The Three Ways of the Spiritual Life
By Jim J. McCrea
We are all born with the impurity and effects of original sin and many of us have fouled our souls with considerable personal sin as well. However, to be fit for heaven, we must be absolutely pure. Nothing tainted shall enter paradise (Rev 21:27). For those to be saved, this life is a purification process to prepare us for heaven. If the job is not completed in this life, that is what purgatory is for. This is in contrast to the doctrine of classical Protestantism which views Christ's justification of the believer by his faith as snow covering a manure pile. According to that, if we believe we are as corrupt as ever underneath, but the Father sees only Christ's purity covering us, so considers us pure. With the Catholic view, on the other hand, we must really be made pure, through and through. With classical Protestantism, Christ's justification is a fiction that God creates on our behalf. We are considered pure, while in reality we are not. With the Catholic understanding, that we must really be made pure, God deals in realities. God sees us pure in the end because we actually are pure. It makes more sense that God works with realities rather than with fictions, because God is Infinite Reality Itself. God is Truth Itself, and cannot declare that something is, when in fact it is not.
Mystical Theologians, such as St. John of the Cross, have described the climb up the spiritual ladder, for those working for perfection. In the climb, not one but three conversions have been enumerated. The first conversion is from sin to God, and the other two are successively more radical turnings to God.
The first conversion may be either in one's baptism, or in the case of falling into a life of sin after baptism, a turning from that life of sin to God. The soul in mortal sin is alienated from God. Such a soul is dead because it does not have God dwelling in it as its life-giving principle. When it converts, it comes to life because it has God's supernatural grace and charity dwelling within it. It is now a heir to heaven as opposed to when it was in mortal sin, in which case if the person died in that state, his or her soul would have gone to hell for eternity.
However, with this conversion, the process of purification has just begun. Even though in a state of grace, the soul has many vicious and sinful habits and tendencies contrary to the goodness and purity of God. This soul is in the stage of *beginners.* To enter heaven, these habits and tendencies must eventually be gotten rid of. For a soul serious in pleasing God and making progress, God then begins to go to work on the soul. He first sends spiritual consolations and delights to the soul to attract it to Him and away from the delights of sin. Since the soul experiences such joy in the things of God, it may be deceived into thinking that it has reached a high level of holiness. In fact, the work of holiness in the soul has hardly begun. The problem is, the soul may be loving God for the delights he sends, not for His own sake. True sanctity is loving God above all things for His own sake, and the will of God in all things, no matter how pleasant or unpleasant. This requires such a supreme degree of purity, that many sincerely pious people with years of practicing devotion have not yet achieved it.
Some time after the first conversion, God plunges the soul into the *dark night of the senses,* where spiritual delights are taken away and replaced with suffering. God is thus training the soul to love Him for His own sake and not for the sake of the pleasure that God brings to the soul. If the soul accepts this and clings to God in spite of hardship, it has undergone a second conversion. Its love has been proved to be much more pure and disinterested. It has made a significant advance in holiness. Then it exits the dark night and enters the stage of *illumination.* Joy has then returned. The delights in God are much more subtle and it practices virtue with much more facility. In the stage of beginners the spiritual delights have a relatively gross nature, and are very much akin to natural positive emotions. Those who are "all fired up in the spirit" and emotional at pentecostal rallies, are actually at a very low stage of prayer. In illumination the soul is much more steady in its practice of virtue and its trust in God in spite of various ups and downs in life. Its joy is at a much deeper and more spiritual level. It is much more likely to be experienced as deep peace before the Blessed Sacrament or when saying the Rosary than in emotional outbursts. Here, it is much more firmly anchored to the Rock.
But in the stage of illumination, the soul is still far from being perfected. The very bottom of the soul is still impure. It is practicing great virtue, but often there is a very subtle and deep egotism operating as well. It may see itself as better than the common run of humanity for its own virtues and spiritual progress. It has a pride that it is generally not conscious of. The soul may be deluded into believing that it has reached the peak of perfection. As a result, to correct this, God sends a much more painful night than that of the senses. The soul then enters the *dark night of the spirit.* As the night of the senses purifies the sensitive levels of the soul, the night of the spirit purifies the deepest spiritual levels of it. In the dark night of the senses, it was the imperfect that was taken away. In this night of the spirit, it seems as though what is perfect is being removed. God devastates the intellect and the will, and deprives the soul of active virtue. This night is very painful because God is contradicting that hard core of egoism and independence from God which exists at the center of the soul. As a result, the soul could be strongly tempted to blaspheme at this stage. This dark night is sometimes referred to as "mystical death."
Once this hard core of egoism is broken, God's supernatural light and power can be diffused throughout the entire soul. When this has happened, the soul has undergone a third conversion and has entered the stage of *union.* God is so united to the soul in this stage, he inspires its faculties directly. Before this, it was a matter of an imperfect organism attempting to do God's will as it saw it, through mainly its own power. The soul at that time applied reason with will power, exercising the infused virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude, along with the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Now, in the stage of union, God inspires the faculties Himself, through the gifts of the Holy Spirit of wisdom, understanding, knowledge, counsel, fortitude, piety, and fear of the Lord. The soul now is mainly passive, while God is mainly active. But the soul's powers are greater than ever here. The faculties are divine rather than human now - the faculties of intellect, will, memory, and spiritual affectivity. One in the stage of union has far greater efficacy in advancing God's kingdom and retarding Satan's, than in the previous stages. Here, the joy is so subtle and pure, that it is a feeling beyond feeling. St. John of the Cross says that in this stage a single work done by the soul has more value than all the works done before combined.