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

The Illuminative Way of Proficients


Ch 2 : The Entrance into the Illuminative Way

Scripture often recalls, even to those who are in the state of grace, the necessity of a more profound conversion toward God. Our Lord Himself spoke to His apostles, who had been following Him from the beginning of His ministry, about the necessity of becoming converted. St. Mark relates, in fact, that when Christ made His last journey into Galilee with His apostles, on reaching Capharnaum He asked them: "What did you treat of in the way? But they held their peace," says the Evangelist, "for in the way they had disputed among themselves which of them should be the greatest." (1) And in St. Matthew, where the same occurrence is recounted, we read: "And Jesus, calling unto Him a little child, set him in the midst of them, and said: Amen I say to you, unless you be converted and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." (2) Christ was speaking here to the apostles, who had already taken part in His ministry, who would receive Communion at the Last Supper, three of whom had accompanied Him to Thabor; they were in the state of grace, and yet He spoke to them of the necessity of being converted in order to enter profoundly into the kingdom or the divine intimacy. To this end He particularly recommended to them the humility of the child of God, who is conscious of his indigence, his weakness, his dependence on the heavenly Father.

Christ even spoke especially to Peter about his second conversion, just before the Passion, when once again, as St. Luke tells us: "There was also a strife amongst them [the apostles], which of them should seem to be the greater. And He said to them: . . . But he that is the greater among you, let him become as the younger; and he that is the leader, as he that serveth." (3) And to Peter He added: "Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: but I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren." (4) On this occasion, Christ is speaking of Peter's second conversion; the first had taken place when he left his work as a fisherman to follow Jesus.

The liturgy often refers to the second conversion, particularly when it recalls these words of St. Paul: "You have heard Him, and have been taught in Him, as the truth is in Jesus: to put off, according to former conversation, the old man, who is corrupted according to the desire of error, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind: and put on the new man, who according to God is created in justice and holiness of truth."(5) This spiritual renewal presupposes a first conversion. The Apostle of the Gentiles speaks of it again in the Epistle to the Colossians: "Lie not one to another: stripping yourselves of the old man with his deeds, and putting on the new, him who is renewed unto knowledge, according to the image of Him that created him. . . . But above all these things have charity, which is the bond of perfection." (6)

When the liturgy recalls these words during Advent and at the beginning of Lent, it addresses not only souls in the state of mortal sin that are in need of conversion from evil to good, but also many Christians already in the state of grace who are still very imperfect and have to be converted from a relatively mediocre to a fervent Christian life. On Ash Wednesday it recalls to them Joel's words: "Now, therefore, saith the Lord: Be converted to Me with all your heart, in fasting and in weeping and in mourning. And rend your hearts, and not your garments, and turn to the Lord your God; for He is gracious and merciful, patient and rich in mercy, and ready to repent of the evil." (7) These words are so much the better understood in proportion as the soul that hears them is more advanced and, although in the state of grace for many years, feels the need of a more profound conversion, the necessity of turning the depths of its will more completely toward God. The laborer who has plowed a furrow goes over it a second time to force the plow deeper and turn over the earth which must nourish the wheat.

From this point of view, which is admitted by all, the best spiritual writers have spoken of the necessity of a second conversion to enter truly on the illuminative way of proficients.

Among modern authors, Father Louis Lallemant, S.J. (d. 1680), insists on this point in his beautiful book, La Doctrine Spirituelle. Before him St. Benedict,(8) St. Catherine of Siena, Blessed Henry Suso, and Tauler spoke of it at considerable length; but it is principally St. John of the Cross who has treated of this second conversion, which he calls the passive purification of the senses, and which in his opinion marks the entrance into the illuminative way.

We shall set forth the doctrine of these authors, recalling first of all what Father Lallemant says on this subject, since his teaching is easier to understand because it is nearer to our own times. We shall then better grasp what St. Catherine of Siena and Tauler teach, and finally what St. John of the Cross affirms with originality and profundity.

We shall now see what the author of La Doctrine Spirituelle says:

  1. of the fact of this second conversion in the lives of the saints,
  2. of its necessity and fruits.


Father Lallemant states on this subject: "Two conversions ordinarily occur in the majority of the saints and in religious who become perfect: one, by which they devote themselves to the service of God; the other, by which they give themselves entirely to perfection. We see this fact in the lives of the apostles when Christ called them and when he sent the Holy Ghost upon them; (9) in St. Teresa, and in her confessor, Father Alvarez, and in several others.(10) The second conversion does not occur in all religious, because of their negligence. The time of this conversion in our lives (11) is commonly the third year of novitiate. Let us, therefore, take fresh courage now and not spare ourselves in the service of God, because it will never be harder for us than it is at present.(12) As time goes on, this way will gradually be rendered less rough, and the difficulties will be smoothed away, because the more pure our hearts become, the more abundantly we shall receive graces." (13) At this juncture a decisive step must be taken.(14)

What Father Lallemant says here may be completed by examining the lives of many servants of God. There is a painful period, difficult to traverse, which is often set forth, in the lives of the saints and in the processes of beatification, under the title of "Interior Sufferings"; this period marks the entrance into a higher spiritual life. We believe also that notable light would be thrown on the lives of the saints and also on the causes of beatification, if it were more explicitly noted that this period corresponds to what St. John of the Cross calls the passive night of the senses, and that another period, similar to it in certain respects, occurs later. According to this doctor of the Church, the latter corresponds to the passive night of the spirit.

This observation is of a nature to throw light on the most obscure moments in the lives of the servants of God. If, in reality, between the two particularly difficult periods we have just spoken of, the heroic degree of the virtues can already be established, and if it is even more clearly proved after the second of these two periods, it is a sign that the servant of God has indeed successfully passed through both of these periods. It is likewise a sign that he must have had a great spirit of faith, of trust in God in order to surmount the difficulties found therein. Thus these two obscure periods, or to use the expression of St. John of the Cross, these two nights, one of which marks the entrance into the illuminative way of proficients, the other into the unitive way of the perfect, far from being an objection against the sanctity of a soul, serve rather to bring it out more clearly. Great merit is, in fact, necessary to traverse them well, so as not to fall back at this time and to come forth truly fortified by these two trials. The lives of the saints are greatly illumined in the light of these principles.


Not only is this second conversion a fact which is verified in the lives of the servants of God; its necessity is manifest because of the inordinate self-love that still remains in beginners after months and years of labor. Of the necessity of the second conversion, Father Lallemant says: "The reason why some reach perfection only very late or not at all is because they follow only nature and human sense in practically everything. They pay little or no heed to the Holy Ghost, whose appropriate work is to enlighten, to direct, to warm.

"The majority of religious, even of good and virtuous ones, follow in their private conduct and in their direction of others only reason and good sense, in which a number among them excel. This rule is good, but it does not suffice for Christian perfection.(15)

"Such people ordinarily direct their lives by the common feeling of those with whom they live, and as the latter are imperfect, although their lives are not disorderly, they will never reach the sublime ways of the spirit, because the number of the perfect is very small. They live like the ordinary run of people, and their manner of governing others is imperfect.

"The Holy Ghost waits some time for them to enter into their interior and, seeing there the operations of grace and those of nature, to be disposed to follow His direction; but if they misuse the time and favor which He offers them, He finally abandons them to themselves and leaves them in their interior darkness and ignorance, which they preferred and in which they live thereafter amid great dangers for their salvation." (16)

The same author, who writes for religious, says: "The salvation of a religious is inseparably linked to his perfection, so that if he abandons care for his spiritual advancement, he gradually approaches ruin and loss. If he does not come to this pass, it is because God, wishing to save him, mercifully comes to his assistance before his fall. All the masters of the spiritual life agree on this maxim: He who does not advance, falls back. But it sometimes happens, because retrogression takes place imperceptibly, that a few who have already made some progress allow a considerable period to elapse before they realize that they are falling back." (17)

The necessity of a second conversion arises from all that remains in us of often unconscious egoism which mingles in the greater number of our acts. In a number of people this necessity comes from their unwillingness to be considered naive and their failure to recognize sufficiently the naivete of a superior simplicity which should grow in them. As a result, they become less simple and true with God, their superiors, and themselves. They lose sight practically of the grandeur of the theological virtues, of the importance of humility; then they no longer understand Christ's words: "Unless you be converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." Under the pretext of prudence, they begin to consider the little aspects of great things and to see less and less the great aspect of the daily duties of Christian life and the value of fidelity in little things. They forget that the day is composed of hours and the hour of minutes. They neglect a number of their obligations and gradually, in place of the radical simplicity of a gaze that was already lofty, a simplicity which should become that of contemplation, they find themselves in the quasi-learned complexity of a waning knowledge.

On this subject Father Lallemant says: "In religion (itself) there is a little world, the component parts of which are the esteem of human talents, of important employments, offices, and positions, the love and search for glory and applause, for rest and a calm life. These are the things the demon uses as a puppet show to amuse and deceive us. He sets it all in motion before our eyes in such a way that we dwell on it and let ourselves be seduced, preferring vain appearances to true and solid goods." (18)

Human talents are indeed often preferred to the great supernatural virtues. The same author adds: "Only prayer can protect us from this delusion. Prayer it is that teaches us to judge of things in a holy manner, to look at them in the light of truth, which dissipates their false splendor and their spurious charms."

Elsewhere he says: "We commit more than a hundred acts of pride in a day without, so to speak, being aware of it." (19) The ruin of souls results from the multiplication of venial sins, which causes the diminution of divine lights or inspirations.(20) Nor is it sufficient to direct our attention toward God as an afterthought, if our act remains entirely natural and our heart is not truly offered to God. A superficial oblation of self does not suffice; there must be a genuine new conversion, a turning of the heart toward God.(21)

The fruits of this second conversion are pointed out by the same author in the course of advice to preachers: "People kill themselves dying to produce fine sermons, and yet they reap scarcely any fruit. What is the reason? It is because preaching is just as much a supernatural function as the salvation of souls to which it is directed, and the instrument must be proportioned to the end. . . . The majority of preachers have sufficient learning, but they have not enough devotion or sanctity.

"The true means of acquiring the science of the saints. . . is to have recourse not so much to books as to interior humility, purity of heart, recollection, and prayer. . . . When a soul has attained to entire purity of heart, God Himself instructs it, at times by the unction of spiritual consolations and tastes, at other times by gentle and affectionate lights, which teach it better how to speak to the hearts of its auditors than study and other human means can. . . . But we cannot get rid of our own sufficiency, nor abandon ourselves to God.

"An interior man will make more impression on hearts by a single word that is animated by the spirit of God than another by an entire discourse costing him much work and in which he exhausted all the power of his reasoning." (22) Such are the fruits of the second conversion. The author of The Imitation often speaks of them, especially when he describes the fervor with which we should amend our lives. He says: "A diligent and zealous person will make greater progress, though he have more passions, than another who is well regulated, but less fervent in the pursuit of virtues. . . . Study, likewise, especially to guard against and to get the better of such things as oftenest displease thee in others. . . . As thine eye observeth others, so again thou art also observed by others. . . . But if thou give thyself to fervor, thou shalt find great peace; and thou shalt feel thy labor light, through the grace of God, and for the love of virtue." (23)

Thus, intimate conversation with God, which is the basis of the interior life, will gradually take the place of conversation with ourselves.(24)



1. Mark 9:31 f.

2. Matt. 18:2f.

3. Luke 22:24, 26.

4. Ibid., 31 f.

5. Eph. 4: 2 1-24.

6. Col. 3:9 f., 14.

7. Joel 2: 12-13.

8. In the prologue of his Rule, St. Benedict wrote: "Let us therefore at length arise, since the Scriptures stir us up, saying: 'It is now the hour for us to rise from sleep' (Rom. 13:11). And our eyes being now open to the divine light, let us hear with wonderment the divine voice admonishing us, in that it cries out daily and says: 'Today if you shall hear His voice, harden not your hearts.' " That is to say: It is time to rise from the sleep of negligence and to walk courageously in the way of God.

9. We shall see farther on that, as St. Catherine of Siena says in her Dialogue (chaps. 60, 63), the second conversion of the apostles took place more properly at the end of the Passion when Peter wept over his denial, and that Pentecost was like a third conversion or more properly a transformation of the soul, which marks the entrance into the unitive way.

10. For example, the second conversion of Blessed Henry Suso, of St. Catherine of Genoa, of Blessed Anthony Neyrot, O.P., and of many others, is well known.

11. Father Lallemant is speaking to religious of the Society of Jesus, whose formation he was completing.

12. Nevertheless there will be another difficult period to pass through in order to enter the unitive way of the perfect.

13. La Doctrine Spirituelle (ed. Paris, 1908), 2nd principle, chap. 6, a.2. p.113.

14. Ibid., p. 66.

15. This mode of acting conforms perfectly to what St. Thomas says of the difference between acquired prudence (a true virtue, already described by Aristotle) and infused prudence. and the gift of counsel (IIa IIae, q.47, a.14 and q. 52). Should a man tend to perfection under the almost exclusive direction of acquired prudence (which is, nevertheless, not that of the flesh), he would never reach true Christian perfection, which belongs to the supernatural order; such perfection requires the frequent exercise of infused prudence and of the gift of counsel. These three sources of actions (habitus) are among themselves a little like what agility of the fingers, the acquired art which is in the practical intellect, and musical inspiration are in the musician. Without art, properly so called, and this inspiration, a man will certainly never produce a masterpiece, and will never be able even to comprehend one.

16. La Doctrine Spirituelle, 4th principle, chap. 2 a.2, p. 187. St. John of the Cross expresses the same opinion in The Dark Night, Bk. I, chap. 10, and The Living Flame, st. 2, v. 5.

17. La Doctrine Spirituelle, chap. 3, a. I, p. 91. In the preceding chapter (pp. 88-91), Father Lallemant discusses the different dispositions of religious with regard to perfection. He says: "Among religious there are three kinds: the first refuse nothing to their senses. Are they cold? They warm themselves. Are they hungry? They eat. . . hardly knowing what it is to be mortified. As for their duties, they discharge them as an obligation, without interior spirit, interior relish, and fruit. . . . This state is dangerous.

"The second avoid the excesses of the first and refuse themselves satisfactions which they judge unnecessary; but they let themselves be deceived under the appearance of good. In their projects they follow their inclination, then they seek virtuous motives to color their choice and justify their conduct. As for their duties, they perform carefully what pertains to the exterior, but with little interior application and recollection, allowing their senses excessive liberty and neglecting the custody of the heart. Souls in this second class are full of imperfections and venial sins. (Father Lallemant does not believe that they are in the illuminative way.)

"The third, as perfect, are stripped of every desire, indifferent to everything, satisfied with everything, and wish only the good pleasure of God. They join together exterior exactitude and interior application; they keep watch over their hearts, preserve their peace of soul, and practice recollection as much as obedience permits. These receive three signal favors from the three Persons of the Most Blessed Trinity: from the Father, they receive what is, as it were, an invincible fortitude in action, suffering, and temptations; from the Son, rays and splendors of truth which glow unceasingly in their souls; from the Holy Ghost, charming fervor, sweetness, and consolation."

See also, in this same book, what the author says regarding this subject on pages 113, 187, 191 ,205, 215, 473.

18. Ibid., 5th principle, chap. 2, a. 2, pp. 301 ff.

19. Ibid., p. 143.

20. The same author often says that the gifts of the Holy Ghost are, as it were, bound by attachment to venial sin; they are like sails that are furled and not spread.

21. Ibid., p. 138.

22. Ibid., pp. 121, 304.

23. The Imitation, Bk. I, chap. 25.

24. Ibid., Bk. II, chap. I.