What Are Passive Purifications and Why Are They Needed?

Have you undertaken certain Lenten practices or abstinences to assist you growth in holiness? If so, you do well. Practices such as these are included in what are known as “active purifications.” Active purifications consist of our holy works and efforts and our mortifications, which, by the grace of God, help to purify our mind, our heart, and what is called our “sensitive appetite.”

However, there are also “passive purifications,” which are quite essential for our growth in holiness and our readiness to see God one day. These purifications are called passive because they are worked in us by God. They are necessary to attain to the promises of God because mere human effort, through the practice of the virtues, is not enough to attain to the lofty and wonderful perfection God has promised us.

Jesus speaks to this need and this process and says,

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful (John 15:1-2).

St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Commentary on the Gospel of John, says,

In the life of nature it happens that a palm tree, having many sprouts bears less fruit because of the diffusion of the sap to all the branches. Thus  in order that it may bear more fruit,  cultivators trim away its superfluous shoots. So it is in man … [if] his affections incline to [too] many things, his virtue decreases and he becomes more ineffective in doing good. And so, in order that the just who bear fruit may bear still more, God frequently cuts away in them whatever is still superfluous. He purifies them by sending tribulations and permitting temptations in the midst of which they show themselves more generous and stronger. No one is so pure in this life that he no longer needs to be more and more purified (St. Thomas In Joannem 15:1).

And thus, St. Thomas notes the need for and the means of passive purification.

The fact is, even undertaking many active purifications (e.g., fasting, prayer, and almsgiving) will not be enough to effect the changes required to attain the perfection and deep contemplative union to which we are summoned. We are often unable to completely and accurately see what purgings are required for us. Neither are we well equipped to know the specific temporal order and severity required to bring about the needed purity. Just as it is difficult, if not impossible, for a person to perform surgery on himself, so too are we often incapable of undertaking the work of passive purification. Only God knows when, how, and to what degree this work must take place.

Here are some excerpts from Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange that further explain passive purifications and why they are needed:

There is in our lives a light and shade that is at times striking … Even in the baptized, concupiscence and many tendencies to sensuality, to vanity, and to pride remain. A profound purification is necessary; not only that which we must impose on ourselves, and which is called mortification, but that which God imposes, when, according to Christ’s expression, He wishes to prune, to trim the branches of the vine that they may bring forth more fruit …

Not without suffering indeed, is complete victory obtained over egoism, sensuality, laziness, impatience, jealousy, envy, injustice in judgment, self-love, foolish pretensions, and also self-seeking in piety, the immoderate desire of consolations, intellectual and spiritual pride, and all that is opposed to the spirit of faith …

To show that the act of purification which we impose ourselves does not suffice, St. John of the Cross writes, “For after all the efforts of the soul, it cannot, by any exertion of its own, actively purify itself so as to be in the slightest degree fit for the divine union of perfection in the love of God, if God himself does not take it into his own hands and purify it in the fire, dark to the soul …” (Dark Night I.3) 

First of all, the soul is weaned from sensible consolations … Whence the necessity of the passive purification of the senses which places the soul in sensible aridity and leads it to a spiritual life that is much more freed from the senses and the imagination … despite a painful obscurity, this initiates the soul profoundly into the things of God … 

In the night of the senses there is a striking light and shade. The sensible appetites are cast into obscurity and dryness by the disappearance of sensible graces on which the soul dwelt with an egotistical complacency. But in the midst of this obscurity, the higher faculties begin to be illumined by the light of life which goes beyond reasoned meditation and leads to a loving and prolonged gaze upon God during prayer…. 

But even after this purification … the soul to the faithful must be purified from every human attachment to their judgment, to their excessively personal manner of seeing, willing, acting, and from every human attachment to the good works to which they devote themselves …

It is commonly said that the roots of knowledge are bitter, and its fruits are sweet. And this can be said of the roots and fruits of infused contemplation, [but] it would be a great error to confound [i.e confuse] this contemplation with consolations which do not always accompany it [The Three Ages of the Interior Life Vol. 1, 189-194].

In other words, many passive purifications are needed for us! When trials and difficulties beset us, it is so easy for us to become resentful or discouraged. We often ask, “Why does God permit this?” And the answer may well be that we very much need it! Truth be told, we need a lot of purifications in order to grow and, ultimately, to be ready for Heaven. We are “hard cases” and deep surgery is necessary, repeated surgery too.

Perhaps the best we can say is, “Be as gentle as possible, Lord, but do what you need to do.”

Here’s an old hymn on the troubles of the African-American experience. One of the verses says,

We are often tossed and driven
On the restless sea of time,
Somber skies and howling tempests
Oft succeed a bright sunshine
In the land of perfect day
When the mists have rolled away
We will understand it better
By and By

9 Replies to “What Are Passive Purifications and Why Are They Needed?”

  1. It would seem according to St Thomas, St John of the Cross, and Garrigou-Lagrange that the natural state of man is a profound spiritual ADHD—primarily inattentive type.

    1. Interesting, though I am not quite sure I understand the connection. Perhaps you could elaborate. Also, I see a lot of avoidance in our hearts, perhaps you mean that we indulge the distractions of the world to seek to avoid the purifications necessary?

      1. My sense, of what I’ve read of St. Thomas Aquinas, agrees with a catholic psychologist, in that, in this life, our thoughts fly hither and thither, although I couldn’t find the passage that said that. Here is something he says about attentiveness in prayer: “It must be observed, however, that there are three kinds of attention that can be brought to vocal prayer: one which attends to the words, lest we say them wrong, another which attends to the sense of the words, and a third, which attends to the end of prayer, namely, God, and to the thing we are praying for. That last kind of attention is most necessary, and even idiots are capable of it.” Of course, a catholic psychologist can speak for himself.

        1. I would say the natural state of the mind and body is ADHD on a sliding scale and the natural state of the soul is cessation of wanderings from the nature of it’s Spirit. The mind is a terrible master but with God’s help it can become a good servant. Life has a purpose, God has the plan. You have to use your mind to read the map and our body is the ride God gave us to find our way home. Who’s driving?

  2. Thank you Monsignor, I was struggling with this chapter in a book im reading and now it makes perfect sense. I see myself in what you said, “Not without suffering indeed, is complete…egoism, sensuality, laziness, impatience, etc”.

  3. Hello Msgr, I am posting down here in response to your query since the typeface above is too small for me to read reliably.

    In answer to your question, I had a couple of thoughts: the basic psychological ideas are that emotions and their associated desires influence thinking. In addition, thinking involves both the imagination and the intellect; and since the intellect is involved, so is the spiritual part of the human person. Hence, anything that can arouse the emotions too much or toward evil things gives rise to distortions or disruptions of spiritual awareness.

    When my bodily desire is aroused, especially when I am fasting or when I see a beautiful woman, or when i see something exciting, or when i have work on my mind, or when I am contemplating a criticism or humiliation, or feeling angry, it redirects my focus. This distractibility is very obvious to me when i am praying, as memories and images of past events flood into my thinking. Distractibility is in the essence of ADHD, and spiritual distractibility seems to be my lot in life. I suspect I am not alone. (incidentally, i think this is why for a millenium the church made a point of having beautiful liturgy within beautiful churches–it helped the imagination retain a spiritual and transcendent focus; the German stained glass of the 19th century brought this to its highest form .)

    However, intense or painful events or major losses (death in the family, major injury, loss of a faculty such as blindness, etc) can concentrate the mind, and can also press me to reassess my priorities. Things that once seemed important are not as important any longer. My desire to control things is pushed onto the back bench, a kind of resignation sets in, and if i can be free from the anger or depression that often attends loss or sorrow, a spiritual awakening becomes apparent. This process seems to be part of the psychology behind passive purification, so long as I don’t redouble the efforts to avoid the pain associated with the purgation. My inherent weakness and distractibility (spiritual ADHD) makes it impossible for me to purge distraction to the point where a real spiritual awareness takes hold. God must do it, I am too weak and spiritually disorganized.

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