There is an old and tired trope, “We’re all on a journey.” Usually this refers to people who are wandering and are, indeed, lost. For Christians, the journey is not a New Age journey of self-discovery, but a journey of discovering intimacy with God. The Saints and sages throughout Christian history have divided the spiritual journey into three stages or ages, or ways, or other obscure Greek terms (Catharsis, Theoria, and Theosis, for those curious). Nevertheless, they’re fairly similar if not the same concepts under different names. For the purposes of this, we shall know them as the purgative way, the illuminative way, and the unitive way.
The Purgative Way
This journey of the interior life begins with the purgative way. The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia defines the term as, “… a time when one actively prepares oneself for a deeper relationship with God by purifying oneself of anything that can block growth in that relationship.” (Glazier & Hellwig, 2004). This can take several forms, from actively practicing spiritual disciplines and avoiding the near occasion of sin, or a more passive awakening of our consciences by the Holy Spirit and the prompting of our Guardian Angels.
While the Catholic Church has some prime real estate in the theological park of Christianity, these three stages are not confined to the Catholic Church. It reminds me of an old joke:
A man dies and goes to heaven, so Saint Peter took him on a tour. He leads the man down a long hallway with a few doors.
They pass one door and can’t see in through all the incense, but they can hear chanting and make out the flickering of candles. "Who's in that room?" the man asks. "Oh, those are the Orthodox," says Saint Peter. "Give them some incense and they’ll stay in there and chant forever!”
They pass by another door, which is open, and the man looks in to see a bunch of people reading Scripture. "Who's in there?" the man asks. "Protestants! They are getting the best Bible study they’ve ever had!”
Then they approach another door. Saint Peter says, "Shhhhh! We must be quiet going by this one." They creep past the door and when they get farther down the hallway the man asks Saint Peter who was in that room.
"Catholics... They think they're the only ones up here!"
All self-deprecating humor aside, Christians of other camps experience this purgative stage in different ways. Evangelicals may call this the “born-again” stage. Orthodox focus on putting down worldly passions to practice the virtues.
For all of us, Jesus comes into our lives like He did to the Galileans, saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mk 1:15 ESVCE)
The Illuminative Way
Arguably, nobody sums up the Illuminative Way like St. John of the Cross in The Dark Night of the Soul:
When the house of sensuality was at rest, that is, when the passions were mortified, concupiscence quenched, the desires subdued and lulled to sleep in the blessed night of sensitive purgation, 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 nourishes and refreshes the soul without the help of any active efforts that itself may make.
This is where the Christian becomes attuned to God’s will in an intuitive sense, and joyfully seeks it. Mortal sins are largely gone, after the individual breaks habits and desires of mortal sin. While venial sins remain, this is a major step forward to union with God after the purgation of evil. As the Anglican mystic Evelyn Underhill wrote, “God is acting on your soul all the time, whether you have spiritual sensations or not.” She is likely to have been experiencing life through the lens of the Illuminative Way when she wrote these words.
The Eastern Orthodox particularly associate this stage with the practice of hesychasm, where, during prayer, the senses cease holding so much sway and a person receives an experiential knowledge of God as a gift from the Holy Spirit. The late Trappist Fr. Thomas Keating more or less revived this in the West with the Centering Prayer movement.
The Unitive Way
This is the end game for our spiritual lives on earth; it is the closest to God that He allows us to experience on earth. This is a total devotion of one’s life to God. The Christian East calls this theosis. It is the living out of Jesus’ command to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt 5:48, ESVCE), or as James wrote, “And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (Jas 1:4, ESVCE).
Using this terminology, John Wesley used the term “Christian Perfection” as he founded Methodism. This led to the Holiness Movement and the “entire sanctification” view of certain Pentecostals, or “perfectionism” as articulated by George Fox, the founder of the Quakers.
At my Evangelical university, there was a wonderful articulation of this by a well-known Eastern Orthodox professor. Several students asked him if he thought Protestants could achieve union with God in this life or the hereafter since they did not have the Sacraments. He smiled at them and said, “Of course. There are many Protestants much more holy than I, and I have the Sacraments. It’s like they are beating me at a race with only one leg.”
Christians of all stripes who listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and follow God with all their mind, with all their heart, and with all their strength will progress through these stages, whether knowingly or not (and it’s almost better they don’t, lest they fall victim of spiritual pride). While the Catholic Church is the pillar and foundation of Truth (as Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 3:15), it does not have a monopoly on God calling His children to union with Him. It does have the Sacraments, which are the most efficacious means of grace, and it is Christ’s Church. As much as it is filled with sinners, it is filled with God’s presence in the most real and physical way. Through the Church, Christ draws us closer to Himself.
“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” (2 Pe 1:3-4, ESVCE)
Stephen Muff, Esq, MPA is a Catholic Christian who lives in Northern California with his wife and two daughters. He serves on his parish council and is participating in a three-year faith formation program for the laity. He is licensed to practice law in Washington State and DC and currently works in-house for a financial technology company.