Stages of the Spiritual Life 

News: Commentary
by Paul Brock III  •  •  October 21, 2022   

Continual conversion 

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The saints and martyrs greatly affected change in the lives of those around them and even in those living thousands of years after their deaths, but the present state of glory in which they now participate is principally due to their own spiritual conversions. It is traditionally understood that in the spiritual life, there are three stages of conversion. 

First Conversion

Whether one is a layman, priest, bishop or the pope himself, everyone must live a life of conversion if they desire the perfect happiness that Heaven provides. A life of conversion implies that there is not just one conversion, as is typically thought. Rather, the converted life is one of constant spiritual progression.

Réginald Marie Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.

Conversion is a divine gift, but it calls for continuous effort on our part. Grace, being the impetus for conversion, cannot reside in a soul that rejects it. Rather, a soul that chooses the world, the flesh or the Devil cannot live a converted life, for he desires to do his own will over God's.

Thus, the first conversion in the spiritual life requires a detachment from the world. This conversion is an act freely chosen. Sin is also voluntary, but it separates us from God. Conversion, in this sense, may be defined as a constant effort of the will turned towards God.

Far from a single act, conversion has always been understood as a process that occurs in the soul until it finds its end. Conversion, like the universal call to holiness, never sits still, for "he who makes no progress loses ground," as Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange writes in his masterpiece The Three Conversions in the Spiritual Life.

Likewise, the language of the Apostle Paul affirms the necessity for this nonstop advancement in the spiritual life when he speaks of himself and other baptized Christians "being saved" (1 Corinthians 1:18). Salvation, synonymous with conversion in this sense, is used in the present tense because it is a gift that can either be cherished and achieved — or taken for granted and lost. 

Apostolic Conversion, Part I 

Not only is conversion necessary for every living Christian, but it was necessary even for the Apostles. After being told by Jesus that He would make them "fishers of men" (Matthew 4:19), the Apostles followed Him. Their renouncement of the world made them true disciples of Christ. According to St. Catherine of Siena, this was their first conversion.

For laymen today, as was the case for the Apostles, the first step in the spiritual life consists in detaching from earthly things. But that's only the beginning of the spiritual life. Lagrange writes, "after conversion, there ought to be a serious beginning of the purgative life."

The Purgative Way 

If the initial conversion is authentic, it is followed by a purging (or purification). This purgative way is known as the childhood or beginner's period in which the soul is purged of all pride and egoism. Be it the apostasy of the fallen angels, the disobedience of Adam and Eve or the despair of Judas, it was pride that drove those fatal decisions.

Pride, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, is when a man "aims higher than he is." The remedy for this is humility, which, according to Aquinas, is directly opposed to pride. Therefore, purging the pride that resides in the soul necessitates humility.

As pride bolsters the self above God, humility places the soul in submission to the Almighty, which is a reflection of truth and reality — whether one likes it or not. Thus, the purging of the ego in this beginner's stage of the spiritual life principally occurs due to a humble decision to conform one's own will to God's will.

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The purgative way, according to St. John of the Cross, consists of "the active purification of the external and internal senses, the passions, the intellect and the will by mortification, meditation and prayer, and finally of the passive purgation of the senses." 

Put another way, this purgative stage is the avoidance of both mortal and venial sin. But this cannot be properly done without prayer, for prayer is the "raising of one's mind and heart to God" (CCC, ¶2559). Through this purgation, man's intellect is no longer darkened, his will no longer malicious and his passions no longer disordered. This is the beginning of the fulfillment of man's purpose. By eradicating sin, the soul slowly frees itself from the enslaving effects of sin. But in order to advance in the spiritual life, perseverance is necessary. Lagrange explains that for the "souls that shun the Cross, the purgation is often interrupted," but for those who receive and suffer their cross well, the purgation persists, and the soul can enter into the next stage of the spiritual life.

Second Conversion

Going from childhood to youth (or beginner to proficient), one advances during this second conversion through his continued disposition to not live for himself but to live for God. And while the first conversion consisted of detaching from the world and the subsequent eradication of sin, the second conversion is the stage in which God feeds and refreshes the soul.

Though this spiritual refreshment sounds consoling, it is, more specifically, a nourishing by which God gives the soul what it needs, rather than what it wants, in order to grow. When a father punishes his child, it's actually for the child's benefit. Likewise, during this second conversion, God withdraws from the soul so that it may know its own weakness and put more trust in Him.

Along with the love of God and reliance on Him for salvation, the other motivation for this second conversion is a deep understanding of the shedding of Christ's blood. As one cannot love what he does not first know, this knowledge of Christ's bloody sacrifice for the salvation of mankind serves as a true refreshment for man to continue in his spiritual progress. 

Apostolic Conversion, Part II 

The traditional blueprint for this earthly pilgrimage entails three conversions, and these three conversions even applied to the very men Our Lord called by name. Saint Peter, the leader of the twelve Apostles, began his second conversion immediately after his triple denial of Our Lord. 

But Peter said, "Man, I do not know what you are saying." And immediately, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, "Before the cock crows today, you will deny Me three times." And he went out and wept bitterly (Luke 22:60–62). 

Peter's recognition of his betrayal caused deep repentance and contrition. It is this kind of healthy sorrow, Aquinas teaches, that "has the power to bring all defects back to perfection and even to advance man to a higher state." 

Our Lord allowed Peter to fall in this way so that he might be more humble and place his confidence in God and not in himself. For many of the other Apostles, their lack of faith was exemplified by their absence at the Crucifixion.

As St. Catherine of Siena teaches, God uses His permissive will in this way in order to humiliate man, which causes him to seek God in truth.

Not only is humiliation necessary in the spiritual life, but it is the essence of it. Our Lord's commands to "follow me" and to "be perfect" remain merely symbolic to those who cower from true Christian spirituality. But for those who love God more than themselves, Christ's commands are understood as they were intended. They recognize that all men have a divine call to follow Christ all the way to the holy Cross, and this joyfully humiliating process brings about the perfection of man. 

The Illuminative Way 

The soul, having been detached from the world, purged of sin and humiliated, now relies solely on God. It results in an openness to the divine gifts promised when the narrow road is taken. This school of contemplation is the stage in which the soul continues to avoid sin, but it is now more focused on imitating the virtues of Our Lord.

St. Peter weeping before the Virgin

Christ's decree to be perfect as His Father is perfect is made manifest during this stage. Peter's sorrow for his grave threefold denial did not render him hopeless like Judas, rather, it sparked a conversion that pushed him to follow his master with more love than ever. Walking in the ways of his crucified master, Peter was led straight to his own "calvary." And for all souls passing through this illuminative stage, they will be taken to their calvaries as well.

However, many souls will not endure because they love themselves more than they love God. Attempting to continue the spiritual life "without passing by the way of Christ crucified," Catherine of Siena writes, "they have no desire to suffer." 

A greater understanding of the mystery of faith, which the illuminative way provides, is only achieved by following Christ all the way to His Crucifixion. Man, therefore, must carry his own cross if he desires a happy eternity.

Peter's recognition of his betrayal caused deep repentance and contrition.

As such, any form of "Christianity" that does not emphasize individual humility and crucifixion reveals itself as a false spirituality, for the earthly life of Christ was a continual humiliation. Christ redeemed man on the Cross, but this unfathomable act of divine mercy must be freely accepted by man. Far from being a single decision to give one's life to Christ, one must constantly accept the gift of mercy, and this only happens when man follows Christ to Calvary in his daily life.

Authentic spirituality, therefore, is identified and measured by its adherence to the Cross. Thomistic psychologist Dr. G.C. Dilsaver explains this well in his most recent book, Crucial Christianity

Yes, all faith and morals can be judged by their relationship to the Holy Cross. Orthodoxy and holiness is always going toward and increasing the embrace of that Cross, and all heresy and sin is always a going away from and the rejection of that Cross. 

Third Conversion

This last conversion is known as the transformation of the soul. Going from adolescence to manhood, the soul is brought into the third conversion by way of the Holy Spirit.

During this third conversion, "we must bear with patience and love the sufferings which God sends us," Lagrange notes. Unlike the first conversion centered on the negative purging of sin, or the second conversion centered on God's withdrawal from the soul, the final conversion is centered on a more active willingness to do God's will. It is an unreserved and joyful yes to God no matter what.

The third conversion is a lifelong commitment to Christ's words in the Garden of Gethsemane: "Not as I will, but as thou wilt" (Matthew 26:39). In this stage, man solely desires to be a divine instrument; he belongs to God and no longer to himself. No longer attached to the world, personal sin or human respect, man says with the Blessed Virgin Mary, "Let it be to me according to Your word" (Luke 1:38). 

Apostolic Conversion, Part III 

The first apostolic conversion occurred when the Apostles left their old lives in order to follow the Messiah. The second conversion is best exemplified when Peter wept after denying Jesus three times, or when the vast majority of the Apostles chose not to follow Him to Golgotha. Finally, as the third conversion is prompted by the Holy Ghost, it is fitting that Pentecost is what traditional Christian spirituality understands as the third apostolic conversion.

Lagrange writes: 

The Apostles were prepared for their third transformation by the fact that from the time of the Ascension they were deprived of the perceptible presence of Jesus Himself. … They must have had a feeling of the greatest loneliness … The Apostles stood there with their eyes raised up to Heaven. 

The Apostles received the greatest spiritual fruits at their time of greatest suffering. It was only through their suffering, humiliation and desperation for God that they received their most abundant graces.

At Pentecost, the mysteries of the Crucifixion and subsequent Resurrection were made more fully manifest. That is, they were filled with the profound conviction of this mystery, which they constantly lived until their martyrdom. This apostolic conversion is the blueprint for the spiritual life. More so, it is this final conversion that is the entire goal of the earthly pilgrimage. The Apostles renounced the world, purged themselves of their imperfections and suffered their own humiliations well in order to more fully carry out their master's will. 

The Unitive Way 

After the third conversion, there is a Eucharistic effect that takes place in the soul. While the Sacrament of Holy Communion is "wholly directed toward the intimate union of the faithful with Christ" (CCC, ¶1382), the unitive way in the spiritual life results in, according to Lagrange, "light and strength, in order that they might be capable of witnessing to Christ, even to the ends of the earth and at the peril of their lives." 

Because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in His steps. (1 Peter 2:21)

For the soul in this unitive stage, there is an unwavering conviction of one's loyalty to Christ, one which does not bend or compromise. Due to the soul's pure love for God, man does not hesitate to profess the fullness of faith, even when he is ill-treated or ridiculed. Instead of a natural sorrow or even self-pity that typically arises during persecution, a man in the unitive stage experiences a holy joy at being made like Our Lord. According to St. Anselm, and also Aquinas, this holy joy during immense suffering is the final stage of development in the virtue of humility.

The Cross of Christ 

The spiritual life is simply an imitation of Christ. All Christians "have been called," says St. Peter, "because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in His steps" (1 Peter 2:21). The more one suffers and dies with Christ, the more he rises with Him.


The Eucharist is the perfect sacrament

of Our Lord's Passion (ST, III, q.73, a.5)

Any spirituality that does not embrace the crucified life is no authentic spirituality at all. Indeed, most souls will not receive a physical crucifixion, but all will be spiritually crucified if they truly desire to rise with Christ. The purpose of the Incarnation was salvation, and this incomprehensible mercy was brought about by means of what happened on Calvary.

If salvation is the goal and man seeks to fulfill his purpose in life, then he must go to the source of salvation, for we cannot expect to understand anything in the spiritual life apart from the Cross of Christ. Entering deeper into the Cross of Christ is the essence of the interior life, and this is why the perfect unitive life, which is received during one's third conversion, offers infused contemplation of the mysteries of faith.

The greatest mystery of faith is that of the Holy Trinity, and so it follows that assent to this mystery is most valuable for the soul. Once the soul is open to divine grace, God works in that soul, and this is no better understood than by looking at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. During this divinely instituted sacrifice, Christ's body on earth partakes in the highest of supernatural gifts.

The Savior gave mankind this gift for the same reason that He willingly chose death on the Cross. Making this point, Ven. Abp. Fulton J. Sheen wrote, "He turned a crucifixion into a redemption, a consecration into a Communion, a death into life everlasting." 

The three stages of the spiritual life are all oriented toward the Cross, and the closer one follows Christ to Calvary, the more glorious will be his own resurrection. 

Learn more about the interior life by going Premium and watching this week's Mic'd Up, where David Gordon interviews Dan Burke, author of The Devil in the Castle

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