Friday 20 September 2013

The Three Ways of the Spiritual Life

By Artur Suski, S.J.


The bedrock of Christian spirituality in both the East and the West throughout the ages has always been what mystical theology calls “the three ways”, and tremendous importance has been placed on their wisdom. That being said, as we enter the third millennium, there has been a marked loss of emphasis and an absence of teaching about these three ways, at least in the West. This negligence is accentuated by the fact that the statutes proposed by modernity are all too often in opposition to the three ways.

“The three ways” are really just one, three-part, journey of sanctification. The holy men and women of early Christianity noticed a pattern in their own sanctification process. It consisted of three distinct stages. As a result, the one way of sanctification was often referred to as the three ways. What are these three ways? The East and West differ on the exact wording of these three ways, but I believe the essence remains the same. 

The First Way: It is known as katharsis, or “purification” in English. The beginner in the spiritual life starts upon the narrow path through purification. This stage involves three elements: developing a solid foundation of prayer; doing penance for one’s sins; and taking on suitable mortifications such as practising self-denial or giving something up.

The understanding is that we as fallen human beings come to God with our own baggages. In this stage, we make an effort to put an end to the sinful tendencies that hinder us from drawing nearer to God. The way of purification is therefore a process of going before the Lord and honestly saying: “Lord, I am a sinner. I cannot do anything good without you. Only you can heal me. I ask you to heal me. I repent for my sins.” 

Here the sinner realizes – perhaps for the first time – that he is utterly dependent on God for everything, most especially for progressing in the spiritual life. Only God can free him from his sins. We do penance because it helps us face the consequences of our sinful actions and, if possible, make reparation for them. We do mortification because it helps us master our will that we may have the strength to choose good rather than evil. Though we are cooperating with the grace of God in this stage, it largely depends on how much effort we put into this process of purification. As we progress through the next two stages, we will find that increasingly it is God who leads us through this dance; we become grateful recipients of God’s gifts.

The Second Way: It is called theoria, or “illumination”. Having undergone intense purification, we are now properly disposed to receive and accept the teachings of the Holy Spirit, which are given to us through the Church. The Holy Spirit floods our souls with grace. Grace enlightens our minds about the truths of our faith at a much deeper level than simply knowledge. We appropriate the truths of our faith to such an extent that they become sweetness to our souls. We receive clarity in our understanding of the divine mysteries of the faith. This, in turn, affects our prayer; the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in our souls brings our prayer life to a new level. The truths that we contemplate become a source of great consolation in prayer. An advance in the practice of both moral and theological virtues accompanies this spiritual change.

The Third Way: This is known as theosis, which means “deification”, “divinization”, or “unity”. Theosis assumes that we are made to share in the life of the Holy Trinity from the beginning. It happens as we participate more and more in the life of the blessed Trinity. St. Athanasius of Alexandria explains this beautifully: “The Son of God became man, that we might become god”, and that theosis is “becoming by grace what God is by nature” (De Incarnatione, I). In the second letter of Peter (2 Peter 1:4), it is stated that we have become “partakers of divine nature.” St. Thomas Aquinas sings a similar tune: the unitive way is the “full participation in divinity which is humankind's true beatitude and the destiny of human life” (Summa Theologiae 3.1.2).

As we walk the way of theosis, we shine forth the glory of God in our beings the more we are conformed to the image of Christ. The Holy Spirit not only restores us to our state before the fall of Adam and Eve; by virtue of Christ uniting the human and divine natures in his person, we experience a closer fellowship with God than Adam and Eve initially experienced in Eden.

I mentioned at the beginning of this post that the three ways are by and large neglected in the West due to our succumbing to the challenges of secularization. We cannot walk the way of katharsis if we deny that we are sinners, or cringe at even the thought of self-denial and mortification. Furthermore, we cannot take theoria seriously if we reject many of the simple truths of our faith and mock the very concept of living a virtuous life.

Participation in the divine life of the Trinity is made actual through the struggle to conform to the image of Christ, through whom we truly become children of the Father. There is no real faith without this struggle; faith leads to action, without which it is dead. We must unite will, thought and action to God's will, thoughts and actions. This sort of struggle goes far beyond the boundaries of the minimalist attitude that many Christians have today, that of doing the bare minimum of attending Sunday mass and doing the occasional community service. It means being conscious of what we do daily to continue to fall in love with the blessed Trinity. Being a Christian is not a nine-to-five job; it is a way of life. It is about who we are. This is why the three ways ought to be brought back and emphasized. They demand that we take our spiritual life very seriously and approach it wholeheartedly. It is not only reserved for the monk or the nun; rather, all are called to walk the way of sanctification.

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