, of the life of the Church. He cannot yet feel habitually inclined to see therein the radiation of the divine goodness. However, he sometimes has this view while considering our Savior's passion, but he does not yet penetrate the depths of the mystery of the redemption. His view of the things of God is still superficial; he has not reached maturity of spirit.


In this state there is a proportionate love of God. Truly generous beginners love the Lord with a holy fear of sin which makes them flee mortal sin, and even deliberate venial sins, by the mortification of the senses and of the inordinate passions, or of the threefold concupiscence of the flesh, the eyes, and pride. This sign indicates that they have the beginning of a deep, voluntary love.

Nevertheless, a number practically neglect necessary mortification, and resemble a man who would like to begin climbing a mountain, not from the base of the mountain but halfway up the side. When they do this, they ascend in their imagination only, not in reality; they travel rapidly, and their first enthusiasm will die out as quickly as burning straw. They will believe that they have a knowledge of spiritual things and will abandon them after having barely examined them superficially. This is, alas, frequently the case.

If, on the contrary, the beginner is generous and seriously wishes to advance, though not wishing to go more quickly than grace or to practice beyond the bounds of obedience an excessive mortification inspired by secret pride, it is not unusual for him to receive as recompense sensible consolations in prayer or in the study of divine things. The Lord thus conquers his sensibility, since he still lives chiefly by it. Sensible grace, so called because it reacts on the sensibility, turns it from dangerous things and draws it toward our Lord and His holy Mother. At these times, the generous beginner already loves God with his whole heart, but not yet with his whole soul, with all his strength, or with all his mind. Spiritual writers often speak of this "milk of consolation" which is then given. St. Paul himself says: "And I, brethren, could not speak to you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, as unto little ones in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not meat; for you are not able as yet." (4)

Then what generally happens? Almost all beginners, on receiving these sensible consolations, take too much complacency in them, as if they were an end, not a means. They then fall into a certain spiritual gluttony accompanied by rash haste and curiosity in the study of divine things, by unconscious pride that makes them wish to talk about these things as if they were already masters of the subject. Then, says St. John of the Cross,(5) the seven capital sins reappear, no longer under their gross form but as they apply to spiritual things.(6) They are so many obstacles to true and solid piety.

What follows from this? According to the logic of the spiritual life, it follows that a second conversion is necessary, that described by St. John of the Cross under the name of the passive purification of the senses "common to the greater number of beginners" (7) in order to introduce them into "the illuminative way of proficients, where God nourishes the soul by infused contemplation." (8)

This purification is manifested by a prolonged sensible aridity in which the beginner is stripped of the sensible consolations wherein he delighted too greatly. If in this aridity there is a keen desire for God, for His reign in us, and the fear of offending Him, it is a sign that a divine purification is taking place. And this is clearer still if to this keen desire for God is added difficulty in prayer, in making multiple and reasoned considerations, and the inclination to look simply at God.(9) This inclination is the third sign, which indicates that the second conversion is taking place and that the soul is raised toward a higher form of life, which is that of the illuminative way of proficients.

If the soul bears this purification well, its sensibility submits more and more to the spirit. Often it must then generously repulse temptations against chastity and patience, virtues that have their seat in the sensitive appetites and that are strengthened by this struggle.

In this crisis the Lord tills the soul, so to speak; He greatly deepens the furrow He traced at the moment of justification or the first conversion. He extirpates the evil roots or remains of sin. He shows the vanity of the things of the world, of the quest for honors and dignities. Gradually a new life begins, as in the natural order when the child becomes an adolescent.

This crisis is, however, more or less well borne; many persons are not generous enough and may become retarded souls. Others follow divine inspiration with docility and become proficients.

Such are the chief distinctive marks of the spiritual age of beginners: a knowledge of self still superficial; an initial knowledge of God as yet very dependent on sensible things; a love of God manifesting itself by the struggle to flee sin. If this struggle is generous, it is as a rule rewarded by sensible consolations, on which one too often dwells. Then the Lord takes them away and by this spoliation introduces one into a spiritual life that is more detached from the senses. It is easy to see the logical and vital sequence of the phases through which the soul must pass. It is not a mechanical juxtaposition of successive states, but the organic development of the interior life which thus becomes more and more an intimate conversation of the soul, no longer only with itself but with God.


Of great importance to note here is the generosity necessary in the beginner from the very first moment if he is to reach intimate union with God and the penetrating and sweet contemplation of divine things.

On this subject we read in The Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena: "You were all invited, generally and in particular, by My Truth, when He cried in the Temple, saying: 'Whosoever thirsteth, let him come to Me and drink, for I am the fountain of the water of life.' . . . So that you are invited to the fountain of living water of grace, and it is right for you, with perseverance, to keep by Him who is made for you a bridge, not being turned back by any contrary wind that may arise, either of prosperity or adversity, and to persevere till you find Me, who am the giver of the water of life, by means of this sweet and loving Word, My only-begotten Son." (10)

St. Thomas speaks likewise when he comments on the words: "Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill" "The Lord," he says, "wishes us to thirst after that justice which consists in rendering to every man and to God first of all what is His due. He wishes us never to be satiated on earth . . . but rather that our desire should grow always. . . . Blessed are they that have this insatiable desire; they will receive eternal life and here below an abundance of spiritual goods in the accomplishment of the precepts, according to the words of the Master: (11) 'My meat is to do the will of Him that sent Me, that I may perfect His work.' " (12)

The Angelic Doctor says again in his commentary on St. John, 7: 37 "All that thirst are invited when our Lord says: 'If any man thirst, let him come to Me and drink.' Isaias had said: 'All you that thirst, come to the (living) waters.' (13) He calls those who thirst, for it is they who desire to serve God. God does not accept a forced service, but He 'loveth a cheerful giver.' (14) He calls not only some, but all who thirst; and He invites them to drink this spiritual beverage which is divine wisdom, capable of satiating our desires. And once we have found this divine wisdom, we shall wish to give it to others.(15) This is why He says to us: 'He that believeth in Me, as the Scripture saith: Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.' " (16)

To reach this overflowing spring, one must thirst for virtue and walk generously along the narrow way of abnegation, in the spiritual way which is narrow for the senses, but which, for the spirit, becomes immense like God Himself to whom it leads. The road to perdition, on the other hand, while broad at first for the senses, in turn becomes narrower and narrower for the spirit and leads to hell. (17)

St. Teresa, recalling these same words of the Master: "If any man thirst, let him come to Me, and drink," likewise writes: "Remember, our Lord invited 'any man': He is truth itself; His word cannot be doubted. If all had not been included, He would not have addressed everybody, nor would He have said: 'Let all men come, for they will lose nothing by it, and I will give to drink to those I think fit for it.' But as He said unconditionally: 'If any man thirst, let him come to Me,' I feel sure that, unless they stop halfway, none will fail to drink of this living water. May our Lord, who has promised to grant it us, give us grace to seek it as we ought, for His own sake." (18) In the same chapter the saint says: "When God gives you this water, sisters, this comparison will please you, and you will understand, as those do who drink of it, how genuine love of God that is powerful and freed from earthly dross rises above mortal things and is sovereign over all the elements of this world. . . . Our souls are so dear to Him that He prevents their running into danger while He is bestowing this grace on them. He at once calls them to His side, and in a single instant shows them more truths and gives them a clearer knowledge of the nothingness of all things than we could gain for ourselves in many years." In chapter 21, the saint adds: "Let us return to speak of those who wish to travel by this path to the very end, and to the fount itself, where they will drink of the water of life. Although there are books written on the subject, yet I do not think it will be waste of time to speak of it here. How must one begin? I maintain that this is the chief point; in fact, that everything depends on people having a great and a most resolute determination never to halt until they reach their journey's end, happen what may, whatever the consequences are, cost what it will, let who will blame them, whether they reach the goal or die on the road, or lose heart to bear the trials they encounter, or the earth itself goes to pieces beneath their feet."

St. John of the Cross expresses himself in like manner in the prologue of The Ascent of Mount Carmel and in The Living Flame of Love.(19)

The generosity of which all these great saints speak in the quotations given is none other than the virtue of magnanimity; but it is no longer only that described by Aristotle; it is infused Christian magnanimity described by St. Thomas in IIa IIae, q. 129 of the Summa.

The magnanimous man, says the saint, seeks great things worthy of honor, but he considers that honors themselves are practically nothing.(20) He does not let himself be exalted by prosperity or cast down by difficulties. Is there anything greater on earth than genuine Christian perfection? The magnanimous man dreads neither obstacles nor critics nor scorn, if they must be borne for a great cause. He does not allow himself to be at all intimidated by freethinkers, and pays no attention to their utterances. He pays far more attention to truth than to the opinions of men which are often false. If this generosity is not always understood by those who wish an easier life, it has, nevertheless, a true value in itself. And if it is united to humility, it pleases God and cannot fail of a reward.

St. Francis de Sales, in his Fifth Conference, speaks admirably of generosity in its relations with humility, which ought always to accompany it. He says:

Humility believes it can do nothing, considering the knowledge of our poverty and weakness. . . ; and, on the contrary, generosity makes us say with St. Paul: "I can do all things in Him who strengtheneth me." Humility makes us distrust ourselves, and generosity makes us trust in God. . . . There are people who amuse themselves with a false and silly humility, which hinders them from seeing in themselves the good that God has given them. They are very wrong in this; for the goods that God has placed in us should be recognized. . . that we may glorify the divine goodness which bestowed them on us. . . . Humility which does not produce generosity is indubitably false. . . . Generosity relies on trust in God and courageously undertakes to do all that is commanded . . . no matter how difficult it may be. . . . What can hinder me from succeeding, it says, since the Scriptures declare that "He, who hath begun a good work in you, will perfect it unto the day of Christ Jesus"? (21)

Such ought to be the generosity of beginners. All the saints hold the same doctrine. Christ Himself declared: "No man putting his hand to the plow and looking back is fit for the kingdom of God." (22) One must belong to those of whom He said: "Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill"; here on earth they will taste, as it were, the prelude of eternal life and by working for the salvation of others will inspire in them a holy desire for this life.



1. Matt. 7:24-27.

1. Summa, IIa IIae, q.24. a.9.

2. Matt. 7:3.

3. Cf. IIa IIae, q.180, a.6.

4. See I Cor. 3: 1 f.

5. The Dark Night of the Soul, Bk. I, chaps. 1-7.

6. In others they reappear in regard to the things of the intellectual life, by unconscious self-seeking in study.

7. The Dark Nigbt of the Soul, Bk. I, chap. 8.

8. Ibid., chap. 14.

9. Ibid., chap. 9: The three signs of the passive purification of the senses, in which infused contemplation begins.

10. Dialogue, chap. 53.

11. John 4:34.

12. In Matthaeum 5:6.

13. Isa. 55: 1.

14. See II Cor. 9:7.

15. St. Thomas, In Joannem 7:37: "All this is spiritual refection in the knowledge of divine wisdom and truth; likewise, in the fulfilling of desires. . . . Moreover, the fruit of this invitation is the overflowing of good on others."

16. John 7: 38.

17. St. Thomas, In Matth. 7: 14.

18. The Way of Perfection, chap. 19.

19. Stanza 2.

20.  St. Thomas says (IIa IIae, q.129, a.4, c. and ad 3um) that magnanimity leads a man to wish to practice all the virtues with true greatness of soul. It is thus like the ornament of all the virtues, and one sees thereby its general influence, that indeed attributed by spiritual authors to generosity. Ibid., q.134, a.2 ad 3um; and Ia IIae, q.66, a.4 ad 3um.

21. Phil. 1:6.

22. Luke 9:62.