We are so blessed in the Catholic spiritual tradition to have a multitude of saints—doctors of the Church and teachers of the faith—who show us what it means to walk daily in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. They teach us how we can live in this life with our hearts and minds set on eternal life with God.
So often it is the mystics—St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Catherine of Siena, and even local spiritual masters from the Low Countries like St. Beatrice of Nazareth or St. Jan van Ruusbroec—that teach us about the way God works in the soul desiring to walk with Him. Very often they will mention the three ways or paths of the spiritual life: the purgative, the illuminative, and the unitive.
In the purgative way God purifies and purges our souls from the attachments we have to sin. Those sins—many perhaps even mortal which could cause us to lose our eternal salvation—which we cling to or otherwise find ourselves falling into from time to time are cleansed from our souls and we become more and more free to choose God and say no to the enticements of evil. For most of us this is a lifelong process that will be complete only in our final purification in purgatory, but God invites us to begin already that spiritual cleansing which will draw us more completely to Him.
Then, made more free and purified, we are prepared for the illuminative way; God sheds His light into our souls and illumines the path before us. We desire not only to avoid sin and the occasions which lead us away from God but, more than that, we desire and long for virtue. We seek the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity; we fall deeper in love with Christ and want to live like He lived; to love like He loved. The Holy Spirit is living and moving in us and we are being led, willingly and with great earnestness, into eternal life and ever deeper into a real and growing relationship with the Holy Trinity.
Finally, at the end of our journey, we enter the unitive way. This is not a unique status offered to a few select individuals; union with God is the call and the goal of every single one of us baptized in Jesus Christ and living in Him. In heaven, please God, each of us will be united to God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—in an intimate and eternal relationship of love.
But the mystics teach us that we can share in that life already, even here. In their writings and poetry, their experiences of prayer (and even their sufferings) shared with us, they show us how God purifies and illumines, and can unite Himself to a soul even here, even now. Their words and examples are inspiring and they increase our own desire for the things of heaven right and a happiness that far transcends the limits of this earth.
If we look at the writings of St. Teresa of Avila we can see even more detailed descriptions of the spiritual life. In her book The Interior Castle she describes the soul as a crystal globe containing a magnificent castle. Deep within the heart of that castle resides the King of Kings, Jesus Christ.
Outside that castle, beyond the spiritual life of the soul, one finds vermin, snakes and creeping things squirming around inside the moat and in the darkness surrounding the castle keep. But once we have engaged our spiritual lives and entered within the confines of the castle we have turned from sin and begin to experience the life of grace. That is the first dwelling place. From there we journey, progressively deeper and deeper within, towards the very center or the seventh dwelling place where Christ resides. St. Teresa only reached this intimate of all unions towards the end of her life, but her account and her descriptions—like those of the purgative, illuminative and unitive ways—are remarkably inspirational.
Nonetheless, these descriptions of the mystical life can also become a difficulty and even a distraction on our spiritual journey. We can be all too tempted to gauge ourselves and try to guess exactly where we fit in at any given moment. Am I in the third dwelling place, or perhaps moving into the fourth? Am I beginning to experience illumination or am I still experiencing the purgative way at this time?
Another tendency—and never a good one—is to look at those around us and try to guess where they are in the spiritual life. We see someone who does not appear—to our own sensibilities and determinations—to have their spiritual act together. We might think, Ah, that person is definitely out there in the moat! Or maybe we will look at another person’s external tranquility and peace of soul and decide, Yes, she is certainly walking in the unitive way with God.
In my fourth year of theology I was able to take a course on the spiritual life with a very wise and holy Dominican priest. He shared with us an experience he had while still in the novitiate, preparing for priesthood. The novice master said to them:
There are only two ways and two levels in the spiritual life.
You are either in a state of GRACE…or you are NOT!
How vital is that very distinction! Everything else is gravy. Either we are in a state of sanctifying grace and God is drawing us into a deeper relationship with Him; the Holy Spirit is living and acting in and through us and preparing us for eternal life…or we are not in a state of grace but have fallen into sin and are in danger of being separated from God for all eternity.
We used to refer to that eternal separation as hell. Nowadays we do not refer to it at all. We do not talk about hell in the classroom or in the homily (God forbid). It does not come up in our social discourse or spiritual conversations. But that does not mean that it is no longer a real possibility and a danger for each one of us.
Jesus Christ talked about hell. Often. He did not talk about eternal separation from God because He was itching to shout out condemnation. He talked about it as a warning, to signal that there is indeed a path that leads away from God. If you are walking on that path, He tried to convey, then get off it! Get on the path and follow the way, instead, that leads to eternal life (see John 14:6).
If you look at the readings that we are given for this weekend—from Jeremiah the Prophet, the responsorial psalm, Psalm 1, and the Gospel of St. Luke—all of them distinguish clearly between these two paths.
Jeremiah begins with the unhappy statement, “Cursed is the one who trusts in human beings, who seeks his strength in flesh, whose heart turns away from the Lord” (Jeremiah 17:5). Cursed. That is a very stark way to begin our readings this weekend, no? He says that such a one, who leaves the Lord behind and places all his trust and efforts in the human family alone, will be like a “barren bush” in the dessert which will simply wither away and die. That is not the right path, Jeremiah is communicating in the strongest of terms!
But, he goes on, “Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose hope is the Lord” (Jeremiah 17:7). Then using the same words and imagery that we find in Psalm 1 this weekend he beautifully describes that person as a fertile tree planted beside the running water (Jeremiah 17:8; Psalm 1:3). It bears fruit in season and out of season. In the heat of the day or the dead of winter, that tree gives life in abundance, expressing the life of God and the life of grace to any and all that come in its path.
This is the tradition, says our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI (in his book Jesus of Nazareth) that Jesus Christ is drawing off this morning in St. Luke’s account of the Beatitudes. You may notice that St. Luke’s account is different from St. Matthew’s. In St. Matthew’s Gospel Jesus goes up on the high mountain and gives the people eight Beatitudes, eight blessed ways of following Him. In St. Luke Jesus does not go up the mountain but He remains on the plain. He is on level ground—leveling with His disciples, and with us, about the spiritual life—and he gives us not eight Beatitudes but only four. And then He gives us four “woes.”
Beginning with the blessings, He says, “Blessed are you who are poor…Blessed are you who are now hungry…Blessed are you who are now weeping…Blessed are you when people hate you…” (Luke 6:20-22). His words are somewhat disturbing. We do not usually think of these things as blessings. But they are not nearly as disturbing as the following statements:
Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are filled now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will grieve and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets in this way.
“These words,” says our Holy Father, “terrify us” (Jesus of Nazareth, pg. 96). If you are disturbed by Jesus words this morning, then, you are in great company! And the reason why they disturb and terrify us is because most all of us want those things. What on earth is so wrong with wanting to be filled and content in this life? What could possibly be wrong with laughter? Why would we not want a bigger bank account to take care of our families and loved ones? What is wrong with these things?
To understand the “woes” and the beatitudes in St. Luke’s Gospel we have to look at the second “woe.” He says, “Woe to you who are filled now, for you will be hungry.” The word for “filled,” in the Greek language, denotes an action that is completed and can never be increased further. To be filled in the sense that Christ is speaking of means to have a bank account that, however substantial it may be for now, can never be added to again. It is like having a brand new computer that is fast and effective, but can never again be upgraded or replaced. In ten years it will be slow and useless.
So Christ is not saying “woe” to these people simply because they have money or laugh or are filled with many good things. He is saying “woe” to them because that is all they have! They are so filled with the things of this life that they have left no room at all for the things of eternal life. They have left no room for the spiritual life or the Kingdom of God. Woe to them!
But blessed are the ones who are poor and needy, and who know it. They have lots of room for God. Blessed are the ones who are weeping and struggling and know that this world alone can never satisfy them. They are wide open to the life of grace that God offers and the promise of an eternal life of infinite bliss. Blessed are they! Blessed are they who are hungry and who thirst for a better life than this one. They have plenty of room to be filled completely with the Bread of Life and the Living Water of salvation. Blessed are they who are hated by others for the sake of Jesus Christ. They will be in the best of company with the saints and the angels when they are counted among the faithful in the presence of God.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, where are we walking in the spiritual life at this time? Jesus Christ calls out to each of us this weekend and beckons us on the path that leads to beatitude, to blessings and eternal life with Him. May we have the courage to leave all behind that does not lead us to this path, and may our interior castles be filled with light as Christ illumines us and draws us ever more deeply into a life united with Him for all eternity.