In the interior life there are is something called the three stages or as Garigou-Lagrange refers to it as Three Ages (The Three Ages of Interior Life). A lot of what I am speaking about has been developed by St. Thomas Aquinas but St. John of the Cross wrote rather extensively on this topic as well. I recommend that any serious Catholic who wishes to delve deeper in their understanding of prayer and to learn by the means by which one can come to union with God take a read through their works! If you want more specifics, please let me know.
The three stages of spiritual growth is the purgative, illumative and unitive. I can define purgative as a point where one has overcome the battle of mortal sin but yet struggles with many venial sins. The illumative can be said to have overcome many of the lesser sins and has passed through the Dark Night of the Senses (refer to St. John of the Cross) but is still battling many imperfections. These folks likely are blessed with the God given grace of infused contemplation. Lastly the unitive stage is one where essentially the soul is united to God in the earthly life and enjoys a deep closeness in the Lord here on Earth but by no means is free of difficulties. St. Teresa of Avila and other Carmelite saints state that there are few that make it past the purgative stage, let alone end up in the unitive stage but by God’s grace one can reach that point. This all aside my general interest is in souls who wish to progress to the purgative stage.
First a summary of the purgative way taken from the Three Ages of the Interior 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.
I think for many, and even for me not so long ago, reading this may seem very alien and that is fine. Until I had read deeper on this topic, I always assumed the path to sainthood was something very abstract and reserved only for those that God has granted the grace to but no so! All can proceed to a deep union with our Lord and there is a proper means by which this can be accomplished and one can measure progress in comparison to the three stages. Absolutely fantastic! With this definition in mind I want to address the question of how one knows whether they have progressed to the purgative stage or not and some considerations to keep in mind.
- Firstly, to advance in grace, holiness, prayer, etc. one must be in a state of grace. It is futile to think that if one takes up the aforementioned means of mortification while in a state of mortal sin that the soul would derive any benefit from it. This goes back to the idea that any meritorious act done when one is not in a state of grace will not benefit the individual because that would imply one could attain salvation by meritorious acts in a state of sin, which is impossible. Just to clarify, I am not making claim that works is what saves a soul or advances it further, which is false. Only by the grace and mercy of our Lord are we able to accomplish any small holy task. Even for a soul to undertake mortification or enter a life of prayer requires grace but by our freewill we can choose not to respond to that grace and therefore lose many opportunities to grow in holiness.
- Secondly, if the prerequisite requires you to be in a state of grace continuously, one of the greatest challenges for those entering the purgative stage is to overcome the primary mortal sin that is causing constant separation between the soul and the Lord. By primary I would like to define that as the one sin that constantly throws us back into the state of mortal sin and one that if conquered would enable us to maintain a state of grace. It may seem like a generalization but let me explain my rationale. You might say to yourself that when you are in the confessional you list many sins, perhaps more than one mortal one. That is fair and perhaps true for most. I would like to propose the notion that most sins tend to develop from one primary sin. An example of this is one who confesses to anger/wrath. One rarely is angry for the sake of anger but rather anger is a consequence of another sin. If someone gets furious while driving on the road, cursing at traffic, etc. anger has rarely to do with the traffic but rather in that specific case the anger is linked to pride, for more often than not those who are proud are often impatient, and those who are impatient tend to anger. It would be fair to say in this case that if one conquered pride that all other tendencies toward mortal sins would collapse because those who are not proud but humble would almost never turn to anger (although in this case, if one could conquer pride from the get-go, that would be an amazing achievement!). I would ask that you please bear in mind the definition of mortal sin as defined in the Catechism as this is a base assumption in this discussion for although some may be in the purgative way and may sin, these may only be venial if the sin does not meet the criteria of a mortal sin. I just wanted that to be clear in case you assumed that those in the purgative/illumative way are without sin. They are without mortal sin perhaps but still likely bringing to light their venial sins/imperfections and destroying them accordingly.
- Lastly, I want to stress that the easiest means of staying in a state of grace is by overcoming the major sin that typically drives one to other sins. Once this is accomplished, it is likely that a soul will be able to proceed to the purgative stage. This is by no means an easy task and will likely require a lot of prayer and the intercession of the Blessed Mother. For some, suffering will be required but all can come to this path if they surrender to the will of the Lord.
I like to imagine the major sin as one that casts a shadow on all of our imperfections and that in order to be proceed down the path it needs to be removed first. Once it is removed and we begin to advance further in the interior life, we will need to pick up and remove all other imperfections that our major fault has hidden from our eyes…it really is something. You would be surprised of the many hidden faults in your soul that your major fault hides because of the sever damage it does to you and God but hidden behind the shadow of the primary sin are a ton of imperfections that we have become numb to overtime. At some point you should be able to use different means and methods to further destroy those faults so that you may advance quickly to the Lord.
That’s all for today! My attempt here is never to go against the Church but rather to share my simple understanding of what I love. If you feel like something is not making sense or that may not be perfectly aligned, do let me know and I can make appropriate edits, etc.
May the Blessed Mother lead us all to Jesus Christ!