In the classical tradition of spiritual theology, which is itself an ancient form of Christian Psychology, three development stages have been identified as relates to the progress of a Christian in terms of his or her relationship with God. These three stages have traditionally been referred to as the purgative, illuminative, and unitive ways. As a Christian reaches deeper levels of sanctification (what the classical tradition often refers to as holiness), they advance through these stages, though most mystical writers readily admit that few persons advance to the unitive stage in this life.
One of the attractive and useful features of this model of human understanding is that it centers human anthropology, development, and maturation in light of an individual’s relationship with God. In addition, it takes seriously the development of a robust interior life that is sometimes lacking in other approaches to Christian discipleship. In other words, behavioral modification and thought sanctification are merely the beginning of the Christian life.
The purgative way is the stage of the Christian life where the believer is actively doing battle with a variety of personal sins. It is a time where personal habits and character are brought into alignment with the basic ethical teachings of the Christian life. This is done in cooperation with the Holy Spirit, often making use of various spiritual disciplines. Most pastors and Christian counselors will quickly deduce that the vast majority of Christians fall into this category, including themselves. The classical writers would affirm this reality and its truth is not merely a testament to the power of sin in this earthly life (Romans 3:23) but to the fact that Christian communities have seldom focused on higher levels of sanctification beyond that of behavioral alignment with Biblical standards. This way is often described as the way of beginners in classical Christian literature.
The illuminative way marks a transition in a believer’s life where he or she begins to see the light of Christ more clearly in his or her life, as well as in the life of others and in the world around them. It is a stage where sin is still a concern (perfection is not possible in this life), but now the attention of the believer’s mind and heart is focused on the positive aspects of life with God and attuning one’s self more deeply to the will of God as manifested in Jesus Christ. Increasingly, spiritual realities become more dominant in the mind of believers experiencing the illuminative stage, to the point where earthly concerns and matters become less important and less appealing. Here the Christian more readily, and more eagerly, ponders and meditates on the truths and realities of God. This way is often described as the way of the proficient in classical Christian literature.
The unitive way is a stage in the Christian life that anticipates the full union of the believer with God in paradise (1 John 3:2). Whereas the beginner (purgative way) is usually consumed by sin, and the proficient (illuminative way) still occupied with earthly matters a good deal of the time, the mature saint has an awareness of God that permeates all of their activity, wherever they may be. This awareness is continual versus the occasional or fixed periods of awareness that characterize the earlier stages of the spiritual life. While still sinners saved by grace, these Christians are usually undisturbed by most earthly enticements and are living more or less continually in the mature expressions of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22). Most writers in the classical tradition of spirituality claim that few individuals, during their earthly pilgrimage, advanced to this stage of union with God.
As Christian counselors and pastors the traditional classifications of the spiritual life provide us a rich resource when working with individuals or congregations. This paradigm has been followed and written about for centuries in the Christian tradition. There are writers who describe tools and methods for advancing through the stages based on centuries of Christian experience. Of course, it must be mentioned, that like with many schemes it is usually quite difficult to discern the exact place of an individual in the three-fold pattern, particularly with individuals in the later beginner (purgative) and early proficient (illuminative) stages. As we continue to discover, spiritual theology is in every sense a full expression of Christian psychology, already developed, nuanced, and ready for use by contemporary Christians.
Province of the Resurrection (North America)
Anglican Order of Preachers (Dominicans)
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