Spiritual Growth [Part 3]: It feels more like a Spiritual Standstill

In the last entry I discussed the different stages of prayer the Church Fathers and Mothers have observed in their own personal/cultural contexts.  All of these different models reflect a larger 3-stage understanding of growth in prayer. Those three stages consist of a purgative part, an illuminative part, and a unitive experience or goal. Origen was one of the first to introduce the church to a three-fold outline using the words “morals” “physics” and “contemplation.” Each of these three disciplines shares commonality with the classic “purgation, illumination, and union” terms.  Many more after him only confirmed and piled on to his early work.

In the twelfth and thirteenth century much was contributed to the three-fold model of spiritual growth. Bernard of Clairvaux, a great leader and recruiter for the Cistercian order in the twelfth century, became one of the most renowned writers of the Middle Ages. His flare for romantic and love language used in his mystical writings was revolutionary and attractive. Indirectly, Bernard mirrors the classic three-fold stages with his own “three-fold kiss of Christ.” “The kiss of the feet symbolizes the penitential preparation; the kiss of the hand is given to those making progress; and the kiss of the mouth is a rare experience given only to the perfect.”

A close successor to Bernard was Francis of Assisi of the thirteenth century. Most of what we know about Francis and his theology is processed through the writings of Bonaventure, his biographer. Because of the great influence Francis had on Bonaventure, in many ways they share a similar mysticism. For instance, while Bonaventure was reflecting on Francis’ vision of the six-winged Seraph, he himself received a similar vision. To him, this vision described the journey toward union with Christ. The three sets of two closely follow the purgation, illumination, and union themes.

“In the first two the mind turns outside itself to find God through his vestiges in the universe… in the next two the mind turns within itself to contemplate God both through his image imprinted on our natural powers of memory, understanding, and will… and in the last two the mind rises above itself to consider the divine Unity through its primary name, “being” and also the blessed Trinity through its name, “the good.”

Beyond this particular reflection, Bonaventure had much to offer on the developmental stages of spiritual growth. He wrote a much longer account solely on this topic called De triplici via (The Triple Way), and many other that are loosely related to this topic called Itinerarium mentis ad Deum (The Soul’s Journey into God), The Six Wings of the Seraph, and The Fire of Love.

Of all the writers on the classic three stages, St. John of the Cross of the sixteenth century might be the most precise. His vast education and tutelage under St. Teresa of Avila made him a well sought after spiritual director of many. Being responsible for so many people’s growth in Christ made him keenly aware of all the intricacies of each developmental stage. Discerning one’s own growth is a very difficult task, one that requires a Spiritual Director to offer truthful assessment in love. John notes two pitfalls, “people doing something intensely and not even knowing that they are doing it” and those “who are scarcely beginning and yet think they are far advanced.” Personal discernment is often confused by the passive nature of growth between the three stages. In his famous work, Dark Night of the Soul, and it’s counterpart, Ascent of Mount Carmel, he wrote extensively about the active as well as the passive nature of progress between the stages including two dark nights separating purgation from illumination, and illumination from union.

Have you ever felt lost in prayer, of wonder why you’re not “further along than you should be?” If you’re looking for someone to talk to about your experiences: Learn More About Personal Spiritual Direction here.

*a full list of reference text is available upon request

Posted in Church History, Prayer, Spiritual Formation.