Got time for a 90 second commercial?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Three Ways

All who are baptized and in the state of grace are on the road toward Heaven; or at least we should be. What many don’t realize is that there is a process and actual steps to growth in holiness. I will attempt to explain a bit about these steps and what the Bible has to say about them.

The three steps are the purgative way, the illuminative way, and the unitive way. One step must be passed through to get to the next. So to get to the illuminative way you must first pass through the purgative way, but let me tell you what is involved in each step first.
To get into the purgative way you must either convert and become Catholic or if you are a Catholic in Mortal Sin, you must go to Confession. You can’t grow in holiness toward God if you are enemies with Him.

In brief, the whole idea behind the purgative way is to turn away from Mortal Sin and begin growing in virtue toward God - it is putting to death the deeds of the flesh (Romans 8:13). There is a second conversion spoken of as a transition from the purgative to the illuminative way through a kind of Dark Night of the senses, meaning less warm fuzzy feelings, external consolations, when you pray and just throughout your day. In the illuminative way, you are focused more on developing virtues and weeding out the venial sins in your life. Finally, there is another transition from the illuminative to the unitive way through a Dark Night of the Spirit where it feels like the soul has been abandoned by God completely. Yet, the unitive way has been described as Heaven on earth.

Some scriptures that point to these three ways are as follows:
Psalm 34:14 Depart from evil, and do good; Seek peace, and pursue it.
  • Depart from evil is done in the Purgative Way.
  • Do Good is done in the Illuminative Way.
  • Seek peace, and pursue it is done in the Unitive Way.

Luke 9:23 And He [Jesus] was saying to them all, "If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.

Also some spiritual giants such as St. Thomas Aquinas have pointed to the three writings of Solomon as each pointing to one of the ways. The books of Solomon are Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon.

In the book of Proverbs, it talks about two ways - one that leads to life and one that leads to the grave. Proverbs is describing someone who might be tempted to leave Wisdom behind all together and fall back into Mortal Sin.
Ecclesiastes reflects the attitude of those in the illuminative way. Seeing that all things here on earth are vanity. That the only thing that matters is, in fact, God.
Finally, in the Song of Solomon it talks about the relationship between two lovers. Spiritually speaking, this is about the relationship between God and a soul. Many great saints would point to this book in the Bible as the crown of the spiritual life.

Some have seen the Tabernacle that Moses built in the wilderness as a type of model to the spiritual life.
The tabernacle had three parts: the court, the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies.
In the court were two things: a bronze Laver and an altar for burnt offerings. The Holy Place had three things: a lamp stand, an altar of incense, and a table with the bread of the presence. Finally, in the Holy of Holies was the Ark of the Covenant, God's dwelling place.
Here is a spiritual interpretation on these three places:

  • In the court is where you would wash in Baptism in the Laver and then put to death the deeds of the body. That is what all of those animal sacrifices represented, and points us to the purgative way.
  • In the Holy Place is where we find more fulfillment in the sacrament of the Eucharist, prayer, represented by the incense, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, represented by the lamp stand.
  • Finally, in the Holy of Holies we see God as He is face to face. We no longer love Him out of fear. We no longer love Him because of what He gives us. It is here that we love Him for Himself.

St. Teresa of Avila compares the spiritual journey to a Mansion with many rooms of which we must pass through to get to the epicenter, where we meet God in His Majesty.
St. John of the Cross compares it to climbing a mountain.
St. Catherine of Sienna compares it to kissing the wounds of Christ’s feet, then His wounded side, and then, finally, His mouth.

Here are some great books to help the journey!

Introduction to the Devout Life - by St. Fancis DeSales

The Soul of the Apostolate - by Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard

The Three Conversions in the Spiritual Life

THE Place to get Great Catholic Books!


Anonymous said...

this sounds almost exactly like buddhism to me.

suprman1020 said...

Only it isn't buddism. Buddism rejects the existence of a creator or reality as everything is an illusion. The Three Ways described in the article deals with absolute reality because the ultimate end is unity with God and he, my friend, is very real.

Aquilifer said...

Wow, once again great points. Thanks for the insights and connections, keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

Once you understand the three ways you will understand how Jesus formed the apostles. He forms us the same way he formed them. The book the Three Ways of the Spiritual Life was written by Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, who has John Paul II's disertation chairman. The book is online at EWTN library. A similar summary of the Three Ways is on the web site If you don't have a spiritual director this little book is a brief summary of the main principles of the spiritual life. Also it is a summary of many of the doctors of the church. I read it 13 times.