PART 1 - The Sources of the Interior Life and Its End (cont)
Ch 15: The Three Ages of the Spiritual life According to the Fathers and the Great Spiritual Writers
We shall see, first of all, how the problem of the three ages of the spiritual life is stated, and then the answer found in the testimony of the fathers and in that of the doctors who followed them.
One of the greatest problems of spirituality is in what sense we must understand the traditional division of the "three ways, the purgative, illuminative, and unitive," according to the terminology used by Dionysius, or the states of "beginners, proficients, and the perfect," according to an earlier terminology preserved by St. Thomas. (1)
As we have already indicated in chapter one (sections
5, 6, and 7), two notably different interpretations of this
traditional division have been given, according as the infused
contemplation of the mysteries of faith and the union with God which
results from it are considered a belonging to the normal way of
sanctity, or as not only extrinsIcally but intrinsically extraordinary
The following division made by Vallgornera shows what these authors considered the characteristics of the three ages of the spiritual life:
I) The purgative way or stage, proper to beginners, in which it is a question of the active purification of the external and internal senses, of the passions, of the intellect, and of the will, by mortification, meditation, prayer; and finally, it is a question of the passive purification of the senses, in which infused contemplation begins and by means of which the soul is raised to the illuminative way, as St. John of the Cross says.(4)
2) The illuminative way or state, proper to proficients, in which, after a preliminary chapter on the divisions of contemplation, are discussed the gifts of the Holy Ghost and infused contemplation, which proceeds principally from the gifts of understanding and wisdom, and which is declared desirable for all interior souls, as being morally necessary for the full perfection of Christian life. This second part of the work, after several articles relating to extraordinary graces (visions, revelations, interior words), ends with a chapter of nine articles relative to the passive purification of the spirit, which marks the passage to the unitive way. This again is what St. John of the Cross taught.(5)
3) The unitive life or stage, proper to the perfect, in which it is a question of the intimate union of the contemplative soul with God and of its degrees up to the transforming union.
Like Philip of the Blessed Trinity and many others,(6) Vallgornera considers this division traditional, truly conformable to the doctrine of the fathers, to the principles of St. Thomas, and to the teaching of St. John of the Cross and the greatest mystics who have written on the three ages of the spiritual life. It harmonizes fully with these two capital texts from the writings of the Carmelite doctor: "The passive purification of the senses is common. It takes place in the greater number of beginners." (7) "The soul began to set out on the way of the spirit, the way of proficients, which is also called the illuminative way or the way of infused contemplation, wherein God Himself teaches and refreshes the soul without meditation or any active efforts." (8) From this point of view, the infused contemplation of the mysteries of faith is manifestly in the normal way of sanctity. This is not at all surprising, since it proceeds from faith enlightened by the gifts of understanding and of wisdom, which are found in all the just.
However, the division given by Scaramelli and those who followed him is quite different. In his Direttorio ascetico, Scaramelli intends to describe the ordinary way which leads to Christian perfection. In this work he does not discuss, so to speak, the gifts of the Holy Ghost or the contemplation which proceeds from them. In his Direttorio mistico, he treats of infused contemplation as an extraordinary grace,(9) and only at the very end does he speak of the passive purification of the senses (tr. V); whereas, for St. John of the Cross, as we have said, this purification is like a second conversion which marks the entrance into the illuminative way.
The divergence between this new manner of looking at the matter and the preceding one springs manifestly from the fact that the early authors, as opposed to the more recent, maintained that all truly interior souls may humbly ask for and keenly desire the grace of the infused contemplation of the mysteries of faith, of the Incarnation, of the passion of Christ, of the Sacrifice of the Mass, of the Blessed Trinity present in us, and of eternal life, mysteries which are so many manifestations of the infinite goodness of God. They considered this supernatural and confused contemplation morally necessary for close union with God, in which the full perfection of Christian life consists. It is from this point of view that they determined the characteristics of each of the three ages of the spiritual life.
With the above statement in mind, the question may obviously be put in the following terms: Is the idea generally accepted until the second half of the eighteenth century true? Has it a basis in Scripture, in tradition, and in the very principles of theology? We shall examine these different points.
We shall cite only some of the more important texts, after the already numerous ones which we adduced above. We have seen (10) in the light of the Gospel, according to the eight beatitudes, how lofty Christian perfection is. We have also seen that it cannot be obtained without the mortification of all that is inordinate in us,(11) without the cross borne with patience,(12) without prayer to the Father hidden in the secret of our hearts,(13) without docility to the inspirations of the Holy Ghost,(14) which should characterize "the true adorers. . . in spirit and in truth." (15) Is this not, under a special influence of the Holy Ghost, the loving contemplation of the mysteries of salvation?
St. Paul tells us also what is normally proper to the spiritual age of the perfect when he writes: "Howbeit we speak wisdom among the perfect: . . . the wisdom of God in a mystery, a wisdom which is hidden, which God ordained before the world, unto our glory. . . . Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered intO the heart of man, what things God hath prepared for them that love Him. But to us God hath revealed them by His Spirit; for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God." (16) Is this not what the perfect contemplate?
St. Paul writes likewise to the Ephesians: "I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom all paternity in heaven and earth is named, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened by His Spirit with might unto the inward man; that Christ may dwell by faith in your hearts; that, being rooted and founded in charity, you may be able to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth: to know also the charity of Christ, which surpasseth all knowledge, that you may be filled unto all the fulness of God." (17) Is not this what characterizes the age of the perfect: the infused contemplation of the mystery of Christ and the union with God which results from it? We shall see that the Greek and Latin fathers thus understood these inspired words, which they never tired of repeating.
First of all, let us note, as several writers have observed, that in the spiritual life of the apostles themselves, who were trained directly by Christ, there are three distinct phases which correspond to the three ages of the spiritual life.(18)
The first phase of their interior life, that of beginners, extends from their conversion up to the Passion, when they passed through a profound crisis, during which Peter went so far as to deny his Master. Immediately afterwards he repented. This was his second conversion, which took place in that true passive purification, the dark night of the Passion. Something similar occurred in the life of the other apostles when, by the grace of the Savior, they again got control of themselves after having abandoned Him.
The second phase of their interior life, that of proficients, extends from the Passion to Pentecost. They were still fearful; their faith still needed to be enlightened, their hope to be strengthened, their charity to be endowed with the necessary zeal. This phase was completed by the great privation of the sensible presence of Christ after His ascension into heaven. They had to continue their way in naked faith, with the prospect of the persecutions which had been announced to them.
The third phase began with Pentecost, which was for them like a third conversion, a true passive purification of the spirit and a spiritual transformation which introduced them into the perfect life. This purification greatly enlightened their souls, and greatly strengthened their wills to preach everywhere Christ crucified. This third phase of their interior life was marked by an increasingly closer union with God and deeper self-oblation, even to martyrdom.
Farther on, we shall return to the subject of these three phases of the interior life of the apostles, each phase of which began by a conversion or a transformation of the soul. If a person reflects deeply on this subject before God in prayer, he will find in it a true light on the three ages of the spiritual life. These indications given by Scripture are, moreover, confirmed by what the fathers tell us.
In recent years special study has been made of the doctrine ot the Greek and Latin fathers on these three periods in the interior life of every Christian striving for sanctity. We shall recall here what seems most certain in their teaching.(19) We shall consider, first of all, the testimony of the Greek fathers. Among the apostolic fathers, St. Ignatius of Antioch often speaks in his letters of the spiritual and mystical presence of Christ in the Church and in the faithful. He exhorts the faithful by telling them that they are Christophores (Christ-bearers) or Theophores (God-bearers). He says to them: "Let us perform all our actions with the thought that God dwells in us. We shall thus be His temples, and He Himself will be our God, dwelling in us (cf. Eph. 15: 3)." St. Ignatius of Antioch strongly aspires to live more and more intimately with Christ and to die in order to be definitively united with Him. His letters are filled with that lofty knowledge of Christ, at once living and penetrating, which is nothing else but contemplation and which overflows in a most abundant apostolic activity, the fruit of a great charity. But to reach this very close union with God and the Savior, we must have contempt for self, for all that is inordinate in us, for everything that lessens the divine life in us.(20) In this period of persecution, St. Ignatius desires to be ground by the teeth of beasts in order to become the wheat of Christ, as Christ was ground to become our Eucharistic bread.
In the second century, St. Irenaeus insists on the fact that man ought to allow himself to be formed by God like clay in the potter's hands. Instead of resisting, of shrinking away from the imprint of the divine hand, he should be increasingly docile to the Holy Ghost in prayer and action, and then he will come to judge spiritually of all things and to live only on the love of God.(21)
At the end of the second century, Clement of Alexandria (in his Stromata) (22) describes the spiritual ascent, every phase of which brings the soul closer to the state of the perfect man that St. Paul speaks of to the Ephesians.(23) Clement conceives of these successive states through which interior souls pass as spiritual mansions.(24) These states he characterizes as follows: first of all, the fear of God dominates,(25) then faith and hope,(26) and finally, charity and wisdom.(27) Now, the fear of God is the least elevated of the gifts of the Holy Ghost, and wisdom is the highest of all, according to the descending enumeration given by Isaias (II : 2 f.). The gift of wisdom bestows peace, which springs also from charity, the highest of the virtues.
According to Clement of Alexandria, the perfect are tranquilized souls in which charity dominates. According to the expression of St. Paul, they have attained to the state of the "perfect man, unto the measure of the age of the fulness of Christ" (Eph. 4: 13).28 They have received the mysterious and hidden wisdom which St. Paul preached "among the perfect" (I Cor. 2: 6). Clement calls this wisdom the gnosis. It is a religious contemplation springing from the inspiration of the Holy Ghost in the docile soul and transforming our interior life, making us friends of God.
Origen, like his master Clement of Alexandria, says that the perfect man lives especially by charity, and that ordinarily he receives from the Holy Ghost infused wisdom, intimate knowledge of the divinity of Christ (29) and of the mystery of the Blessed Trinity.(30) Origen, in his commentary on St. John 1: 6, even writes: "No one can grasp the meaning of the Gospel (of St. John, which is consecrated to the divinity of Christ) unless he has rested on the breast of Jesus, and unless he has received from Him, Mary, who becomes his mother also." (31) According to Origen, the Word reveals Himself to the perfect and trains their souls, as He trained those of the apostles. In the most beautiful pages of his Commentary on St. Matthew 12: 15-20, Origen admirably describes this training of the Twelve by the Savior.(32)
Origen distinguishes three stages: (33) that of beginners, in whom inordinate passions lose their strength; that of proficients, in whom these passions begin to die out under the abundance of the grace of the Holy Ghost; finally, that of the perfect. He recommends docility to the Holy Ghost, through whom we can go to Christ, and through Him rise even to the Father in the contemplation which solitude favors.
Didymus the Blind and the Cappadocian fathers teach the same doctrine. Didymus, whose teaching is marked by the depth of his piety, invites every Christian to close union with Christ, whom he calls the Spouse of holy souls, an expression taken from the parable of the wise and foolish virgins.(34)
St. Basil, who organized monastic life in Cappadocia and Pontus, set forth the principles of this life and their application in his Greater Rules and his Lesser Rules.(35) His spirituality is firm, solid, and serious, and prepares souls for contemplation and union with God. In the preface of his book on the monastic rules, he says: "When the eye of the soul becomes pure and shadowless, it contemplates divine things, thanks to a light from on high, which fills it abundantly without satiating it. . . . After undergoing painful combats and succeeding in freeing the spirit, in spite of its close union with matter, from the melange of sensible passions, it becomes capable of conversing with God. . . . He who has reached this state ought no longer to permit the vapors of vile passions to trouble and to cover the gaze of his soul with a thick veil, and thus to make him lose spiritual and divine contemplation." St. Basil expresses the same idea in his explanation of Psalms 32. and 44, and in his first homily on faith. Progressive purification is the condition of union with God in contemplation.
St. Gregory of Nazianzus likewise says that God is substantial light,(36) which a person can grasp only by himself becoming light,(37) and by purifying his soul in order to rise from fear to wisdom,(38) that is, from the lowest of the gifts of the Holy Ghost to the highest. It will be observed that all these authors use three terms: purification, illumination, union.
St. Gregory of Nyssa, in his De vita Moysis,(39) in which the life of Moses serves only as the outward framework for the development of the spiritual life, shows that we must detach ourselves from creatures and live by Christ in order to be "admitted to the contemplation of the divine nature" and to union with God. This, says the saint, constitutes a victory over the enemy, a victory obtained only by the cross and by the progressive purification of one's intellect from all that is sensible and material. In his treatise De virginitate,(40) the same father shows that perfection makes the soul the spouse of Christ, a theme which he also develops in his homilies on the Canticle of Canticles.(41)
St. Ephrem, who considered Christian life a spiritual combat, regards contemplation obtained by docility to the Holy Ghost as the privilege of the perfect life. In his treatise De virtute, chapter 10, he says: "When we have conquered our passions, destroyed every inordinate natural affection in ourselves, and emptied our minds of every preoccupation useless to salvation, then the Holy Ghost, finding our souls at rest, and communicating a new power to our intellects, will put light into our hearts, as we light a lamp that has already been provided with wick and oil. . . . Therefore, above all things, let us prepare our souls for the reception of the divine light, and so render ourselves worthy of the gifts of God." The way of union with God is through purification and the light which the Holy Ghost gives.
In the fifth century, Diadochus taught this doctrine in his Chapters on Spiritual Perfection,942) and Dionysius the Mystic (the PseudoAreopagite) repeatedly speaks in well-known texts of purification, illumination, and the unitive or perfect way.(43) The unitive way belongs to the mystical order; it is the normal prelude of eternal life. According to Dionysius, purification prepares a lofty knowledge of God, illumination communicates it, and sanctification makes it expand completely in the soul.
Among the Greek fathers of the seventh century, St. Maximus
develops this doctrine and distinguishes three degrees of prayer
corresponding to the three degrees of charity: "Simple prayer is like
bread; it comforts beginners. When a little contemplation is added to
prayer, it is like oil with which one refreshes oneself; pure
contemplation is like a wine of exquisite flavor which lifts those who
drink it out of themselves." (44) "Contemplation proceeds from an
illumination of the Holy Ghost." (45) "He who is purified is enlightened
and merits to penetrate into the innermost sanctuary and there enjoy
the embraces of the Word." (46) St. Maximus also noted clearly the
severe trials which contemplatives must under go, the crucible through
which they must pass that they may be fully purified and firmly
established in the love of God.(47)
Therefore, according to the Greek fathers, supernatural contemplation, proceeding from the gift of wisdom, is in the normal way of sanctity. It begins with the age of proficients and ordinarily accompanies the charity of the perfect.
The Latin fathers, in particular St. Augustine and St. Gregory the Great, present the same teaching. In De quantitate animae (chap. 33, nos. 70-76), St. Augustine distinguishes several degrees. He insists on the struggle against sin, the difficult work of purification, followed by the entrance into light for those who are purified and finally by divine union (mansio in luce). Later, in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount,(50) he describes the ascending progress of the soul toward God, according to the gradation of the gifts of the Holy Ghost. The fear of God is the first degree of the spiritual life; wisdom its summit. Between these two extremes, he distinguishes a double period of purifying preparation for wisdom: a remote preparation, called the active life, which is the active practice of the moral virtues that correspond to the gifts of piety, fortitude, knowledge, and counsel; then a proximate preparation, called the contemplative life,(51) which is the eminent exercise of the theological virtues and of the gifts of understanding and wisdom in souls established in peace and docile to grace. Faith, enlightened by these gifts, is then the principle of contemplation, and ardent charity unites the soul closely to God. Thus the labors of the active life prepare for contemplation, in which the purified soul enjoys the divine light, the pledge of eternal life. This contemplation which proceeds from the gift of wisdom is, in truth, infused contemplation.(52)
In the fifth century, Cassian in his Conferences, or lessons in spirituality, especially in the ninth and tenth, shows that the end of the spiritual life on earth is divine contemplation, which Cassian regards as the perfect exercise of the love of God. The soul prepares for it by prayer in order to obtain the pardon of sins committed, by the practice of the virtues and a livelydesire for a greater charity for itself and its neighbor. (53) Then prayer ends by becoming "a prayer all of fire," (54) which "is formed by the contemplation of God alone and by the ardor of a burning charity." (55) "Thus the soul begins to taste in an earthen vessel the first fruits of the glory which it hopes for in heaven." (56)
It is well known that Cassian's Conferences were over a long period the current book of spiritual reading. St. Thomas read them often, and preserved Cassian's doctrine in speaking of the gift of wisdom, whose progress accompanies that of charity.
In the sixth century, St. Gregory the Great also
admits the division of the three degrees of the spiritual life: the
struggle against sin,(57) then the active life or the practice of the
virtues, (58) and the contemplative life, which is that of the
perfect, (59) and which he declares necessary for apostles or
preachers of the word of God (60) and for those who wish to attain
perfection.(61) In this teaching, St. Gregory shows himself the
disciple of St. Augustine. In his opinion all the
St. Gregory also noted the painful passive purifications later described by Hugh of St. Victor, Tauler, and especially St. John of the Cross.(65) St. Gregory insists on the fact that these purifications "dry up all sensual affection in us" (66) and thus prepare us for contemplation and union with God, wherein we find great strength in trial and ardent charity.
St. Bernard preserves all this teaching, and speaks in his Sermons (67) of the humble and burning desire for contemplation. If these desires are ardent, they are, in his opinion, heard and granted; but men of desire are only too rare. St. Bernard often describes the union with God which results from infused contemplation and the alternate succession of the presence and absence of the Word, the Spouse of the soul. (68)
The same doctrine is also found in Hugh of St. Victor, who insists on the passive purifications of the soul,(69) in Richard of St. Victor,(70) in St. Bonaventure,(71) who was fond of the terminology, which Dionysius used habitually, of the purgative, illuminative, and unitive ways.
St. Thomas, as we shall see, preserves the distinction
between beginners, proficients, and the perfect.(72) This distinction
is clarified by what he says in his Commentary on St. Matthew
(chap. 5) about the beatitudes of the flight from sin, of those of the
active life, and of those of the contemplative life. In this
commentary he describes the ascent of the soul as St. Augustine and
St. Gregory did.(73)
|1. Summa, IIa IIae, q.24. a.9; q. 183, a.4.
2. See supra, chap. I, §§ 5, 6, 7.
3. Philip of the Blessed Trinity sets forth the same ideas in the prologue of his Summa theologiae mysticae (ed. 1874, p. 17). Many Carmelite theologians think as he does.
4. The Dark Night of the Soul, Bk. I, chaps. 8, 14.
5. Ibid., Bk. II, chaps. 2, 11.
6. This is also the division proposed by another Dominican, Giovanni Maria Lauro, in his Theologia mystica, published in Naples in 1743.
7. The Dark Night of the Soul, Bk. I, chap. 8.
8. Ibid., chap. 14.
9. Direttorio mistico, tr. I, chap. I, no. 10; tr. III, chap. 32.
10. See supra, chap. 9.
11. Matt. 5: 29 if.
12. Ibid., 10:38.
13. Ibid., 6:6.
14. John 3:8; 14: 16,26.
15. John 4:23.
17. Eph. 3: 14-19.
18. We developed these observations in Les trois conversions et les trois voies, pp. 1-112.
19. Cf. in particular F. Cayre, A.A., Precis de patrologie,
1927, in which the spiritual doctrine of the fathers of the Church is
set forth ex professo, which is quite rare in a work of this
type. Cf. I, 19-29, 173 f., 177, 192, 207, 417, 582, 584, 683; II,
355-62, 903-6. See also G. Bardy, La vie spirituelle d'apres les
peres des trois premiers siecles. 1935.
21. Adv. haeres., IV, 39; V, 9; IV, 33.
22. Stromata, VII, 2; PG, IX, 413.
23. Eph. 4: 13.
24. Cf. PG, IX, 416.
25. Stromata, II, 7 f.; PG, VIII, 968-76.
26. Ibid., II, 6; PG, VIII, 960-90.
27. Ibid., IV, 5 (PG, VIII, 1233); VI (PG, IX, 292, 325, 328).
28 Ibid., VI, 12 (PG, IX, 325); VII, II (PG, IX, 496).
29. Contra Cels., I, 13; VI, 13; PG, XI, 679, 1309; In Levit., 5:3; PG, XII, 452; In Psalm., 26:4; PG, XII, 1279.
30. In Joann., 1 :9; 2:3; PG, XIV, 36 f., 113.
31. Ibid., 1 :6; PG, XIV, 32; Comm. in Cant. Cant., prolog.; PG, XIII, 64-75.
32. PG, XIII, 1016-29.
33. In Rom., homil. VI, 14; PG, XIV, 1102.
34 Cf. Bardy, Didyme l'Aveugle, 1910, pp. 157-60.
35. PG, XXXI, 889-1051, 1051-1306.
36. Oratio 31, chap. 3.
37. Oratio 40, chaps. 37 f.: "Lumen efficiamur. Illuminemur oculis, ut recte cernamus."
38. Oratio 39, chap. 8.
39. PG, XLIV, 297-430.
40. PG, XLVI, 317-416.
41. PG, XLIV, 297-430.
42. Published by Weis-Liebersdorf, Leipzig, Teubner, 1912. Quoted at length by Saudreau, Vie d'union d'apres les grands maitres, 3rd ed., 1921, pp.52 ff.
43. Cf. The Celestial Hierarchy, III, 2 f. The Divine Names, I, 2; IV, 12 f.; VII, 13. Mystical Theology, I, 3; II. See also Cayre, Precis de patrologie, II. 92-96.
44. PG, XC, 1441. Cf. Cayre, op. cit., II, 308 ff.
45. PG, XC, 1209.
46. Ibid., col. 1089.
47 Ibid., col. 1215. We have assembled elsewhere numerous similar texts from St. Maximus and his predecessors: cf. Perfection chretienne et contemplation, II, 668 ff.
48. De Transfigur. Dom., 10.
49. De virtutibus et vitiis; PG, XCV, 85-98.
50. De Sermone Domini, I, chaps. 1-4; De doctrina christiana, II, chap. 7; Serm. 347.
51. De Trinitate, Bks. XII-XIV.
52. Father Cayre says quite justly in his Precis de patrologie, 1917
(I, 669), in treating of the spirituality of St. Augustine: "St. Thomas
will truly remain the disciple of St. Augustine when he presents these
graces (of infused contemplation) as the crowning of the entire
spiritual organism of the soul, and as destined to subject the soul
wholly to God" (Ia IIae, q.68, a. I).
53. See Ninth Conference, chaps. 8 ff.
54. Ibid., chap. 14.
55. Ibid., chap. 18.
56. Tenth Conference, chap. 6.
57. Morales, XXXI, 87.
58. Ibid., II, 76 ff.
59. Ibid., II, 77; VI, 57; XXV, 15; In Ezech., Bk. II, VII, 7.
60. Morales, XXX, 8.
61. Ibid., VI, 58 f.
62. In Ezech., Bk. II, II, II.
63. Morales, V, 50 f.; XXII, 50 f.
64. Ibid., X, 13: "We are inclined toward superior goods when the Spirit touches us with His breath. . . and then is imprinted in the heart which receives it the traces, as it were, of God's footsteps." Cf. Carre, op. cit., II, 242-47.
65. Morales, X, 10, no. 17; XXIV, 6, no. 11.
66. In Ezech., Bk. II, hom. II, nos. 2 f.
67. Sermons, IX, 1-3; XXXII, 2; XLIX, 3.
68. Ibid., VIII, 6; XXII, 2; XXIII, 16.
69. Hom. I in Eccl.
70. Benjamin Major, chaps. 1-4, 6.
71. Itinerarium, VIII; De triplici via, chap. 3; De apologia pauperum, chap. 3; Sermo I de Dom. V post Pascha. Cf. P. Bonnefoi, O.F.M., Le Saint-Esprit et les dons selon saint Bonaventure. 1929, p. 217; E. Longpre, O.F.M., art. cit.
72. See IIa IIae, q. 24, a.9.
73. Cf. supra, chap. 10.