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The Spiritual Life

The Three Ages


There are in truth three states of the converted:
the beginning, the middle, and the perfection.
—St. Gregory the Great



The three stages, ages, levels or periods of the spiritual life are classically called—(1) purgative, (2) illuminative, and (3) unitive.  Or, correspondingly—(1) beginner, (2) proficient, and (3) perfect.  Christ proclaimed—“You, therefore, shall be perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48)  “Perfect” in charity, for “God is Love.” (1 John 4:16)  Perfect charity is to love God with our whole heart and soul, mind and strength, and all others in God and for God, according to His wisdom and will. (Mark 12:29-31)  It is to be completely united with God, the “Ocean of Charity,” like a final “baptism” in the sea.  “Then souls, arising with anxious desire, run with virtue, by the bridge of the doctrine of Christ crucified and arrive at the gate, lifting up their minds in Me, and by My blood and burning with the fire of love they taste in Me the eternal Deity, Who am to them a sea pacific with whom the souls have made so great union.  And being yet mortal, they taste the good of the immortals, and having yet the weight of the body, they receive the joy of the spirit.” (St. Catherine of Siena)

From the first spiritual conversion comes the desire to do “God’s will, God’s way” instead of “my will, my way.”  These happy souls have received the grace to let go of their old sinful worldly ways to some degree and to practice the opposite virtues in charity as beginner Christians in the purgative way of the spiritual life.  They begin to “purge” out the “old Adam,” their sinful ways of thinking, acting and being, through prayer and self-discipline.  They strive to put on “the mind of Christ,” to practice His virtues, and to live the Christian life of love in their new relationship with God and others. (1 Cor. 2:16)  This is a lot of work and usually slow going at first, but at times they receive spiritual consolations, enlightenments or inspirations from God which help them to continue in the way of His will and not turn back to the world of self-seeking.  God also confirms their good will and strengthens their faith by providential “signs.”  Things begin to work out for the better, come more into order, grow and develop in a good way.  This is because they are seeking to please Him and not just themselves anymore.  The Lord begins to free them from evil and heal their past wounds.  “We know that for those who love God, all things work together for the good.” (Rom. 8:28)  God blesses them in many ways, and yet, it is just the beginning.

After reaching a certain degree of spiritual maturity in grace and virtue (unless God chooses to give this gift before then and make up later what is missing), many sincere Christians receive the beginning of infused contemplation.  If only they were more aware of it!  Then, they could cooperate with God in receiving this deep and delicate gift of the divine presence flowing into their souls (and out to others) and not interfere with this infused prayer or diminish it through any mental activity that was superfluous.  “Seek peace and pursue it.” (1 Peter 3:11)  Let your mind rest in the presence of God, if you can, even if just for a few moments!  He will secretly fill your mind with divine wisdom and your heart with the Fire of Love.

To enter more fully into this new communion of love with God, this higher life in Christ, called the state of infused contemplation, they will need to pass through a painful humiliation, “the narrow gate,” in which they die to their ego and pride on a deeper level. (Matt. 7:14)  Here, in the light of the Holy Spirit, the Living Flame of Love, they will see their sin like never before, like St. Peter during the Passion.  “The Lord turned and looked at Peter; and Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.’  And going out, he wept bitterly.” (Luke 22:61-62)  At the same time, they will experience spiritual dryness or desolation, the “feeling” that the Lord has left them, which will also bring them into greater poverty of spirit or humility of heart, the prerequisite for every spiritual blessing.  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46)  In reality, the Lord has not forsaken them but is actually drawing closer.  The Holy Spirit, the Flame of Love, is beginning to burn strongly and brightly within them, although to the soul it seems like darkness and night because the light is so overwhelming and reveals their hidden sinfulness and weakness.  Affliction and suffering come when their sin is revealed and removed by the Living Flame of Love, like a Doctor who shows his patient the terrible cancer by way of X-ray while removing it by Radiation or Laser treatment.  When they have been purified and healed to the degree that God wills, they will begin to see all the good He has done in freeing them from their “old man” much more than before and filling their soul commensurately full of spiritual gifts, graces and blessings.  They will be “reborn” to a greater love and wisdom, humility and Christian service.  Their sweetness and joy will return, only more full, deep and spiritual.  It is the second conversion and the transition to the illuminative way of proficients in the spiritual life.  Jesus Christ will then be their intimate friend and companion, living His life and mysteries in them as they do in Him.  All this comes about—with our cooperation—by “infused contemplation,” which is the gift of grace, of God’s loving presence, on a higher and deeper level.  “The love of God has been poured forth into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Rom. 5:5)

After growing in grace and charity through infused contemplation and works of mercy, some souls are brought by God, after many years, into the final purification or third conversion.  Few though they be, they go through their whole purgatory here on earth and come to union with God and perfect charity as far as possible in this mortal body.  Through crosses of every kind, interior and exterior, the “old Adam” is crucified in the agony of a “mystical death.”  “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to the point of death.” (Matt. 26:38)  Here, the Flame of Love burns out the remnants of sin within and fully detaches the soul from all that is below God.  This same Flame of Love and other mystical graces, such as spiritual raptures, unite her more fully with God.  As always, holy detachment and union with God, together, comprise the secret of love.  Only this time, it is in the extreme.  When the soul has been sufficiently purged and prepared, she is united to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, by the Living Flame of Love, the Holy Spirit, in the transforming union.  “Whoever is joined to the Lord, is one spirit with Him.” (1 Cor. 6:17)  The soul is somehow lifted up and placed within the Face of the Risen Christ from the back, united to Wisdom, like Moses on the mountain. (Exodus 33:18-23)  Set in a “cleft of the rock,” in Christ the Savior, she is united to God the Father by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit in a new and transforming union. (Exodus 33:22)  The New Law of Love is given to her from above in divine contemplation.  From this self-effacement in the Face of Christ, the soul is fully clothed with the “New Man,” Christ the Lord, and finally freed from the tyranny of her threefold enemy—the fallen world, the selfish flesh, and the malicious devil.  St. Paul’s admonition comes to its fulfillment, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and forget about the flesh with its desires.” (Rom. 13:14)

The soul is then freed from any residual impurities, remnants of the “old man,” as a precious metal, such as gold or silver, is refined in the fire. (Malachi 3:1-4)  After the precious metal has been melted down in the fire, the impurities float to the surface and are removed.  When the artisan can see his own image and likeness reflected on the surface, he knows that all of the dross has been burned off and removed and that the precious metal is purified.  Similarly, after the soul has been melted down and united to God most high in the Flame of Love, any remaining impurities, such as spiritual pride or inordinate passions, are brought to the surface and removed as dross.  “He who loses his life (of the senses) for my sake, shall find it (the life of the spirit).” (Matt.10:39)  When God the Father sees His own image and likeness, His Son Jesus Christ, reflected in the whole soul, she is wholly purified. (Col. 1:12-15)  Becoming like Jesus and Mary, the New Adam and the New Eve, the soul is brought into spiritual innocence.  In true humility, purity and love, in the strength and stability of the Holy Spirit, she loves God perfectly and completely having reached spiritual maturity which is union with God through faith, hope and charity, insofar as this life allows.  Any suffering she now endures is more for others than for her own soul.  Inwardly, she is full of peace and joy.  “You cause them to drink from the torrent of Your delights.  For with You is the fountain of life, and in Your light we see light.” (Psalms 36:8-9)  “In this transformation (of the soul in God) she drinks of God in her substance and in her spiritual faculties.  With the intellect she drinks wisdom and knowledge; with the will, sweetest love; and with the memory she drinks refreshment and delight in the remembrance and the feeling of glory.” (St. John of the Cross)


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