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

The Illuminative Way of Proficients


Ch 6 : The Spiritual Age of Proficients: Principal Characteristics

Since we have discussed the difficult period called the night of the senses, which, according to St. John of the Cross, marks the entrance into the illuminative way of proficients, we should now point out the principal traits of the spiritual character of proficients, the characteristics of this age of the interior life.(1)

The mentality of proficients should be described by insisting on their knowledge and love of God, and by noting the differences between this spiritual age and the preceding one, just as one remarks those of adolescence and childhood. The adolescent is not only a grown-up child, but he has also a new mentality; he sees things in a less imaginative, more rational manner; he has different preoccupations, just as the child is not an adolescent in miniature. From the spiritual point of view there is something similar in respect to the different ages of the interior life.


In the preceding period, the beginner scarcely knew God except in the mirror of sensible things, whether in those of nature, or in those mentioned in the parables of the Gospel, or in the exterior acts of worship; and he knew himself only in a very superficial manner.

The proficient obtained a deeper self-knowledge while passing through the period of prolonged aridity which marks the second conversion. With this knowledge of his poverty, of his spiritual indigence, there grows within him by contrast a quasi-experimental knowledge of God, not only in the mirror of the sensible things of nature, of the parables, of exterior worship, but in the spiritual mirror of the mysteries of salvation with which he familiarizes himself. These mysteries, which are those of the incarnation of the Word, of the redemption, of eternal life, the rosary daily places before our eyes by recalling to us the Savior's childhood, His sorrowful passion, His resurrection and ascension. If the proficient is faithful, he goes beyond the sensible aspect of these mysteries, he attains all that is spiritual in them, the infinite value of the merits of Christ; then the rosary is no longer the mechanical recitation of the Hail Mary, but a living thing, a school of contemplation. The joyful mysteries bring us the good news of the annunciation and the nativity of our Savior, which constitute true, enduring, and deep joys far above the pleasures of the world and the satisfactions of pride. Likewise, in the midst of our sufferings, which are often without reason, at times overwhelming, almost always badly borne, the sorrowful mysteries repeat to us that our sins should be the object of our grief. They make us desire to know them better, to experience a sincere sorrow for them, and thus we begin to comprehend the profound meaning and the infinite value of Christ's passion and its effects in our lives. Finally, in the midst of the instability and uncertainties of this life, the glorious mysteries recall to us the immutability and the perfect happiness of eternal life, which is the goal of our journey.

The proficient who would thus live a little better each day by the spirit of the rosary, would reach the contemplation of the mystery of Christ, a certain penetrating understanding of the life of the mystical body, or of the Church militant, suffering, and triumphant. Under the continual direction of Jesus and of Mary Mediatrix, he would enter increasingly into the mystery of the communion of saints. If he should listen daily to this secret teaching in the depth of his heart, this prayer would kindle in him the desire of heaven, of the glory of God, and the salvation of souls; it would give him a love of the cross and strength to carry it, and from time to time a foretaste of heaven, a certain savor of eternal life. As a traveler toward eternity (viator), he would occasionally enjoy it in hope and would rest on the heart of Him who is the way, the truth, and the life.

The proficient who has such knowledge of God no longer knows Him only in the sensible mirror of the starry sky or of the parables, but in the spiritual mirror of the great mysteries of the Incarnation, the redemption, and eternal life which is promised to us. He thus grows increasingly familiar with these mysteries of faith, he penetrates them a little, tastes them, sees their application to his daily life. According to the terminology of Dionysius, which is preserved by St. Thomas,(2) the soul rises thus by a spiral movement from the mysteries of Christ's childhood to those of His passion, resurrection, ascension, and glory, and in them it contemplates the radiation of the sovereign goodness of God, who thus communicates Himself admirably to us. Goodness is essentially diffusive, and that of God diffuses itself on us by the redeeming Incarnation and by the revelation of eternal life already begun, in a sense, in the life of grace.(3)

In this more or less frequent contemplation, the proficients or advanced receive, in the measure of their fidelity and generosity, the light of the gift of understanding, which renders their faith more penetrating and which makes them glimpse the lofty and simple beauty of these mysteries, a beauty accessible to all those who are truly humble and pure of heart.

Consequently this period of the interior life merits the name of illuminative way. In the preceding period, the Lord conquered our sensibility by certain graces, to which the name sensible is given because of the sensible consolation they bring. Then the soul, which had become too attached to these sensible consolations, had to be weaned from them that it might receive a more spiritual and substantial food.

Now God conquers our intellect; He enlightens it as He alone can; He renders this superior faculty increasingly docile to His inspirations that it may grasp divine truth. He subjects our intellect to Himself in this way while vivifying it. He gives it lights that are often scarcely perceived, but that make us understand ever better the spirit of the Gospel. He lifts us up above the excessive preoccupations and the complications of a learning that is too human. He makes us aspire to the superior simplicity of the loving gaze which rests in the truth that makes man free. He makes us understand the meaning of these words: "If you continue in My word, you shall be My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free."( 4) This word will deliver you from the prejudices of the world, from its vain complications, its lies, the short­sightedness of unconscious pride, and from that of covetousness. Divine truth will give itself profoundly to you and will also dispel the false luster of all that can seduce you. It will free you from what Scripture calls "the bewitching of vanity," (5) from the vertigo of passion which blinds you to the true imperishable goods.

In all this there is a knowledge of God and of self notably different from that drawn from books simply by reading. We begin to know in a truly living manner the Gospel, the Eucharist, Jesus Christ, who does not cease to intercede for us and who gives us always new graces to incorporate us in Him, in His mystical body for eternity. The life of the Church appears in its grandeur; we think of the spiritual summits of the Church in our day, which must number very holy souls as it did in the past and as it will in the future. Such is the work of the Holy Ghost in men's hearts.

Books alone cannot give this experimental knowledge. A treatise on the Eucharist will show at some length, by the analysis of scriptural texts, that this sacrament was instituted by Christ; it will defend speculatively the Real Presence and transubstantiation against ancient and modern errors; it will compare the different explanations which theologians give of the Sacrifice of the Mass, and will enumerate the fruits of Communion. These books, which are indispensable for the training of the priest, end in precise formulas. These formulas, however, should not be an end for us; for the interior soul they should be a point of departure. To live with a holy realism by the mystery itself, the soul should go beyond them.

By faith in the Eucharist, the interior soul already holds the truths that it needs to know; it is useless for such a soul to embarrass itself with discussions on the history of this dogma, on transubstantiation or the Eucharistic accidents; it needs to live by the truths of faith and of the liturgy, as Book IV of The Imitation points out. To live in this way, the soul must receive the inspirations of the Holy Ghost with docility. Not in vain are the seven gifts given to all the just; they are given to perfect the virtues. Thus the gift of understanding should make all the just who are faithful to its inspirations penetrate the meaning and import of the formulas of faith; simple souls who are clean of heart really see this import much better than theologians who are too satisfied with their acquired knowledge. Mirabilis Deus in sanctis suis.

The contemplation of divine things may be greatly hindered by self-sufficiency which leads a man to think he already knows the interior life, when, as a matter of fact, he still has much to learn. The study of books will never replace prayer; for this reason the great doctors of the Church have declared that they learned more in prayer at the foot of the crucifix or near the tabernacle than in the most learned works. Books give the letter and explain it; intimate prayer obtains the spirit which vivifies, the interior light which sometimes illuminates in an instant principles often repeated, but whose universal radiation had not been grasped. Many things in Christian life are illuminated, for example, in the light of St. Paul's words: "What hast thou that thou hast not received?" (6) This principle is the basis of humility, gratitude, and true love of God, that we may respond to God's love for us. In the same way we then increasingly understand the profound meaning of these words: God is the Author of being, of life, the Author of salvation, of grace, of final perseverance.

Such is, though very imperfectly expressed, the knowledge of God which proficients need and which is found in the illuminative way. This period, in which the soul begins to contemplate God in the spiritual mirror of the mysteries of salvation, already surpasses the ascetical life; it is a beginning of the mystical life. A denial of this fact would be a failure to recognize the grace of God. It would likewise be a failure to recognize it if one should deny the mystical character of The Imitation in which all interior souls may find their nourishment. This mystical character is a sign that the infused contemplation of the mysteries, which is discussed in this book, is in the normal way of sanctity.


What is the normal effect of the interior lights received on the mysteries of the life and death of our Savior, on that of eternal life which is promised us? These lights lead the soul to love God, no longer as in the preceding period, only by fleeing mortal sin and deliberate venial sin, but by imitating the virtues of Christ, His humility, meekness, patience, by observing not only the precepts necessary for all, but the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, obedience, or at least the spirit of these counsels, and by avoiding imperfections.

Then with a greater abundance of interior light, the faithful soul will receive, at least occasionally, keen desires for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. Then that hunger and thirst after the justice of God which Christ speaks of in the beatitudes will grow. The soul will see the truth of His words: "If any man thirst, let him come to Me, and drink. . . . Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water." The soul will then receive, at least for a time, a greater facility for prayer. Not infrequently there is at this stage the infused prayer of quiet in which the will is captivated for a very short time by the attraction of God.(7) Persons dedicated to the apostolate have also in this period a greater facility to act in the service of God, to teach, direct, and organize works.

In such a life the soul loves God, no longer only "with its whole heart" in the midst of sensible consolations, but "with all its soul," with all its activities, not yet however "with all its strength," as will happen in the night of the spirit, nor as yet "with all its mind," for the soul is not yet established in this superior region. That it may be established there, the passive purification of the higher part of the soul will be needed, a purification that brings about the disappearance of all the spiritual or intellectual pride which still mingles in the facility for prayer and action, which we have just mentioned. The soul has still a long road to travel, like Elias who had to walk forty days and forty nights even to Mt. Horeb; but the soul grows, its virtues develop and become solid virtues, the expression of a love of God and souls, which is not only affective, but effective or efficacious.

We shall now discuss these Christian virtues, their relation especially to the love of God, as do the apostle St. John, St. Paul, and all spiritual writers after them. For this reason we shall insist on the moral virtues that have a closer relation to the theological virtues: those of humility, meekness, and patience; those that correspond to the counsels of poverty, chastity, obedience; also those pointed out by Christ when He speaks of the necessity of uniting the prudence of the serpent to the simplicity of the dove, or to perfect sincerity. We shall thus be led to speak of what the progress of the theological virtues and of the gifts of the Holy Ghost should be in the illuminative way under the direction of the interior Master. Thus we follow an ascending way toward union with God.(8)



1. In Volume I, chapter 14, we stated that, just as there is in the natural order, about the age of fourteen, a crisis of puberty and of the awkward age in the passage from childhood to adolescence, and another at twenty-two years of age, the crisis of first liberty, when the young man leaves his parents In order to live independently - so from the spiritual point of view there is the crisis of the passive purification of the senses, or the night of the senses, at the entrance to the illuminative way, and later on the crisis of the passive purification of the spirit, or night of the spirit, at the entrance to the unitive way of the perfect, who truly merit this name.

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

3. In the passage from St. Thomas which we have just cited, are mentioned three movements which symbolize the elevation of the contemplative soul toward God: the straight movement, the oblique or spiral movement, and the circular movement.

In the period preceding that which we are speaking of, the soul, starting from sensible things, rose toward God like the bird which often rises with a straight movement toward the sky: for example, it rose from the parable of the prodigal son to the consideration of the mercy of God. In the period following the age of proficients, that is, in the unitive life, the soul often attains to a contemplation called circular. In this contemplation the soul returns a number of times to the consideration of the divine goodness which radiates on all things, somewhat like an eagle, which rises into the air with a spiral movement and then describes the same circle several times while contemplating the sun and its radiation over the entire horizon.

4. John 8:31 f.

5. Wisd.4:12.

6. See I Cor. 4:7.

7. St. Teresa, The Interior Castle, fourth mansion.

8. In IIa IIae of the Summa, St. Thomas follows a descending way, speaking first of the theological virtues and of the gifts which accompany them, then of the moral virtues, descending from prudence to justice, fortitude, and temperance. St. Thomas proceeds thus in a speculative manner and according to the order of intention, in which the end is willed before the means.

We shall follow the inverse way, according to the order of execution or of realization, which rises toward the obtaining of the end desired. We consider things here in a more practical and concrete manner according to the progress of the proficient toward divine union.