"Seeking Union with God" Online Spiritual Formation Program
Lesson #1: Discovering Our Ultimate Purpose
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Lesson #2: Our Ultimate Decision
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Lesson #3: An Introduction to Prayer
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Lesson #4: Meditation
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Lesson #5: Problems and Progress in Prayer
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Lesson #6: Growing in Holiness and Virtue
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Lesson #7: Renewing Our Mind
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Lesson #8: Your Own Spiritual Rule of Life
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Lesson #9: Stages of the Spiritual Life
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Lesson #10: The Mass and Sacraments
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Lesson #11: Loving God and Neighbor
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Lesson #12: Discernment
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End of Course

"Seeking Union with God"
Personal Spiritual Formation Program

Lesson #9
Overview of t
he Stages of the Spiritual Life

St. John of the Cross (1542-1591)

Prayer :

"Father, you endowed St. John of the Cross with a spirit of self-denial and a love of the cross. By following his example may we come to the eternal vision of your glory. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever."

From the Proper

The charts below have a comparison of different descriptions of the stages of the spiritual life from various sources including St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and Fr. Garrigou LaGrange's The Three Ages of the Interior Life. They mainly describe some different types of prayer one could experience at each stage, even though God does not always act the same in each person. They contain various words or concepts, which are an attempt by various saints and theologians to explain what is really difficult to put into words, especially contemplation and mystical prayer. Use anything you find helpful, and if they don't seem helpful just set them aside for now. They will be online indefinitely for your review at a later date.

A lot of times we don't understand these things unless or until we begin to experience them ourselves. Then it is consoling and a confirmation for us to read that others have also experienced similar things, especially things like the Dark Nights that St. John of the Cross speaks about or contemplative prayer. St. John of the Cross is somewhat difficult to understand and modern commentaries can be very helpful. One commentary I'd highly recommend is Fr. Thomas Dubay's book, Fire Within.

The first chart below is taken from The Three Ages of the Interior Life by Fr. Garrigou LaGrange. The second two charts compare stages of the spiritual life as described by different Saints and compare them to The Three Ages of the Interior Life. The Saints are describing something that is not easy to describe. For example, St. Teresa describes prayer using an analogy of "4 waters". She also describes the soul as an "interior castle" with various mansions that one progresses through with different types of prayer in each. The names of the prayers might be a bit different from one place to another as basically, once again, one is trying to describe something which is almost beyond description.

A person does not necessarily progress in a step-by-step upward fashion through these stages and can go forward or backward or get stuck and not proceed (which many do at St. Teresa's 4th mansion), or even fall back and not progress, before possibly reaching the highest stage of transforming union. Many of us, even though in God's grace and therefore a member of His family, will not reach these highest stages of the spiritual life in this life and will finish being transformed and perfected in purgatory. "Purgatory is the state of those who die in God’s friendship, assured of their eternal salvation, but who still have need of purification to enter into the happiness of heaven." (Compendium to the Catechism of the Catholic Church)

The highest stage of the spiritual life is described as "spiritual marriage" or "transforming union". At this stage St. John of the Cross believes one is confirmed in grace (won't commit any more mortal sins) and has gone through a purgation of faults and a transformation that will pretty much eliminate purgatory in the life to come. On the other hand, St. Teresa, if I understand correctly, thinks it is still possible, even if remote, for anyone, even in transforming union, to possibly fall out of God's grace while alive on earth. By the way, while saints often overlap in their understanding of the spiritual life, there are sometimes some differences in their understanding. Saints, while very helpful and insightful, are not infallible.

It is good to keep in mind while looking at the various stages of the spiritual life that God acts somewhat differently in each person. St. John of the Cross says that no two souls are even half alike. We need to keep in mind that everyone's spiritual life does not follow the same exact pattern. We can also see that both Saints have a few different ways or analogies to express various stages.

The links on the charts are to other websites that go into more detail on various subjects for more information. These charts just touch on the material. For definitions and more in depth information, please do click on the links and read more. This lesson can't possibly cover all these things in very much depth. I'm including them as a resource for what might interest you at this time, so that you can have some idea of where to look up more information about what you are interested in or are going through.

Also when seeking ways to pray, a person generally begins at the beginning and moves up over time. For example, a person entering the spiritual life can begin with vocal prayer and mental prayer/meditation. God raises us up as we go along at the right time and when He desires to. Contemplative prayer as spoken about by St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross is more a gift from God than something we can produce on our own.

Some people, even though they pray for years and live holy lives, do not experience infused contemplative prayer for reasons only God knows. It is good to keep in mind that what God desires is holiness and our sanctification. So holiness is what we should seek rather than a certain prayer form or experience. God gifts whomever He wishes to, always with love as His motive... and gives us what will be good for us individually according to His will and plan for us.

In other words, what is happening in our prayer life does not necessarily mean we are more or less holy or closer to God than someone else. (Perhaps Mother Teresa of Calcutta is an example of this, I'm not sure, but her great holiness seems evident to everyone, and yet she didn't experience God's presence for a long period in her life.)

Fr. Thomas Dubay in the Fire Within, says, "The reader should remember in reading Teresa and John that they are not suggesting that every person receives every gift they mention at a particular stage of growth."

Some of the prayer forms on the chart below are called "passive" or "infused" because they are not something we can do ourselves, but rather something that God mainly does in us. The term "active life" means something we do actively (with the help of God's grace) and the "passive life" is something God does in us (without our causing it, but not against our free will, so our action is our openness to receive... reminding me of Psalm 81:10, “Open your mouth and I will fill it.”). Also the active life and passive life overlap to some extent. For example, contemplatives pray actively at times and noncontemplatives can have some passive prayer experiences.


(To be read from the bottom up. There is an explanation below the chart.)
by Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.
Unitive life of the perfect
• full • extraordinary, e.g., with the vision of the Blessed Trinity
• weak • ordinary - eminent contemplative form
- apostolic form
• initial •not very continual union, often interrupted
Illuminative life of proficients

• full infused contemplation •extraordinary or accompanied by visions, revelations

-clearly contemplative form
-active form, or form ordained to action, e.g., gift of wisdom under practical form
• weak • transitory acts of infused contemplation (d. The Dark Night, Bk. I, chap. 9)
• initial • passive purification of the senses more or less well borne (initial infused contemplation)
Purgative life of beginners
• full or generous • fervent souls pious and devout souls
• weak
• tepid or retarded souls, not without relapses
• first conversion or justification

Characteristics of the 3 Stages of the Spiritual Life:
The following selection is from CHAPTER 5 : CHARACTERISTICS OF THE THREE STAGES OF THE SPIRITUAL LIFE from The Three Ways of the Spiritual Life

by Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.

"We have seen the different conceptions which various writers have proposed of the three stages or periods of the spiritual life; and we have seen which of these is to be regarded as the traditional one. There is, we have said, an analogy between these three stages of the life of the soul and those of the life of the body- infancy, adolescence and manhood; and we have paid particular attention to the transition between one period and another, marked by a crisis analogous to that which, in the natural or physical order, occurs in life about the age of fourteen or fifteen and again at twenty or twenty-one. We have seen also how these different periods of the interior life have their counterpart in the life of the Apostles. We now intend, following the principles of St. Thomas and of St. John of the Cross, to describe briefly the characteristics of these three periods, that of beginners, proficients and perfect, in order to show that these are successive stages in a normal development, a development which corresponds both to the distinction between the two parts of the soul (sensitive and spiritual), and to the nature of ' the grace of the virtues and the gifts. ' This grace progressively permeates the soul with the supernatural life, elevates its faculties, both higher and lower, until the depth of the soul [139] is purged of all egoism and self-love, and belongs truly, without any reservation, to God. We shall see that the whole development is logical, it is logical with the logic of life, the logic which is imposed necessarily by life's end and purpose: Justum deduxit Dominus per vias rectas: 'The Lord guides the just by straight ways.'

The first conversion is the transition from the state of sin to the state of grace, whether by baptism or, in the case of those who have lost their baptismal innocence, by contrition and sacramental absolution. Theologians explain at length in the treatise on grace what precisely justification is in an adult, and how and why it requires, under the influence of grace, acts of faith, hope, charity and contrition, or detestation of sin committed. [140] This purgation by the infusion of habitual grace and the remission of sins is in a sense the type or pattern of all the subsequent purgations of the soul, all of which involve acts of faith, hope, charity and contrition. Often this first conversion comes about after a more or less painful crisis in which the soul progressively detaches itself from the spirit of the world, like the prodigal son, to come back to God. It is God always who makes the first step towards us, as the Church has taught against the Semi-Pelagians; it is He who inspires the good movement in us, that initial goodwill which is the beginning of salvation. For this purpose, by His grace and by the trials to which He subjects the soul, He as it were ' tills ' the ground of the soul before sowing the divine seed within it; He drives a first furrow therein, a furrow upon which He will later return, to dig more deeply still and to eradicate the weeds which remain; much as the vine-tender does with the vine when it has already grown, to free it from all that may retard its development.

After this first conversion, if the soul does not fall again into mortal sin, or at all events if it rises from sin without delay and seeks to make progress, [141] it is then in the purgative way of beginners.

The mentality or spiritual state of the beginner may be best described in function of that which is primary in the order of goodness, namely his knowledge of God and of himself, and his love of God. Admittedly there are some beginners who are specially favored, like many great saints who have had greater grace in their early beginnings than many who are proficients; just as in the natural order there are infant prodigies. But after all, they are children, and it is possible to say in general in what the mentality of beginners consists. They begin to know themselves, to see their poverty and their neediness, and they have every day to examine their conscience to correct their faults. At the same time they begin to know God, in the mirror of the things of sense, in the things of nature or in the parables, for example, in those of the Prodigal Son, the Lost Sheep or the Good Shepherd. Theirs is a direct movement up to God, not unlike that of the swallow when it rises up to the heavens uttering a cry. [142] In this state there is a love of God proportionate to the soul's knowledge; beginners who are truly generous love God with a holy fear of sin, which causes them to avoid mortal sin and even deliberate venial sin, by dint of mortifying the senses and concupiscence in its various forms.

When they have been engaged for a certain time in this generous effort they are usually rewarded by some sensible consolations in prayer or in the study of divine things. In this way God wins over their sensibility, for it is by their sensibility that they chiefly live; He directs it away from dangerous things towards Himself. At this stage the generous beginner already loves God ' with all his heart, ' but not yet with all his soul, with all his strength, or with all his mind. Spiritual writers often mention the milk of consolation which is given at this period. St. Paul himself says : [143] ' I could not speak to you as unto spiritual but as unto carnal, as unto little ones in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not meat; for you were not able as yet. '

But what happens, usually, at this stage? Practically all beginners, when they receive these sensible consolations, take too much complacency in them; they regard them as though they were an end in themselves, and not merely a means to higher things. They then become an obstacle to their progress; they are an occasion of spiritual greed, of curiosity in the things of God, of an unconscious pride which leads the recipient to talk about his favors and, under a pretext of doing good to others, to pose as master in the spiritual life. Then, as St. John of the Cross says, [144] the seven capital sins make their appearance, no longer in their gross form, but in the order of spiritual things, as so many obstacles to a true and solid piety.

Accordingly, by a logical and vital transition, a second conversion becomes necessary, described by St. John of the Cross under the name of the passive purgation of the senses. Of this he says that it is ' common and comes to many; these are beginners, ' and that its purpose is to lead them into ' the road and way of the spirit, which is that of progressives and proficients... the way of infused contemplation, wherewith God Himself feeds and refreshes the soul. ' [145] This purgation is characterized by a prolonged aridity of the senses, in which the beginner is deprived of all those sensible consolations in which he had taken too great complacency. If in the midst of this aridity there is an intense desire for God, a desire that He should reign in us, together with a fear of offending Him, then this is a second sign that it is a divine purgation. Still more so, if to this intense desire for God there is added a difficulty in praying according to the discursive method, and an inclination towards the prayer of simple regard, with love. This is the third sign that the second conversion is in progress, and that the soul is being raised up to a higher form of life, that of the illuminative way.

If the soul endures this purgation satisfactorily its sensibility becomes more and more subject to the spirit; the soul is cured of its spiritual greed and of the pride that had led it to pose as a master; it learns better to recognize its own neediness. Not infrequently there arise other difficulties pertaining to this process of purgation, for example, in study, in our relations with persons to whom we are too greatly attached, and from whom God now swiftly and painfully detaches our affections. At this time, too, there arise often enough grave temptations against chastity and patience, temptations which God allows so that by reaction against these virtues, which reside in the sensible part of our nature, may become more firmly and truly rooted in us. Illness, too, may be sent to try us during this period.

In this crisis God again tills the ground of the soul, digging deeper in the furrow which He has already driven at the moment of our first conversion: He is uprooting the evil weeds, or the relics of sin, ' reliquias peccati. '

This crisis is not without its dangers, like the crisis of the fourteenth or fifteenth year in the development of our natural life. Some prove faithless to their vocation. Some souls do not pass through this crisis in such a way as to enter upon the illuminative way of proficients, and they remain in a state of tepidity; they are not in the proper sense beginners, rather they are retarded or tepid souls. In their case, the words of the Scriptures are fulfilled: ' They have not known the time of their visitation '; they have failed to recognize the time of their second conversion. These souls, especially if they are in the religious or the priestly state, are not tending to perfection as they should, and unconsciously they are stopping others from doing so, placing serious obstacles in the way of those who really desire to make progress. Communal prayer, instead of becoming contemplative, becomes mechanical; instead of prayer supporting the soul, the soul has to support and endure prayer. Such prayer may even, unhappily, become anti-contemplative!

In those, on the contrary, who pass through this crisis successfully it is, according to St. John of the Cross, the beginning of infused contemplation of the mysteries of faith, accompanied by an intense desire for perfection. Then the beginner, under the illumination especially of the gift of understanding, [146] becomes a proficient and enters upon the illuminative way; he recognizes his own poverty, sees the emptiness of honors and dignities and the things of this world; he detaches himself from these entanglements. This he must do, as P. Lallemant says, 'in order to take the step' which will lead him into the illuminative way. He now begins what is like a new life; he is like the child that becomes a youth.

It is true that this passive purgation of the senses, even in the case of those who actually enter upon it, may be more or less manifest and more or less successfully endured. St. John of the Cross remarks this, speaking of those who are less generous at this stage: 'This night of aridities is not usually continuous in their senses. At times they have these aridities; at others they have them not. At times they cannot meditate; at times they can... for not all those who consciously walk in the way of the spirit are brought by God to contemplation.... And this is why He never weans the senses of such persons from the breasts of meditations and reflections, but only for short periods and at certain seasons.' [147] In other words, they have only an attenuated form of the illuminative life. St. John of the Cross explains this later by their lack of generosity: 'Here it behooves us to note why it is that there are so few that attain to this lofty state. It must be known that this is not because God is pleased that there should be few raised to this high spiritual state -- on the contrary, it would please Him if all were so raised.... When He proves them in small things and finds them weak and sees that they at once flee from labor and desire not to submit to the least discomfort or mortification.... He goes no farther with their purification... they would fain go farther on the road, yet cannot suffer the smallest things nor submit themselves to them....' [148]

Such is the transition, more or less generously made, which leads to a higher form of life. So far it is easy to see the logical and vital sequence of the phases through which the soul must pass. This is no mechanical juxtaposition of successive states, but an organic development of life.

Proficients or progressives:
The mentality of proficients, like that of the preceding, must be described in function of their knowledge and love of God. With their self-knowledge there is developed in them a quasi-experimental knowledge of God. They know Him, no longer merely in the mirror of the things of sense or of parables, but in the mirror of the mysteries of salvation, with which they become more and more familiar and which the Rosary, the school of contemplation, sets daily before their eyes. The greatness of God is contemplated now, no longer merely in the mirror of the starry heavens, in the sea or the mountains, no longer merely in the parables of the Good Shepherd or the Prodigal Son, but in the incomparably more perfect mirror of the mysteries of the Incarnation and the Redemption. [149] To use the terminology of Dionysius, employed also by St. Thomas, [150] the soul rises in a spiral movement, from the mystery of the Incarnation or the Infancy of Jesus, to those of His Passion, His Resurrection, His Ascension and His Glory; and in these mysteries it contemplates the radiance of the sovereign Goodness of God, thus admirably communicating itself to us. In this contemplation, which is more or less frequent, the proficients receive an abundance of light -- in proportion to their fidelity and generosity -- through the gift of understanding, which enables them to penetrate more and more deeply into these mysteries, and to appreciate their beauty, at once so simple and so sublime.

In the preceding period or stage God had won over their sensibility; now He thoroughly subjugates their intelligence to Himself, raising it above the excessive preoccupations and complications of merely human knowledge. He simplifies their knowledge by spiritualizing it.

Accordingly, and as a normal consequence, these proficients being thus enlightened concerning the mysteries of the life of Christ, love God, not only by avoiding mortal sin and deliberate venial sin, but by imitating the virtues of our Lord. His humility, gentleness, patience; and by observing not only those commandments that are laid upon all, but also the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience, or at any rate by keeping the spirit of these counsels, and by avoiding imperfections.

As happened in the preceding period, this generosity is rewarded, but no longer by merely sensible consolations, but by a greater abundance of light in contemplation and in the work of the apostolate; by intense desires for the glory of God and the salvation of souls, and by a greater facility in prayer. Not infrequently we find in the proficients the prayer of Quiet, in which the will is momentarily held captive by the love of God. This period is marked also by a great facility in doing works for God, such as teaching, directing, organizing, and the rest. This is to love God, not only with the whole heart, but with the whole soul, with the whole of one's activities; but not yet with the whole strength, nor with the whole mind, because God has not yet achieved complete dominion in that higher region of the soul which we call the spirit.

And what happens generally at this stage? Something similar to what happened in the case of the beginners who had been rewarded with sensible consolations. The proficient begins to take complacency -- by reason of an unconscious pride -- in this great facility in prayer, working, teaching, or preaching. He tends to forget that these are God's gifts, and he rejoices in them with a proprietary air which ill beseems one who adores in spirit and in truth. It is true that he is working for God, he is working for souls; but he has not yet sufficiently forgotten himself. An unconscious self-seeking and self-importance cause him to dissipate himself and to lose the sense of the presence of God. He thinks that his labors are being very fruitful; but it is not quite certain. He is becoming too sure of himself, he gives himself too much importance and is perhaps inclined to exaggerate his own talents, to forget his own imperfection and to be too greatly aware of the imperfections of others. Purity of intention, true recollection, perfect straightforwardness, are often lacking; there is something of a lie in his life. ' The depth of the soul, ' as Tauler puts it, ' does not belong entirely to God. ' God is offered an intention which really is only half given to Him. St. John of the Cross mentions these defects of proficients as they are found in pure contemplatives, who, he says, ' believe in vain visions... and presume that God and the saints are speaking with them, ' [151] being deceived by the ruses of the evil one. Not less notable are the defects, mentioned, for example, by St. Alphonsus, which are found in apostolic men entrusted with the care of souls. These defects in proficients become manifest especially in the obstacles which they are called upon to meet, or in differences of opinion which, even at this advanced period of the spiritual life, may cause vocations to be lost. It then becomes evident that the presence of God is not sufficiently borne in mind, and that in the search for God it is the self which is really being sought. Hence the need of a third purgation; hence the need of that ' strong lye ' of the purgation of the spirit, in order to cleanse the very depth of the spiritual faculties.

Without this third conversion there is no entrance into the life of union, which is the adult age, the manhood of the spiritual life.

This new crisis is described by St. John of the Cross [152] in all its depth and acuteness, as it occurs in the great contemplatives who, in point of fact, usually suffer not only for the sake of their own purification, but for the souls for whom they have offered themselves. The same trial occurs also in proficients of the apostolic type, generous souls who have reached a high perfection, but it is generally less obvious in them since it is mingled with the sufferings incident to their apostolic labors.

In what does this crisis essentially consist? -- In the soul being deprived, not only of sensible consolations, but of its supernatural lights on the mysteries of salvation, of its ardent desires, of that facility in action, in preaching and in teaching, in which it had felt a secret pride and complacency, and by reason of which it had been inclined to set itself above others. This is a period of extreme aridity not only as regards the senses, but as regards the spirit, in prayer and the recitation of the office. Temptations frequently occur during this stage, not precisely against chastity or patience now, but against the virtues that reside in the higher part of the soul, against faith, hope and charity towards one's neighbor, and even against charity towards God, whom the soul is tempted to regard as cruel for trying souls in such a crucible of torment. Generally during this period great difficulties occur in connection with the apostolate: detraction, failures, checks. It will often happen that the apostle is made to suffer calumnies and ingratitude, even from those souls to whom he has done much good, so that he may thus be brought to love them more exclusively in God and for God's sake. Hence this crisis, or passive purgation of the spirit, is like a mystical death; it is the death of the old man, according to the words of St. Paul: ' Our old mall is crucified with Jesus Christ, that the body of sin may be destroyed. ' [153] It is necessary to ' put off... the old man who is corrupted according to the desire of error, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, putting on the new man who according to God is created in justice and holiness of truth. ' [154]

All this is profoundly logical; it is the logical development of the supernatural life. 'Sometimes,' says St. John of the Cross, 'in the stress of this purgation the soul feels itself wounded and hurt by strong love. It is a heat that is engendered in the spirit, when the soul, overcome with sufferings, is grievously wounded by the divine love.' The love of God is as a fire that progressively dries up the wood, penetrates it, sets it alight and transforms it into itself. The trials of this period are permitted by God in order to lead proficients to a more lofty faith, to a firmer hope, and to a purer love; for it is absolutely necessary that the depth of their soul should belong completely to God. This is the meaning of the words of Scripture: 'As gold in the furnace he hath proved them, and as a victim of a holocaust he hath received them.' [155] 'The just cried and the Lord heard them; and delivered them out of all their troubles. The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a contrite heart.... Many are the afflictions of the just; but out of them all will the Lord deliver them.' [156]

This crisis, like the preceding, is not without its dangers; it calls for great courage and vigilance, for a faith sometimes reaching to heroism, a hope against all hope, transforming itself into perfect abandonment. For the third time God tills the ground of the soul, but this time much more deeply, so deeply indeed that the soul seems overwhelmed by these afflictions of the spirit, afflictions similar to those often described by the prophets, in particular by Jeremias in the third chapter of the Lamentations.

He who passes through this crisis, loves God, not only with all his heart and all his soul, but according to the scale of the Scriptural phrase, with all his strength; and he now prepares to love Him ' with all his mind, ' to become an ' adorer in spirit and in truth, ' that higher part of the soul which should control the whole of our activity being now in some sort established in God.

The Perfect.
What is the spiritual state of the perfect after this purgation, which has been like a third conversion for them? They know God with a knowledge which is quasi-experimental and almost continuous; not merely during times of prayer or the divine office, but in the midst of external occupations, they have a constant sense of the presence of God. Whereas at the beginning man had been selfish, thinking constantly of himself and, unconsciously, directing all things to himself, the perfect soul thinks constantly of God, of His glory, of the salvation of souls and, as though instinctively, causes all things to converge upon that end. The reason of this is that he no longer contemplates God merely in the mirror of the things of sense, no longer merely in parables or even in the mirror of the mysteries of the life of Christ, for this cannot continue throughout the whole day, but he contemplates the divine goodness in itself, very much in the way in which we constantly see light diffused about us and illuminating all things from on high. In the terminology of Dionysius, employed also by St. Thomas, it is a movement of contemplation, no longer straight nor spiral, but circular, like the flight of the eagle which, after rising to a great height, circles round and round, and hovers to view the horizon.

This simple contemplation removes those imperfections that arise from natural eagerness, from unconscious self-seeking and from the lack of habitual recollection.

The perfect know themselves no longer merely in themselves, but in God, their source and their end, they examine themselves, pondering what is written of their existence in the book of life, and they never cease to see the infinite distance that separates them from their Creator. Hence their humility. This quasi-experimental contemplation of God proceeds from the gift of wisdom, and, by reason of its simplicity, it can be almost continuous; it can persist in the midst of intellectual work, conversation, external occupations, such continuity being impossible in the case of a knowledge of God which uses the mirror of parables or that of the mysteries of Christ.

Finally, whereas the egoist, thinking always of himself, wrongly loves himself in all things, the perfect, thinking nearly always of God, loves Him constantly, and loves Him, not merely by avoiding sin and by imitating the virtues of our Lord, but ' by adhering to Him, enjoying Him, desiring, as St. Paul said, to be dissolved and to be with Christ. ' [158] It is the pure love of God and the love of souls in God; it is apostolic zeal, zealous beyond measure; but humble, patient and gentle. This is to love God, no longer merely ' with the whole heart, with the whole soul, with the whole strength, ' but continuing up the scale, ' with the whole mind. ' For he that is perfect is no longer merely rising gradually to this highest region in himself; he is established there; he is spiritualized and super-naturalized; he has now become truly ' an adorer in spirit and in truth. ' These souls preserve peace almost constantly amidst even the most distressful and unforeseen circumstances, and they communicate it to others who are troubled. This is why St. Augustine says that the beatitude of the peacemakers corresponds to the gift of wisdom, which, together with charity, holds dominion over these souls. The great model of such souls, after the holy soul of Christ, is the Blessed Virgin Mary.

All this, so it seems to us, shows the legitimacy of the traditional division of the three periods of the spiritual life, as understood by a St. Thomas, a St. Catherine of Siena, a Tauler, and a St. John of the Cross. The transition from one stage to another is explained by the need of a purgation which in actual fact is more or less manifest. These are not schemes artificially constructed and placed mechanically side by side; it is the description of a vital development in which each stage has its own raison d'etre. If there is sometimes a misunderstanding of the division, it is because sufficient account is not taken of the defects even of generous beginners or of proficients; it is because the necessity of a second and even a third conversion is forgotten; it is because it is sometimes overlooked that each of the purgations necessary may be more or less satisfactorily undergone, and may thus introduce more or less perfectly into the illuminative or the unitive way. [159]

Unless due attention is paid to the necessity of these purifications it is impossible to form a just idea of what the spiritual condition of proficients and perfect must be. It is of the necessity of a new conversion that St. Paul was speaking when he wrote to the Colossians: [160] 'Lie not one to another; stripping yourselves of the old man with his deeds, and putting on the new, who is renewed unto knowledge according to the image of him who created him.... But above all these things have charity, which is the bond of perfection.'

The below charts are optional. Tackle them if you would like.
*I'd suggest reading Fr. Jordan Aumann, O.P.'s article on St. Teresa's Teaching on the Grades of Prayer
(This linked reading will help you understand the terms on the charts below.)

The Stages of the Spiritual Life (left to right)
This chart starts at the top and left and works to the right and down. Click on the links for more information.

Fr. Garrigou LaGrange
The Three
of the Interior Life
Purgative Way (Beginners)
Illuminative Way (Proficients)

Unitive Way (The Perfect)

St. Teresa of Avila
1st "Water" (Well)
Meditation (L. XI-XIII)
2nd "Water" (Water-wheel)
Prayer of Quiet (L. XIV-XV)
3rd "Water" (Stream)
Prayer of Union, (L. XVI-XVII)
4th "Water" (Rain)
Rapture, Ecstasy, (L. XVIII-XXI)
7 Mansions
(Interior Castle)
States of
Vocal Prayer: "Vocal Prayer, with attention to what one is saying or reading and God, whom one is addressing"*
Passive Recollection:
"Infused Recollection: the first degree of infused, mystical contemplation."*
"Prayer of Simple Union: both the intellect and the will are absorbed in God."*
Mental Prayer: "Affective Mental Prayer: one turns to 'other,' namely, God, and prayer becomes 'the language of love.' "*
Meditation: "Discursive Meditation: consideration of a spiritual truth; application to oneself, and resolve to do something about it."*
Contemplative Aridity,
Prayer of Quiet:
"Prayer of Quiet: the will is totally captivated by divine love; sometimes all the faculties are likewise captivated (sleep or ecstasy)"*
"Prayer of Ecstatic Union: this is the 'mystical espousal' or 'conforming union.' "*
Simplified Mental Prayer & Active Recollection: "Acquired Recollection: also called prayer of simplicity, prayer of simple regard, acquired contemplation, the loving awareness of God."*
Beginning of
Infused Contemplation
Infused contemplation is a pure unmerited gift, not something we do or achieve: "a divinely originated, general, nonconceptual, loving awareness of God" (Fr. Thomas Dubay)
"Prayer of Transforming Union: also called the 'mystical marriage' because it is the most intimate union of the soul with God that is possible in this life.' "*

State of Friendship
(In the State of Grace)
Spiritual Enamourment,
Personal Experiential Meeting
(Interior Life)
Spiritual Courtship
(Transformation Begins)
Active Life of Friendship
(Spiritual Life)

Spiritual Betrothal
(Transformation Continues)
Mature Friendship
(Well Regulated Spiritual Life)

Spiritual Marriage
(Transforming Union)
"Perfect Love. Total transformation in the Beloved",
"Even though neither change their being, both appear to be God." St. John of the Cross
2 Cor: 18:13, "All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit."
St. John of the Cross
4 Dark Nights
(Dark Night)
Active Night of Sense
Dark Night of the Senses
Passive Night of Sense
Dark Night of the Spirit
Passive Night of Spirit
Total Purification

Prayer and Asceticism
Awakening Quest
Spiritual Betrothal
(Finding) SS. XIII-XXI
Holy Anguish
Seeking SS. VI - XIII
Transforming Union
(Consumation) SS. XXII-XXXV

State of Delectable
(L. XVI)
4 Stanzas on Degrees of Transforming Union

Here is another respresentation of the same chart as above but going from bottom to top.

The Stages of the Spiritual Life (bottom to top)
The chart starts at the bottom with the highest stages at the top. Click on the links for more information.

St. Teresa of Avila

St. John of the Cross
3 Ages of the
Interior Life
7 Mansions
(Interior Castle)
States of
4 Dark Nights
(Dark Night)
(The Perfect)

Third Conversion of 3 Ways of the Spiritual Life (by Fr. Garrigou LaGrange)

More information on the 3 Ways can be found on this web page on the chart below these two.

4 Stanzas on Degrees of Transforming

Prayer of
Perfect Union:
"Prayer of Transforming Union:
also called the 'mystical marriage' because it is the most intimate union of the soul with God that is possible in this life.' "*
"Perfect Love. Total transformation in the Beloved",
"Even though neither change their being, both appear to be God." St. John of the Cross

2 Cor: 18:13, "All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit."


4th "Water"


"Prayer of Ecstatic Union": This is the 'mystical espousal' or 'conforming union.' "*

of Spirit





SS. I - V

3rd "Water"

Prayer of Union
"Prayer of Simple Union: both the intellect and the will are absorbed in God."*

Transition: Dark Night of the Spirit begins

Second Conversion of 3 Ways of the Spiritual Life (by Fr. Garrigou LaGrange)

2nd "Water"

Prayer of Quiet

Beginning of
Infused Contemplation
Infused contemplation is a pure unmerited gift, not something we do or achieve: "a divinely originated, general, nonconceptual, loving awareness of God" (Fr. Thomas Dubay)
Prayer of Quiet:
"Prayer of Quiet: the will is totally captivated by divine love; sometimes all the faculties are likewise captivated (sleep or ecstasy)"*
Passive Recollection:
"Infused Recollection:
the first degree of infused, mystical contemplation."*
(Interior Life)

State of Delectable
(L. XVI)
Transition: Dark Night of the Senses
Night of

First Conversion of 3 Ways of the Spiritual Life (by Fr. Garrigou LaGrange)

1st "Water"



Prayer &
"Acquired Recollection
also called prayer of simplicity, prayer of simple regard, acquired contemplation, the loving awareness of God."*
(Well Regulated
Spiritual Life)

"Affective Mental Prayer:
one turns to 'other,' namely, God, and prayer becomes
'the language of love.' "*
"Discursive Meditation:
consideration of a spiritual truth; application to oneself, and resolve to do something
about it."*
Active Life of
(Spiritual Life)

"Vocal Prayer
, with attention to what one is saying or reading and God, whom one is addressing"*
State of
(In the
State of Grace)

Some thoughts on the Dark Night by Fr. Gabriel, OCD: “Through persecutions, humiliations and failures, an apostle learns not to trust in his own powers, but to be convinced of his own sufficiency and of the insufficiency of all human resources, and therefore to put all his hope in God alone. He learns to work solely for the love of God, without seeking the comfort of success, to free himself from the opinions of men, and to act independently of their approval or disapproval, attending only to God’s judgment. The tribulation he encounters in his apostolic activities constitute his dark night, comparable to that of the contemplatives; a painful night, but most precious, because it is intended to purify him from all traces of self-love, from vanity, from attachment to creatures and from their esteem. If this night is accepted with good will, it will lead him to an ever greater purity and therefore to a deeper communion with God and to a more fruitful apostolate. He must, then, remain firm in his hope, both in personal sanctification. “Therefore, my beloved brethren” St. Paul exhorts “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor 15:58) – From “Divine Intimacy”

© Copyright 2007-2010

Summary: Becoming familiar with the stages of the spiritual life can help us to understand more of what we might be going through in our own spiritual life and what we can do to progress. We can get help and advice for various stages by studying the writings of the Saints such as St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, St. Francis de Sales, and others. St. Teresa of Avila said that sometimes God grants favors to those who most need it, possibly more than to those who don't need as much help. Humility is a very important virtue for growth in the spiritual life. God lifts up the humble but resists the proud. So we should always remain humble in the sight of God and in relationship to others, and not judge or even compare ourselves to others. At the same time we can thank God for all His helps and blessings to us. And when God does give us His gifts, besides thanking Him for His blessings, we can call to mind the verse from Scripture: "...Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more." (Luke 12:48)

"What more do you want, o soul! And what else do you search for outside, when within yourself you possess your riches, delights, satisfaction and kingdom -- your beloved whom you desire and seek? Desire him there, adore him there. Do not go in pursuit of him outside yourself. You will only become distracted and you won't find him, or enjoy him more than by seeking him within you."
Saint John of the Cross

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