I continue to undertake my due diligence as a member of an advisory committee on the establishment of a program for the training of potential laity spiritual directors for our parishes. We will be meeting tomorrow [Wednesday, January 18] and I have been beefing up in the library, in personal reflection, and in conversation with the group’s coordinator. I need to say that the coordinator has been extraordinarily kind to me in answering my initial concerns; I learned, for example, that my diocese receives many requests for spiritual direction. This is encouraging, to be sure. It would be interesting to know what petitioners mean by “spiritual direction” when they request it because the books I have consulted so far diverge rather widely on the meaning of the term over the course of history and there are a variety of schools of spirituality and direction today. Last spring in Spain Margaret and I were returning to Barcelona by bus from Montserrat when we found ourselves in Manresa, the town where St. Ignatius Loyola discovered himself and the spiritual roadmap which is famous today around the world. See Ignatian Spirituality website.
In my reading I have come to discover two useful triads around which to organize my thinking. The first outlines the longstanding three-tiered progression of spiritual development outlined by St. Thomas Aquinas [1225-1274], the actual personal progression into a deeper life of prayer and communion with God, which I think is safe to say the heart of spiritual direction, given how communion with God naturally impacts all other areas of human experience. St. Thomas’s triad of stages of prayer is the purgative/illuminative/unitive progression. Call this the subject matter of what we hope our trainees will impart to those in their care. The second is the triad of the qualities necessary for the spiritual director—learned, experienced, discerning. For today, I will focus on the first triad, and in two weeks I will address the second, on the directors themselves. However, it is important to note here that every source I have consulted agrees that spiritual directors must have a measure of experience on their own journey to assist others on the journey.
Again, our focus today involves the act of communicating with God in prayer, what we popularly refer to as personal contemplation or mental prayer, as distinct from collective liturgical prayer, group recitation of the rosary, etc. Classical church teaching from Aquinas forward has identified three stages to this kind of deep communion with God: the purgative, the illuminative, and the unitive steps. Very roughly described, the purgative stage involves a divestiture of serious sin and preoccupation with the things of the world. The second stage, the illuminative, opens the door to attachment to God’s agenda, so to speak, and awakens in the soul the joys and the pains of potential deeper communion with God. The final stage, the unitive, is a full union with God to the degree possible in this life. Depending upon whom you read, there are many variables—some theologians hold that the third stage is experienced by very few persons, relatively speaking. Franciscan spirituality has held that these three states can be experienced in any order or concurrently. All schools of thought are careful to emphasize that deeper communion in prayer is the work of God. Our work is the response, not the invention. We cannot muscle our way into God’s presence by purely human energies. A serious heresy of the early church was Pelagianism, which held that humans enjoyed enough power to initiate their road to salvation [essentially a denial of original sin.] See A Science and the Saints: Studies in Spiritual Direction , Chapter 2.
In the previous paragraph I did not intend to set meditational prayer at odds with the public prayer life of the Church. Vatican II’s description of the Eucharist, for example, as the source and summit of the Christian life certainly comes into play here in our discussion of meditational prayer. It is by the collective life of the Church that we acquire the inspiration to embrace a more focused and intensive prayer life through catechetics, preaching, and participation in the sacraments. It is hard to imagine a contemplative prayer life that is not in step with the Church liturgical calendar of seasons, i.e., Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Ordinary Time. Nor is it wise to engage in a more intensive prayer experience without the Church’s wisdom, as in the counsel of a wise elder [read: spiritual director] who can assist his or her charge from mistaking God’s inspiration from a deep-seated self-will.
The role of the Church in contemplative prayer is more significant when one considers both the power of prayer and the radical impact of contemplative prayer upon any of us. Consider the “purgative phase.” If one is sincere in engaging in a closer response to God’s being, then the level of intensity and honesty involved in the purgative phase will be life changing. The purifying process involves both the abandonment of “junk” in one’s life and a hardcore sorrow for sins past and present. To pray is to be humble. Recall Luke 18: The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
A prayerful person is a broken person, in the healthiest sense of the word. But the purgative process is no picnic, either, and regrettably it is not a one-and-done deal. To me one of the intriguing things about St. Francis of Assisi was his personal experience with God later in life. Marked as he was by the wounds of Christ, his common prayer in his final years was “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a worm and not a man.” The closer one grows to divine presence in prayer, the more one comes to understand the awesomeness of God’s love and one’s total dependence upon that love. In the process the sinfulness and general mediocrity of our lives comes into clearer focus. The closest experience I can compare it to is joining AA, as I did in 1990. With a new clear head, one looks back at years of drinking, with all its attendant shame, and the effect can be overwhelming. Therefore, back in the 1930’s great thought went into a 12-step process of support and healing penance to prevent relapse. The daily meetings, the Big Book, individual sponsors, moral inventories, confession or the famous fifth step [“admit to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs”], reconciliation, examinations of conscience, service to others, and prayer/meditation were carefully crafted into the program—and remain so today—to allow God to rebuild the soul fractured by substance abuse in honesty but without hopelessness.
The Gospels are united in their call for purgation/conversion, but they also reveal the joy and gratitude of those healed in body or spirit. One might say that this profound biblical experience of salvation is synonymous with the second or illuminative stage of contemplative prayer, the soul’s awakening to a deeper reality. Not to be irreverent, but I suppose another name for this second stage is the “We’re sure not in Kansas anymore, Toto” phase of prayer. When one has divested oneself of many of life’s distractions, there is a vacuum which is both frightening and consoling. In New Seeds of Contemplation [1961, 2007] Thomas Merton puts it this way: “Then, as peace settles on the soul and we accept what we are and what we are not, we begin to realize that this great poverty is our great fortune…We become like vessels that have been emptied of water that they may be filled with wine.” Specifically, one experiences the first inkling of what God is like, up close and personal. This illuminative stage is experientially different from our other more formal and familiar prayer experiences, though it springs from them.
The example of the monks can be very helpful here. The intense early morning hours of prayer in a monastery consist of an immersion into the Sacred Scripture and the holy writings of saints; this ritual is called “The Office of Readings,” and I have a link to the January 17, 2023, office here. The monks collectively hear inspired reading and place themselves totally at its service in undistracted humility. For some years I read the Office of Readings as my springboard to meditation, but more recently I have focused on the liturgical Mass texts and the writings of Thomas Merton. I must be honest and admit that my train jumps the tracks here habitually as I instinctively critique the Scripture, in the fashion of a theology student, rather than rest in its hearing/reading and let God do with me what God wills. Many times, the experience will seem like nothing, though that is not a bad thing; “wasting time with God” is an act of faith and is a more profitable deed than anything else I might do today. It is also true that God is “totally other,” and the void of silence is a reminder that God is the boss, not me. To believe in God’s presence when that presence is not felt is a powerful indicator of the virtue of faith.
On the other hand, illuminative prayer may take its shape and form from what we have just read in Scripture or another religious prompt, such as Eucharistic adoration or the mysteries of the rosary, both of which are synonymous with revealed Scripture. Whereas one might read the Scripture in the purgative stage of prayer to grasp the moral imperative of conversion, in the illuminative stage the Scripture sets the table for us to be passively enveloped in the Word that we might be impacted to our roots. An individual in the illuminative stage may experience dizzying swings between the new experience of the personal presence of God and the old temptations dying long, painful deaths.
The final stage, the unitive, is a full unity of God and the pray-er. Merton puts it this way: “For in the depths of contemplative prayer there seems to be no division between subject and object, and there is no reason to make any statement either about God or about oneself. He IS and this reality absorbs everything else.” [NSOC, p. 267] The term “unitive” is self-explanatory. However, there is considerable discussion about how many Christians attain this level of unity, or more correctly, how many times God extends this heavenly gift to those who seek his face.
One reason we may never know how many of our brethren enjoy this union with God is Merton’s contention that those who are so gifted do not talk about it. Calling attention to this communion of the divine, a rare gift of God, is bragging, a sign that, in St. Paul’s words, “the old man of sin” is still alive and well. In Learned, Experienced, and Discerning  Mark O’Keefe, OSB, cites the practice of St. Teresa of Avila to exercise great caution in this regard. Unfortunately, more than once her inmost contemplative experiences were indiscreetly shared by a spiritual director, causing her considerable pain and misunderstanding. [p. 65]
The Swiss theologian Hans Kung observed that Christianity is the only religion that calls its members to become like their God. Matthew 5:48 puts this well: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Understood properly, Matthew is not endorsing the folly of Adam and Eve who disobeyed in the garden that they might become equal to God. To become like God is to do what God did in Christ and continues to do in the mystery of grace: love totally, to the point of pouring out one’s very being upon a cross. Prayer is nothing less than communion with the One who makes our journey possible. So, for the moment I would say that for any of us who experience that gnawing unrest of an empty soul, the time is ripe to embrace the wisdom of the saints in search of the one pearl of great price, union with God, one step at a time.
Many Catholics are looking for the help to begin the process and stay the course. It is this population—and may it grow ever larger—who look for spiritual directors to walk them through places they have not visited before. Which raises the question of how do we recruit and prepare ministers to take us by the hand down this road to communion with God? This will be the focus of our next installment on this stream in two weeks.