In our first post of this series, we covered an introduction to the concept of the three ways of the interior life. In part II and part III we covered the first and second of the three ways. In this post we will finalize our exploration of the ways.
Unitive Way (Spiritual Adulthood):
The principle characteristic of this phase is a simple and constant awareness of God’s presence, a near constant state of communion with Him, and obvious and habitual conformity to His will.
Here we find deep and abiding joy, a unassailable love for God and others, profound humility, freedom from the fear of suffering often accompanied by a strong desire to suffer for God and his people, and apostolic fruitfulness.
Suffering in this phase is more closely related to an active embrace and deliberate joining of our sufferings with the sufferings of Christ for the purposes of his redeeming grace (rather than suffering for one’s own sins). All of the virtuous developments previously acquired in the soul are assumed present here, thus the distinctions are very simple.
As Fr. Andrew Apostoli once remarked to me, “This is canonizable territory.” His point was that the unitive way is the portion of the narrow path occupied by the saints in this life. It is important to note that the only kind of Catholics in heaven are saints. We get to that state either through purification in this life, or in the next through purgatory (assuming we come to our final judgment while on the narrow path of course).
The good news is that we can all experience this level of sanctity in this life because it is the will of God (not because any one of us is capable by our own power). Yes, we must cooperate with His grace and give all that we are able; however, God must and will provide the infused grace and virtue necessary for this noble and exhilarating path of ascent if we will simply yield to his transforming love. Here’s the very simple reality of the characteristics of complete sanctity in the unitive way.
Imperfections: Hardly apparent and rare.
Prayer: Frequently experience the heights of transforming union and the spiritual marriage. Purifications by love. Ardent thirst for sufferings and humiliations for the sake of others.
Concluding Thoughts about Spiritual Progress in the Three Ways
In a 1996 interview Peter Sewald asked Pope Benedict XVI, “How many ways are there to God?” He answered, “As many as there are people.” In this answer he revealed one side of a profound paradox of the spiritual life, namely, that our paths to God are as unique as each soul is unique. The other side of the paradox is that there is only one narrow path and one Way, and all faithful Catholics share the common characteristics of the Way and ways as they mature in Christ.
Though the specific way each of us travels this path is unique, the path itself, by the Grace of God, can be made clear, and even in the unique route of each person we can find patterns and rely on Spirit-revealed signposts that can be a powerful aid to us in our quest for union with God.
However challenging the map of the three ways is to understand and apply, I have found few perspectives in Catholic spiritual tradition that have been more helpful to my own journey of faith. I pray that this summary of this insightful tool has been helpful to you. If it has been helpful to you either here or through my book, Navigating the Interior Life, I would be grateful for you to give me insights into what you found useful either here in the combox below or in a private email.
“May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.” (1 Thessalonians 5:23)
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.
Art for “The Three Ways” post: Door with the image of St. Theresa of Avila, Door that stopped Krakow’s 1850 fire. Monastery of Bernardine Sisters, unknown artist, photographed by Janusz Tadeusz Nowak, Witold Turdza (2000), Skarby krakowskich klasztorów (Treasures of the Cracow Monasteries), Muzeum Historyczne Miasta Krakowa, PD-US copyright expired, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.