Dan Burke is an award-winning author, writer, and speaker on Catholic spirituality. He has written and/or edited nine books on faithful Catholic spirituality and is the President and Chief Operating Officer of EWTN News, Inc. Dan is the president of the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, and the creator of Divine Intimacy Radio and SpiritualDirection.com.
As the Leadership Conference of Women Religious continues to demonstrate that they are without mooring in the heart of Christ and the Church, it is important to continue to reorient ourselves to the timeless teachings of the one true faith. While they seek a cosmic evolutionary theology rooted in the incongruous musings of a questionable paleontologist (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin) and a New Age styled spiritual relativism, those who desire an authentic relationship with God and neighbor continue to be drawn again to the dynamic reality of authentic Catholic spirituality – the faith of the saints.
Our faith reassures us that can know God in a personal and intimate way. His incarnation taught us, in the most tangible way possible, the depth of his love for us. The promise of his manifest presence through infused contemplation continues stoke the fire in the souls of the faithful who long to see his face, in this life, and the next. Of the utmost consolation is the living witness of the saints that continuously remind us that our faith will not be disappointed if we are truly committed to the narrow path that Christ has revealed to us.
In my previous series on false teachings on prayer I briefly discussed the teachings of those who have strayed from this path and the common misunderstandings regarding the progressive nature of prayer and what it means to encounter God in authentic prayer. In this next series of posts we will reflect more deeply, but hopefully in a practical way, on this progression as revealed by an ancient but ever-new perspective on the path to union with God.
I first summarized these insights in my book Navigating the Interior Life. One of my favorite responses to this portion of the book goes something like this: “I am a faithful Catholic and thought I was doing just fine in my spiritual progress. Even so, after reading your book I was struck with the reality that while I thought I was very advanced in my journey of prayer, I have realized I am actually somewhere near the beginning of my spiritual journey.”
This could sound like a discouraging revelation. However, those that I have talked to have indicated that they were overjoyed to discover that the Lord has so much more in store for them. I pray you come away with similar insights as we explore these important stages of an ever-growing intimacy with God.
Authentic Spiritual Progress
Doctors of the soul have long understood that authentic spiritual progress can be predictable even though each person follows his own unique ascent up Mount Carmel into the heart of God. From St Catherine of Siena to St John of the Cross, every spiritual doctor of the Church has identified some continuum of growth that illustrates the progress of the soul toward union with God. Whether they be the degrees of love revealed so eloquently by St Bernard of Clairvaux, or the mansions of The Interior Castle of St Teresa of Avila, each has discovered that the same essential path of salvation (or the “narrow way” as Jesus called it) is trod by all who heed to call of Christ. Historically, the most widely used description of that path is known as the Three Ways.
The three ways represent three distinct phases of spiritual development. While several terms are used for the ways, the most common designations for them are: purgative, illuminative and unitive (Sts John of the Cross, Thomas Aquinas and others used the terms beginner, proficient and perfect respectively). The easiest way to understand the three ways is to compare them with our common experience regarding the normative path of human development. Here’s a simple chart that illustrates the comparative phases and their relative equivalent in the three ways.
The parallels illustrated by this comparison can be insightful, revealing that — as with psychological and physical development — there is predictability in the phases of spiritual progress, as well. For instance, in normal human development, it is reasonable to expect that a toddler will fill their diaper. It certainly is not normal for a teen to wear a diaper, or to fill it.
The understanding of this development helps parents to know if their children are making reasonable progress or if they need special assistance. The same is true with our spiritual maturation.
Here’s a side-by-side view of the two corresponding lifecycles, the physical on the left and the spiritual on the right:
The parallels are simple and obvious but the depth of understanding gained can enable very sophisticated insights into the progress of the soul. On the simplest level we can see that, birth in the physical sense parallels our baptism in the spiritual life. In the purgative way as with childhood, we are simply learning to cope with who we are on a fundamental level. We are learning the basics of what it means to be human and the basics of walking with God.
Even so, a few dissimilarities are also notable and helpful to point out. In the physical realm, there comes a time of natural decline in health eventually leading to death. In the spiritual life, growth is always possible. The two lifecycles are also dissimilar when we consider the fact that in the spiritual life, physical age can have little bearing on spiritual growth. For example, it is possible for someone who is very young — like St Therese of Lisieux — to be very mature spiritually. In contrast, someone who is physically old can be very immature spiritually.
In spite of these shortcomings, the power of this approach is that we can come to understand the “You Are Here” of our own spiritual progress. Knowing where we are, it is then easier to understand, explore, and map out the next steps in our growth to deeper union with the Lord.
The central challenge in digging deeper into the wisdom of the three ways is that the most popular texts are significant in size and complexity. This complexity, of course, reflects the challenging nature of describing how the soul progresses deeper into the interior castle. The best modern and reasonably in-depth treatment dedicated to this topic is entitled, Fulfillment of All Desire by Ralph Martin. For a practical summary, I have provided an overview in my recent book, Navigating the Interior Life, Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God along with tools to help the pilgrim identify where they may be on their own journey. Both are available at EWTN’s Religious Catalogue.
As well, for those hungering for more on this topic, I will provide a two hour live interactive webinar on the evening of Friday November 1st, 2013. Seats are limited so click here to register now.
In our next post, we will begin to provide basic descriptions of each of the ways.