The Three Ways: Longing for the Face of God and “Navigating the Interior Life” (Part II of IV)
In our last post we introduced the concept of the three ways. In this post and those following we will explore general descriptions of each phase with help from a classic in Catholic spiritual literature, The Soul of the Apostolate by Dom Chautard. I have provided the illustration again here for easy reference.
Purgative Way (Spiritual Childhood):
Our entry into this first phase of the interior life begins with the most basic movements to pursue God through a meaningful spiritual life. The nascent motivations that bring us to this point are often rooted in fear and duty rather than love and devotion. Even though imperfect, these motivations are appropriate for this phase and coupled with perseverance they can provide a healthy foundation for pilgrims seeking to deepen their faith.
In this phase the will is still very weak and prone to fall into sin. In this phase we also regularly find energetic converts and reverts who have discovered or rediscovered their need for a deeper life of faith.
The properly aimed soul in this realm seeks to gain an awareness of its sins, deal with sorrow for past sins, and to cultivate a strong desire to rid themselves of these offenses against God and neighbor. Accordingly, we begin to see here the initial efforts at prayer and piety.
Digging Deeper into the Ways
Let’s look at these characteristics in a bit more detail. Here we will explore three stages within this first phase as provided by a modified version of Dom Chautard’s treatment of spiritual progress in his great work Soul of the Apostolate: 1) Mediocre Piety; 2) Intermittent Piety; and 3) Sustained Piety, along with their common manifestations in the areas of sin, prayer and the sacraments.
Purgative Way – Mediocre Piety: This stage reflects the earliest work of the soul. Even though progress is hard to see, the soul in the purgative way has a desire, even if they don’t understand it, to find answers to the challenges they face or the emptiness they feel. They rightly sense that these answers are found outside of themselves.
Mortal Sin: Weak resistance. Rarely avoids near occasions of sin, but seriously regrets having sinned, and makes adequate confessions.
Venial Sin: Considered insignificant and even at times embraced or desired; hence the lukewarm state of the will. Does nothing whatever to prevent venial sin, or to pay attention enough to avoid it, or to uncover and uproot it when it is less conspicuous.
Prayer: From time to time, prays but in an ad-hoc fashion. Spiritual fervency is inconsistent and fleeting. Prayer is far from habitual but is valued, even if minimally so. Prayer is usually either intermittently attentive vocal prayer or a petition based prayer focused on temporal needs and desires.
Sacraments: Attends Mass regularly and pursues confession more frequently.
Purgative Way – Intermittent Piety:
Mortal Sin: Loyal resistance. Habitually avoids the near occasion of sin. Deeply regrets sin when recognized. Does penance to make reparation if the concept of penance is understood.
Venial Sin: Sometimes deliberate. Puts up a weak fight. Sorrow is only superficial. Makes an examination of conscience, but without any method, preparation, or coherence.
Prayer: Practices vocal prayer regularly. Not yet firmly resolved to remain faithful to structured meditation (time, place, topic and method). Gives up as soon as dryness is felt, or as there is business or other easy distractions to attend to.
Sacraments: Attends Mass weekly and pursues confession at least quarterly.
Purgative Way – Sustained Piety:
Mortal Sin: Never. At most very rare and only when taken suddenly by surprise and then, often it is to be doubted if the sin is mortal. It is followed by ardent feelings of guilt and a desire for penance.
Venial Sin: Vigilant in avoiding and fighting it and rarely deliberate. Intense sorrow, but does little by way of reparation. Consistent particular examen, but aiming only at avoidance of venial sin.
Imperfections: The soul either avoids uncovering them so as not to have to fight them, or else easily excuses them. Approves the thought of renouncing them, and would like to do so, but makes little effort in that direction.
Prayer: Consistently faithful to specific time and approach to prayer, no matter what happens. This prayer includes vocal prayer and meditation that is often affective. The soul experiences alternating consolations and dryness, the latter endured with considerable hardship.
Sacraments: Always attends weekly and daily Mass if able. Pursues confession on a regular schedule.
In our next post we will explore the next phase of spiritual development, the lluminative way.
To learn more, the best modern and reasonably in-depth treatment dedicated to this topic is entitled, Fulfillment of All Desire by Ralph Martin. For a personally applicable summary, see my recent book, Navigating the Interior Life, Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God.