Saturday, August 20, 2011

Sanctification III: The Doctrine Of The Three Ways

Fr. Dale Matson

It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words. The above graphic is from the book Spiritual Passages: The Psychology of Spiritual Development by Benedict J. Groeschel, 1993, p. 118, Crossroads Publishing Company.* You may click on the graphic to enlarge it.

This graphic by Fr. Groeschel depicts what he refers to as the doctrine of the Three Ways.  The idea of three stages of spiritual development was first mentioned in the church in the late 5th century in the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius the mystical theologian and philosopher.

This graphic depicts the path of sanctification for the Christian. The graph has limitations because spiritual growth unlike physical growth is more a cyclical than linear process. The three categories Purgative, Illuminative and Unitive are not mutually exclusive and an individual may be in more than one state of growth at the same time.

What is incredible about this developmental process is that spiritual growth also yields a transformation of the personality including the emotions, sensual, intellectual and the will.

In the Purgative stage, individuals resist sinning especially sexual sins and cultivate love. They are at war with themselves. It reminds me of the struggle described by St. Paul in Romans chapter seven. I once heard this person referred to as a carnal Christian. It is a time of shedding of the old ways and a struggle that leads to humility. This process is both active based on the efforts of the individual and also passive based on the encouragement of God’s consolations. This is primarily a behavioral stage and the individual is helped by the rituals of the church.

In the Illuminative stage, the passions of the individual are more controlled and the focus is more cognitive. There is reflection and self-examination. Since the struggle against the flesh has been reduced, the mind is free to entertain Divine thoughts. There are still internal and external trials to be endured. In this stage the individual is helped by exercising the theological and moral virtues.

In the Unitive stage, the struggle can even be greater. There can be a dark night of the soul as a part of this stage, with a spiritual thirst that cannot be quenched. It is a time with no consolation and a state of desolation. I believe Mother Teresa discussed this darkness in her private memoirs in the biography Come Be My Light by Brian Kolodiejchuk, 2007, Doubleday. In this stage the soul is united to God by love.

In Fr. Groeschel’s graphic, he introduces the ascending and descending wavy lines that indicate as people progress spiritually, they experience less anxiety and more peace and freedom. Notice also how the focus of the prayers change in each stage and the foci and experiences differ also.

I also find it interesting that in the unitive stage that there is a loss of all defenses. I believe this is a divestment of ego. The only other individual that experiences this loss of defenses is the psychotic.

I have used this graphic in many wellness classes. I know of no one who even claimed to be in the unitive stage and I only know one person, my mentor, who existed in the illuminative stage. He had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and accepted God’s will. He lived another twelve years with it in remission. I hope you will find it useful as a way of helping you understand your own spiritual progress. Amen

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