Going through old files today, I came across a Secular Carmelite newsletter from 1997. In it our community’s spiritual director wrote about the three stages of conversion in the purgative way. His source was Fr. Benedict Groeschel’s Spiritual Passages: The Psychology of Spiritual Development. I am using Fr. Groeschel’s book as a source for the book I am currently writing on St. Therese. The co-incidence made me feel God wanted me to share this with you.
It’s good to know where you are in the spiritual life–not so you can compare yourself with others, but so you may know you’re not alone. It helps me to realize that what I am experiencing is typical of a certain stage. Sometimes it encourages me. Other times it confirms what I have been doing. Still other times it shows me the next step I should take.
3 stages of the interior life
The spiritual life is traditionally divided into three major stages. The first, known as the purgative way, is a time of purification from sin. The second stage is the illuminative way. God enlightens the mind to know His will more clearly and gives the soul the gift of supernatural contemplation. Finally, there is the unitive way, in which the soul is almost constantly aware of God’s presence. Finally she has the power to closely conform herself to His will.
St. Teresa of Avila envisioned the soul as a castle having seven rooms or mansions. Each mansion represented a different stage of the spiritual life. The first three mansions are generally considered to belong to the purgative way, with each of the mansions roughly corresponding to the three conversions Fr. Groeschel speaks of. (Note: souls do not necessarily progress straight through from mansions one to seven, but go back and forth among the mansions. They can even be in two different mansions at the same time in two different areas of their life.)
The first conversion is from mortal sin or original sin to a state of grace. We learn the commandments. We try to be good. Fr. Groeschel notes that children, consciously or not, bargain with God. They think if they are good, God will “be good” back to them. But they eventually learn that God does not give them everything they want. They learn that life is full of suffering, even for those who try to follow God. He does not always answer our prayers as we would like or expect.
With this realization comes the opportunity for the second conversion. But a soul could instead choose to abandon the faith, because it is not what she expected. Many people who are hostile to Christianity have left the faith at this stage. They don’t really understand what the Christian life is about. They might think God is unfair. They might picture God as a sort of fairy-godfather that only fools would believe in.
Those who continue on in the spiritual life experience the second conversion to mature faith. They become very zealous for following God. People who have recently experienced this conversion often think they have “arrived” spiritually. They think they’re nearly saints. On the contrary, they are just beginning.
The soul in this stage has a much deeper understanding of God and His ways. She learns that God doesn’t fit into neat human categories. She realizes there are some questions she cannot answer, some ways of God she cannot understand. Yet she believes in Him more strongly than ever. Her prayer moves from childish requests and vocal prayers to meditation and sitting quietly in God’s presence.
Then there is another crisis. Perhaps a loved one dies, or the soul experiences other personal tragedy. Or she has apparent insurmountable problems in her struggle against sin. She sees evil at work in her life or in the world, and she must come to terms with it. Once again, she can leave, she can stagnate, or she can grow.
Finally, there is a conversion to perfect trust in God. The soul must let go of her anxiety and fear. She places absolute trust in God, even when it seems that everything is going wrong. She realizes that God is in charge of the world and of her spiritual growth. She learns to be at peace among all the storms of life. She abandons herself to Divine Providence as Jesus did in the garden of Gethsemane.
Can you see yourself in any of these stages? Can you see what God is asking you to do next? Are you ready to press on, to grow and to change?
Wherever you are, you are not alone. Your struggles are most likely common and normal. Do not fight against the working of the Holy Spirit. Open your heart to accept God’s new plans for you.