The Purgative versus the Illuminative Way

posted in: Prayer and Virtue | 5
File:SASSOFERRATO - Virgen rezando (National Gallery, Londres, 1640-50).jpg
The Virgin in Prayer by Sassoferrato (Wikimedia Commons)


In our study of Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle, we have come to the end of the third mansions, the end of the Purgative Way. The fourth mansions begin the second stage of the spiritual life, the Illuminative Way. How are these stages different?

Souls in the Purgative way are beginners–yes, even those in the third mansions. They may be very zealous about following God, but they have not yet advanced very far. Thus far they have been combating sin and attachment with the ordinary grace God gives Christians. They have had to work hard. But eventually they come to a place where that is no longer enough. They have advanced as far as they can without greater help. Then God steps in and begins to cleanse them himself.

Turning from self to God

Pere Marie-Eugene writes:

“We come now to the souls that are in the first three Mansions, or in the first phase of the spiritual life. To say that there is in them a mystical life would be formally to contradict Saint Teresa who characterizes this phase by the predominance of the activity of the human faculties aided by the grace of God.” (I Want to See God, 484)

In contrast, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange  writes of the next phase:

“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.” (Three Ages of the Interior Life, Part 3, Ch. 6)

Souls in the Illuminative Way are proficients. They are contemplatives. They experience a supernatural prayer initiated by God himself.

How can we move from being beginners to proficients? Teresa and her interpreters tell us we primarily need:

  • determination
  • generosity towards God, even in the smallest matters
  • humility

Advancing towards the fourth mansions

So, if you are striving to move beyond the third mansions, how should you behave?

Be faithful to daily mental prayer. Don’t cut it short except for good reasons. Instead, lengthen it or add a second prayer time if your duties permit it. Don’t become slothful in prayer, whether vocal or mental.

Throughout the day, think of Jesus and speak to him. If you have experienced acquired recollection in your mental prayer, practice it as much as you can throughout the day. Withdraw quietly into your heart for a few seconds, worshiping God in this new way.

If you can, find a good spiritual director. St. Teresa of Avila says it’s more important for your director to be learned than holy. Sometimes people who have a reputation for holiness do not know enough about spiritual growth to help others. They might lead you astray.

Meditate often on your weaknesses, but even more often on God’s greatness and mercy. Go to confession at least once a month. Examine your conscience daily. Practice remaining silent when others criticize you or disagree with you.

Live a well-regulated life. Fulfill the duties of your vocation with love. Learn to make sacrifices. Give up activities you enjoy so that you can serve God better. Avoid the near occasion of venial sin. Use your time well.

Keep working hard on love, detachment, and prayer. The Devil knows you are in a place that is dangerous to him and he will try to keep you from moving forward. Don’t give in.

Do all this peacefully, with patience and trust. God will not keep you waiting long.

Connie Rossini

Follow Connie Rossini:

Hi, I'm a Catholic writer and homeschool mother of four boys. I practice Carmelite spirituality. Check out my Books page for publications to help your whole family grow in holiness.

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5 Responses

  1. Jeannie

    I really appreciate how you take such deep theology and translate it into practical steps for the busy family. St. Teresa of Avila’s and St. John of the Cross’s spirituality have permanently transformed my interior life. I admit I have some cobwebs in my head about the specifics, but I’m trying to revisit them for my upcoming book.

    I’m glad I have found a kindred spirit in you, Connie.

  2. Susan Hill

    God bless you for your holiness. I have been diagnosed with a life threatening illness . The pain is interfering with my prayer life. My suffering is united with Jesus on the Cross. Any suggestions on contemplative prayer while suffering?

    • Connie Rossini

      Susan, blessings to you! I’m just a writer who tries to follow Jesus — still in the beginning stages myself. First, let me clarify something for you. Contemplative prayer is not something that we do, but a gift that God gives us. We place ourselves at His disposal by conforming our lives as closely to His will as we can, and faithfully spending time in prayer. He will give the gift of contemplation when He decides we are ready — when we have given all we can with ordinary grace. Prayer in times of suffering can be the most powerful of all and suffering can actually be the catalyst that propels us those last steps toward God that we need to take before He takes over our prayer time. Offering your pain to Him can be deep prayer. You might try imagining yourself nailed to the Cross, reminding yourself that the Cross is where Jesus is. Mentally unite your suffering with His. That may be all you find yourself able to do at times. Don’t worry about having long, wordy conversations. Just lay all your cares, fears, pain before Him. You could also repeat the words of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. “If it be possible, let this cup pass me by, yet not my will but yours be done.” If you feel like the Holy Spirit is drawing you to sit silently in God’s presence, follow that impulse. You might just sit and let the love of God be poured out on your soul, you doing nothing but receiving. God understands how very difficult it is for you. Prayer is primarily a matter of love. I will be praying for you.

      • Susan Hill

        Thank you for your quick response. I have been a Third Order Carmeliie for 30 years. Contemplation is an incredible grace. With this disease I have, my deep prayer life has suffered. I have a wonderful spiritual director who is not a Carmelite but is both holy and learned. There is also a Discaled cloistered convent to which I have been invited. Isn’t our Lord wonderful!

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