A few years back, one of my friends took me to visit a man named Irving Houle who lived in Escanaba, Michigan. Irving was a retired corporate executive and, by all appearances, a typical American husband, dad and grandfather. But Irving was also a very holy person who had the wounds of Jesus in his body (the stigmata). Every night, Irving experienced the Passion and Crucifixion of Christ. It would start at 9 p.m. with a headache. He would go lay down, and the Scourging at the Pillar would begin. Around midnight, he would experience the Crucifixion and then go into ecstasy, where he experienced intense spiritual joy. God worked incredible miracles through this man. And all of this is amazing. But how did Irving get to this point in his life? What kind of “fire of love” was burning in his heart? Because our love for God really is like a fire.
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful! Enkindle in them the fire of Your love Send forth your Spirit and we shall be recreated and You shall renew the face of the earth. (Traditional Prayer to the Holy Spirit)
The French theologian Fr. Reginal Garrigou-Lagrange also wondered how some people attain such closeness with God. By analyzing the spiritual writings of theologians and saints (St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Catherine of Siena and other holy men and women), he detected a pattern in how God draws hearts close to Himself. Garrigou-Lagrange saw how the Lord slowly draws a person inward and away from eternally-focused spirituality, so as to find and love God present in the depths of their own heart. In his book The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Garrigou-Lagrange describes three phases in this journey toward union with God: 1) the Purgative Phase; 2) the Illuminative Phase and 3) the Unitive Phase. Anyone who is serious about their relationship with Jesus must move through these phases, so they are important to understand.
The Purgative Phase. Everyone starts out in the Purgative Phase, when we are being “purged” of our sins. St. John of the Cross calls this phase “the way of beginners.” It starts when we decide to seek God with all our being. It is here that the fire of love truly begins to burn in our heart. This phase is characterized by a lot of activity on our part. We begin to pray in earnest and maybe fast. We reject sin in our life and begin to follow the Ten Commandments. We take our relationship with the Lord Jesus seriously and do everything we can to move forward in the spiritual life. In this “honeymoon” phase, God typically gives us “spiritual consolations” (“spiritual candy”) and we experience a spiritual joy in things pertaining to God. In the Purgative Phase, we are primarily focused on experiencing God through external means: – sights, smells, sounds, tastes and touches. Meanwhile, God is at work in our heart at a much deeper level.
The Illuminative Phase. In the second phase, we are “illuminated” or enlightened by God. This phase is much more cooperative than the first. Whereas we were busy with activity in the Purgative phase, we are now a copilot with God, working with Him to move forward in the spiritual life. We may be more passive in this phase, allowing the Holy Spirit to work through us. We “let go and let God.” During this stage, we are especially growing in our love for God. When God and His love enter our hearts, He gives us three special “abilities” that allow our relationship with Him to deepen. These abilities are the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. They influence and elevate our other good habits, known as the human virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. People in this phase have a strong prayer life, the power of which grows as the fire of love grows in their hearts. This phase takes a long time and only a few people, such as Irving, move beyond it. Most Christians who engage in fruitful ministry in the Church are in the Illuminative Phase. They are cooperating with God in doing His work in the world.
The Unitive Phase. In the final stage, which Irving achieved, we are united completely with God. Here, God is doing all of the work (although He does need our consent for this intense union). The fire of love in our hearts is very great indeed and our whole life becomes a prayer. We might experience ecstasy as well as other mystical phenomena or miracles. But the greatest miracle is what is occurring in our heart. While very few make it this far, we are all called to such love: “All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love” (Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, “The Call to Holiness,” n. 39).
The transition from the Purgative to the Illuminative Phase. Understanding the three phases is key to discerning what God is doing in your heart. If you have decided to really live for God, you have entered into “The Three Ages.” Welcome! The biggest obstacle for most people is transitioning from the Purgative Phase to the Illuminative Phase. During the Purgative Phase, God has been drawing you closer to Himself via external things your mind can perceive. You experience lots of warm-fuzzy feelings. But when it’s time to transition to the Illuminative Phase, God begins to remove this spiritual candy. This shift helps us love Him (the Giver) instead of the gifts. In the meantime, God’s presence also shifts, from being felt externally to internally. At first, it can be hard to feel His presence after this shift. Most of us are so caught up in serving God in an external and active way that we are unprepared when He begins to transition us to a more passive (or receptive) internal spirituality.
With this change, we often experience a “spiritual dryness.” It can be hard to pray and we no longer feel close to God. As a result, we may think that God has abandoned us. In actuality, we have arrived at a point where God wants us to begin living by faith and not by feelings. He is removing the training wheels and inviting us to increase our love for Him and for our neighbor – This love is the essence of holiness. Jesus spoke about this process to a Dominican tertiary named St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) who collected His statements in The Dialogues. Jesus explained to Catherine why He begins to remove spiritual consolations:
“Do you know what proves the imperfection of this love? The withdrawal of the consolations that they found in Me, and the insufficiency and short duration of their love for their neighbor, which grows weak by degrees, and often disappears. Toward Me their love grows weak when, on occasion, in order to exercise them in virtue and raise them above their imperfection, I withdraw from their minds my consolation and allow them to fall into struggles and perplexities” (Ch. 60).
When the spiritual candy starts to disappear, we need to look within to find God in a deeper way. We need to trust that God is still there. He is only removing these favors so the fire of love in our hearts will burn more intensely. He does not love us less. It is because He loves us so much that He wants us to mature in the spiritual life. Many, many people turn away or become stalled in the spiritual life at this point. They may even attempt to somehow manufacture spiritual consolations on their own. But a few brave souls press forward and experience what is called “the second conversion.” They begin to live not by sight and the senses, but by faith and true love for God and others.
“I have come to cast fire upon the earth, and how I wish it were already ablaze” -Jesus (Lk. 12:49)
For further reading: Jordan Aumann, The Spiritual Life; Thomas Dubay, Fire Within, Seeking Spiritual Direction; St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle; St. Catherine of Sienna, The Dialogues; St. John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mt. Carmel, The Dark Night.