By Ralph Martin
Various attempts to classify the stages of spiritual growth have been made over the centuries. The predominant classification, used by a number of the Doctors of the Church and many other writers as well, is the three-stage division of purgative, illuminative, and unitive. (Another major attempt at delineating the stages of growth is that of Saint Teresa of Avila, who divides the journey into seven “mansions” or stages.)
In brief, the purgative stage or way includes the initial phases of the spiritual life, including coming to conversion, turning away from sin, bringing one’s life into conformity with the moral law, initiating the habit of prayer and the practices of piety, and maintaining a relatively stable life in the Church. (The first three mansions of Teresa deal with issues connected with the purgative stage.)
The illuminative stage is one of continuing growth. It is characterized by deeper prayer, growth in the virtues, deepening love of neighbor, greater moral stability, more complete surrender to the lordship of Christ, greater detachment from all that is not God, and increasing desire for full union. It is accompanied by various kinds of trials and purifications and sometimes by great consolations and blessings, including what are commonly referred to as “mystical phenomena.” (Teresa’s fourth, fifth, and sixth mansions deal with issues connected with this stage.)
The unitive stage is one of deep, habitual union with God, characterized by deep joy, profound humility, freedom from fears of suffering or trials, great desire to serve God, and apostolic fruitfulness. The experience of the presence of God is almost continual; great insight into the things of God is experienced; and while not without suffering, suffering now becomes primarily the grace of sharing in the redeeming suffering of Christ rather than the suffering of purification. This deep, habitual union is variously described as a “spiritual marriage” or “transforming union.” (Teresa describes the unitive stage in the seventh mansion.)
It’s important to bear in mind that in practice no one’s life perfectly matches any of the stages described by the various saints. They themselves note how different aspects of these stages can be present in one’s life simultaneously, although the direction of our lives, if we are making progress, should increasingly mirror the characteristics the saints point out as indicators of spiritual progress. As Catherine puts it, “These are three stages for which many have the capacity, and all three can be present in one and the same person.”
Sometimes we can be overwhelmed with the challenge of making progress on the spiritual journey. Sometimes we can become discouraged and be tempted to think that we can never hope to reach our destination. Every saint and Doctor wants us to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that this journey is for everyone, and that if we persevere, by His grace, we will surely reach journey’s end.
Ralph Martin is the president of Renewal Ministries and director of Graduate Theology Programs in Evangelization at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in the Archdiocese of Detroit. His book The Fulfillment of All Desire: A Guidebook for the Journey to God Based on the Wisdom of the Saints has become a modern-day spiritual classic.