On the Purgative, Illuminative and Unitive Stages of Spiritual Life, as seen in a Cartoon

110813In the spiritual journey, there are generally denoted three basic stages through which the soul must pass that draws us to deeper union with God: the Purgative, the Illuminative and the Unitive.

And those who seek union with God must realize that such union, while always the gift of God, requires process, often painful, that must pave the way the way for that union. For, if a box is filled with sand, it cannot be filled with gold dust. The sand must be emptied, the vessel cleaned, and then there is the room for the Gold of God’s presence.

The touching Aniboom cartoon below illustrates these stages. Briefly stated the stages described are these.

1. The Purgative Stage – In this stage the soul our desires and affections must be purged of attractions to sin. The disorder caused by sin must be set right by the Lord, for a disordered soul cannot perceive or appreciate well the glory and beauty of God. The distractions of the world must be diminished and wrongful passions, attachments, and evil inclinations must be subjugated so that we can more easily overcome temptations, and preserve and exercise charity. There is a focus, in this stage of uprooting the remnants and habits of former sins, perhaps through mortifications, the practice of austerity and simplicity, and the submitting of our will to be in conformity to the will of God. We seek to diminish and purge the attraction of wrongful or excessive pleasures. We also seek to diminish our natural shrinking from pain and to develop a repugnance to whatever is contrary to the will of God. The main virtue of this state to be cultivated is humility, which help us be aware of our own weakness and or our dependance on the grace of God.

In the video a young son seeks to be close to his father and enjoy his presence. The father is delighted at his enthusiastic love but must gently show the son that other necessary duties have not been attended to yet. The room of his life is not in good order, and must be rendered as such before he can come and sit close to his father. He shows his son what must be done. And the son to his credit runs to put things in order. The purgative way is not underway.

2. The Illuminative way – Those in this stage have made progress and have their passions better under control, so that they easily keep themselves from mortal sin, but still do not easily avoid venial sins since they still take pleasure in earthly things and are distracted by various imaginations and desires, not all of which are necessary unlawful but may get in the way of deeper union with God. The mind becomes more and more enlightened (illumined) to spiritual things and the practice of virtue. Love is stronger and the soul seeks progress in the spiritual life and in all the virtues. But purgation is still somewhat incomplete, and the purification of the senses is not yet finished. There are also aridities, difficulties, and trials, sometimes more severe than in the past and the need to endure suffering from temptations.

In the video, the young boy makes progress, but he still has not fully understood or implemented what must take place before the deepest union is possible. Twice his father must correct him and help him to see, to be illumined as to what is needed. But in stages the young boy is understanding and conforming.

3. The Unitive Way – This the way of those who have their minds detached from temporal things such that they enjoy great peace, and are not agitated by various desires nor moved to any great extent by sinful passion. Having been largely purged of these things, they have their minds fixed chiefly on God. It is called “unitive” since at this stage, there is a union with God by love and the actual experience and exercise of that love.

And thus, in the video, the young boy having been led through stages by his father is now able to enjoy close union with him. His life is now in good order. There is a beautiful detail at the end of how his original desire to play a video game with his father is now deepened and he is content merely rest in union with his Father, for his own sake and not for some pleasure outside his Father’s embrace.

The video is not perfect. It shows a father who points to what must be done but does not otherwise assist his son. Obviously in terms of grace, we cannot make any progress through these stages with out God’s absolute assistance. Nevertheless it is a lovely video that rather nicely illustrates the stages of our growth toward intimacy with God.


24 Replies to “On the Purgative, Illuminative and Unitive Stages of Spiritual Life, as seen in a Cartoon”

  1. I have just finished a most spiritual retreat, and am beginning to read this beautiful book. How happy I was, Msgr. Pope, to read your commentary. I am still in purgative of sense and know I will be there a while. I await the anticipated bliss of union, as I believe it will come. I am new to your blog, and have received much insight from it. May the Lord keep you and bless you.

      1. John of the Cross does not use dark night of the soul except once and
        that may be a scribal error. For John it is simply noche oscura/dark night.


  2. This is great!! I’m reading “Fire Within” by Fr. Dubay…. I guess I don’t have to read it now… 😉

  3. In the very depths of my being, how I long to be in my FATHER’s Bosom. But not yet. I still have to square off my life and purge the iniquities of my heart and totally set aside my earthly concerns so that at last My FATHER become my all in all. It is like my grandson crying and when I embrace and let him lie down on my breast and hear my heartbeat he settles down and begins his deep slumber, at peace and comforted. Oh, LORD, YOU are and I am satisfied. Thank you, Monsignor. You bring us into deeper understanding of our GOD even in the illustrations of the cartoons. You have the heart of the little ones and mind of the mystics of the Church. GOD be praised in you. YHWH SHEKINAH

  4. Here is proof I am not near union yet: Feeling slightly agitated with thinking God is represented by a video-playing father caused me to ever-so sllightly judge this analogy. I struggled to see this partly because I have a nephew-in-law who does this with his little ones, and they believe it is so cool that their 14-month-old girl wants to play – she sits mesmerized with the controller in hand, pacifier in mouth, staring at the video screen. He takes them to the screen obsessed and they play for hours. And so, I realize as I judge this that I am far from my Father, still. I am forever thankful for you, Mgsr. Pope, and your ability to find God and HIs message in the everyday culture in which we live. It helps me. So much.

  5. Rev. Msgr. Pope,

    I want to let you know how much this blog has helped me. I look forward to your exposition of the Sunday readings. I have appreciated the way you break down those readings line by line. This has greatly helped me understand what the Gospel and Jesus is trying to say to me. Thank you for all the ” instructive” material such as this post on the three phases of the spiritual life. I was especially touched by your previous post on the presence of Jesus in your life. Thank you for sharing that aspect of your spiritual life and through it leading me along the path to Jesus. For me, you are that voice in the wilderness. Thank you so much these posts. You are at the top of my “blog” list and I eagerly await your post each day. Thank you and God bless you and allow you to continue this ministry.

  6. I am in the middle of taping a series on the Three Ways of the Spiritual Life, based on the book by Rev. Garrigou LaGrange, who was John Paul II’s doctoral dissertation director when he was a theology student at the Angelicum in 1947. The programs are called Three Ways and when finished there will be approximately 8 or 9 of them (28 minutes each). the link is http://thecatholicradionetwork.com/Communio.html . The program “Communio” was started in response to the Year of Faith. I also have a link to a summary of the Three Ways that others might find helpful, here http://scripturerosary.com/3_Ways_of_Spiritual_Life.html . When I saw the title of your blog I couldn’t pass this reply up. I’ve been working on this series for 30 years. I enjoy your postings and the video’s you link to.

  7. This is just what Dan Burke of the National Catholic Register wrote about in his book Navigating the Interior Life http://navigatingtheinteriorlife.com/ It is detailed about it and really good. And, of course, Fr. Thomas Dubay’s Fire Within (and all of his books) would be good to read about this topic too. Thanks so much for all your wonderful posts. They are always meaningful, helpful and in depth!

  8. Thank you for your inspiring columns.

    I request that you write on the following topic:

    Motion pictures and TV programs today frequently contain scenes of violence and graphic sex. Some productions are simply attempting to present reality. Other productions are attempting to titillate viewers to fatten their profits. Then there are productions that are highly interesting and worthwhile in many respects but contain obviously prurient footage.

    Please present your opinion on whether adult Catholics should at any time tune out a program. My opinion is that viewers should use their own judgment.

    Thank you.

    MJ Cummings

  9. Nice video…it puts in a perspective what children really want from their parents… Love and attention…

  10. I really hate to be the wet blanket on this discussion, but I don’t like this video as an analogy to the Spiritual Life at all. The notion that our lives have to be tidied up before we can experience intimacy with him is entirely backwards, from my experience! It is in believing that he loves me and cares for me that I am attracted to his presence, and he changes me! It is in drawing near to his goodness that I grow in the desire to be good, and to order my life according to his will! God doesn’t send me off to get my act together before I can enjoy his company. (I’m talking about beginners here…in the purgative way.) St John of the Cross tells us that we are unable, on our own, to empty ourselves of our appetites and disordered affections. (Ascent of Mt Carmel, book 1, chapter 1, par. 5). After a grueling description of what it’s like to try to do it on our own, St John of the Cross tells us that the disordered appetites can only be vanquished by “the enkindling of a better, stronger love.” (cf. Ascent of Mt Carmel book 1 Chapter 14). In Dark Night of the Soul, St John tells us that the Lord gives us all kinds of little consolations during the purgative way, to encourage us and help us. Later, he’ll ask us to try going without the consolation, but in the beginning of his work with us, he gives us a lot of support. (See Dark Night Book 1, Chapter 1, Par.2).

    The father depicted here is absorbed in a video game. While there is some affection expressed, I get the impression that the messy room is a convenient excuse to buy some time for himself. That just isn’t the Father of Jesus that I know.

  11. Thank you so much For this blog post i Found it by chance some time ago in illuminative (painful stuff on that stage) and I remembered it today, after all that you described I fell into a deep slumber while praying the rosary and when I awoke I had finally been detached from something I needed to be detached from… I didn’t realize that this detachment is a gift that God can give, I always thought I had to do it! But today at last, I am finally in unity, Blessed be God so much, may he Bless you so much too…. Aaahhhhh how good is God!!!! He’s soooo good! Finally!!!!!!! I can’t explain it but at last I’m detached, didn’t know he could do it for me, thank you God thank you. God thank you!!!! Thank you God!!!!!

  12. The rosary was the EWTN rosary, highly recommend it! 9:30pm and also 11:30 am

  13. What a lovely tangible image of a difficult subject of understanding.
    Well done. Watch it several times, especially after reading the words describing each stage.

  14. This is a wonderful way to explain the three stages, and the use of the video clarifies the stages…
    Question: Are we suppose to know at what stage our life is? In other words, can we ourselves determine which stage or journey we are now on?
    Thank you so much,
    God Bless,

  15. GREAT video, directed to me by Dr Susan Timoney, my Spiritual Direction professor at St Joseph, who gets it from Msgr. Pope. Loved it. I take the falling asleep to mean the final falling asleep in the Lord – in his bosom. Lovely. Anyone have any thoughts on Fulfillment of All Desire by Ralph Martin?

Comments are closed.