Purgative, Illuminative, and Unitive ways

The classical purgative, illuminative, and unitive ways in Christian spirituality.



Nothing personal, but I suggest forgetting all those ways of “understanding” the three ways, and go straight to St. John of the Cross, with the further development of Fr. R. Garrigou-Lagrange, OP. These two together are all one needs.

I fond the historical perspectives interesting, and seeing St. John of the Cross and Fr. R. Garrigou-Lagrange in that context.

Regarding the three ways and St. John of the Cross, Kevin Culligan, O.C.D., explains it this way:

"St. John of the Cross’s three stages in the journey of Christian prayer are: (1) the stage of beginners, or those who practice discursive meditation and whose prayer life is centered in the activity of the sensory self; (2) the stage of proficients, or those who have progressed beyond discursive meditation into contemplative prayer that is centered in the spiritual self; and (3) the stage of the perfect, those whose contemplative prayer has brought them wholly to union with God in love and has totally transformed them - body and soul, sense and spirit - in Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord. These three stages correspond generally to the stages of Christian prayer traditionally called the purgative way, the illuminative way, and the unitive way (Spiritual Canticle. theme. 1-2)"

This is from the Book, Carmelite Prayer; A Tradition for the 21st Century, edited by Keith J. Egan (2003 Paulist Press)

Looking at it this way, I must asses that I’m mostly at stage 1, the beginner’s or purgative way, aspiring to reach stage 2, though I don’t usually think about it in these terms.

The book you want to read by St. John of the Cross is The Ascent of Mount Carmel. It’s widely available in public domain English translation on the Internet, and it’s his basic textbook that defines all his terms. Anything about early and middle stages of the spiritual life is in there, and there is a lot of practical advice about issues like spiritual dryness.

The Dark Night of the Soul is the sequel, and there’s no point reading that if you haven’t read The Ascent of Mount Carmel. (And honestly, most people will never actually need The Dark Night of the Soul. It’s very beautiful and interesting, though.)

It’s a lot more helpful to read a primary source than to read an article about a primary source. Articles like that are supposed to give you something easy to remember, but also to point you toward the primary source. St. John of the Cross is a few clicks away; you can download his book easily.

Aside from using a tad bit of 19th century language in the public domain translation (“fantasy” or “fancy” in this context means “imagination”), The Ascent of Mount Carmel is not hard to understand. Don’t be weirded out by the device of him using his Dark Night poem as a structure for the book.

Just let yourself get into the book, and you will see what the saint is getting at. Then you will see what parts apply to you and to your personal experience.


What I really need to do is read less and pray more :slightly_smiling_face:.

I can (and do) easily spend a good amount of time reading books about prayer. When I decide it’s actually time to pray, suddenly I’ve got a million other important things to do.


I think though there is also merit to the view extending to all of life: Thus beginners are those who endeavor to purify themselves of sin and its effects; proficients seek illumination, i.e., growth in virtue; and the perfect ‘ exercise union with God.

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Both reading about prayer, and praying itself, require quality much more than quantity. Read less fluff and shallow devotionals, and read more of the saints and those who are in fact excellent teachers of the spiritual life. [ Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, and Fr. Jordan Aumann are two examples of excellent teachers of the spiritual life. A short but excellent book I’d recommend, by the first author I mentioned, is on-line and free to read and/or copy and print. If you are serious about growing in the spiritual life, I recommend you print out (or buy) a copy to read, underline, ponder, and reread several times. It is dense and heavy. It is The Three Ways of the Spiritual Life, on the EWTN website. ]

Prayer is more importantly prayed well, than prayed “more.” I recommend reading the commentary of the Our Father - the “Lord’s Prayer” - in the Catechism, CCC 2759 - 2865. This meditation on the “perfect prayer” provides an essential foundation for a strong life of prayer, enabling a communion in that prayer with the Lord, which cannot be exhausted. The Catechism is on-line, if you do not have a copy. (Getting one for yourself would be prudent.)

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