Posted by: Thomas Richard | March 8, 2015

Going Beyond “Rediscover Catholicism,” Part II

(This article follows “Going Beyond ‘Rediscover Catholicism,’ Part I“)

Rediscover Catholicism‘s Presentation of the Journey as Linear and Incremental

Integrated with saintliness, virtue and discipline is the assumption throughout the book Rediscover Catholicism that the spiritual journey is fundamentally a linear and incremental one. The author approaches this understanding of holiness, this working toward habitual virtue demonstrated by the saints, as a gradual and incremental process, little by little. In his teachings about prayer, he writes, “In the silence you will find God and in the silence you will find yourself. These will be the greatest discoveries of you life. But these discoveries will not be moments of epiphany; they will be gradual. You will discover a little at a time, something like a jigsaw puzzle being put together.” (p. 184) And again, here speaking of intentionally changing our habits, he wrote: “The spiritual journey is not made a mile at a time. More often than not, the advances in the journey are too small even to measure.” (p. 264)

The assumption of a single linear and incremental path, however, is best illustrated by the silence regarding any other possibilities. He never mentions the three traditional stages, nor the very important spiritual experiences at the doorways, so to speak, of the second and third stages, the Dark Nights of the Soul.

The Normative, Traditional Division of the Journey in Stages

The spiritual life described by Mr. Kelly is fitting, in a sense, for the very beginning of the spiritual journey as understood in traditional Catholic spirituality, but this is incomplete in significant and important ways. It is like giving a roadmap to a distant destination, while failing to mention that there are severe and dangerous road hazards – and great changes in elevation – down the road, far different from the flat highways found at the beginning. The ordinary path to holiness, in traditional Catholic spirituality, exhibits distinct stages: three major stages, with the second and third stages entered only through “dark nights” of profound trial and potency for good or for harm. Also, importantly, the second and third stages of this journey are radically different from the beginning stage, characterized by radical changes in one’s life of prayer, and virtue, and communion with God.

Yes, the first stage, the stage of the Beginners – the Purgative Stage – can be described as a linear and incremental journey when lived rightly, one for which discipline and efforts for right habit are very important. But the second and third stages of the spiritual life are as different from the first, as adolescence and adulthood are different from childhood. The transition from the first to the second stage, however, is not a gradual and incremental one: it is characterized by a crisis for the soul – a “dark night.”

Entry into the Second Spiritual Stage: the Illuminative Stage

Preoccupation with oneself (seeking one’s best version, seeking what most benefits oneself) is expected in the first or Beginner’s Stage of the spiritual journey. But that is a defect that must be corrected, in order to progress in the spiritual life toward the maturity that is our vocation, in Christ. In the framework of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the beginner’s mercenary love for God – that is, love for God because of the good that God can do for me – is radically changed in the next stage (although not completely transformed) when the good that God is in Himself is experientially realized. This change happens when a soul moves from the first or Beginner’s Stage to the second, the Illuminative Stage. In this Illuminative Stage, the soul realizes in himself a love of God and a sense of God’s holy perfection that so to speak takes him out of himself, and brings him to a previously unknown sense of awe and worship of God. This is, again, because of who God is now known to be in Himself, in His infinite and perfect greatness. This entry into the Illuminative Stage is truly and experientially an entry into “light” – but only after the experience of a new and difficult “darkness” of the Dark Night of the Senses. This Dark Night is needed for God to do a work of purgation in the soul that only God can do, and during which the soul can only passively allow God to do this work.

Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange wrote that persistent spiritual defects remaining even in faithful and zealous Christians in the beginner’s, or purgative, stage, who have been working to rid themselves of sin and seek holiness, may be reduced to three: spiritual pride, spiritual sensuality, and spiritual sloth. Indeed, a preoccupation with oneself, and with one’s own “best version”, can be a persisting defect in the Beginner’s Stage, a possible example of spiritual pride. Such persisting defects, outside of the reach of the person himself, can be removed only by the “outside” intervention of God in the person. In gaining some victory over sin and temptation, the person can cling to a disordered confidence in his blessings in God and his advances in the spiritual life. Thus defects of spiritual sensuality, and spiritual pride, may remain rooted in him. The soul must learn, somehow, that God is to be loved and honored for Himself, because of Who He is Himself as God, and not merely for what He has done for us. The soul must begin to find joy not in the blessings of God, but in God Himself. The soul must begin to love the Giver, and not the gifts. To work correction in the soul, God withdraws His blessings, and His graces, and leaves the soul in a time without consolations, in sensual aridity and darkness.

In such darkness, an opposite reaction can then occur in the soul: when blessings and consolations are withdrawn by God, the soul can feel impatience or even disgust toward spiritual effort, and thus the defect of spiritual sloth or acedia is revealed. These defects are often unconscious and unintended, and come from roots deep in the soul – such that the person cannot, by ordinary grace and effort, see and reach into himself to correct them. Here, at the entrance to the higher second stage in the spiritual life – the Illuminative or Proficient’s Stage – is the experience of what John of the Cross called the Dark Night of the Senses. This Dark Night introduces the soul to what is called infused contemplation – a prayer and a relationship with God in which the person is no longer the active agent with his ordinary grace: God is the active agent, and the soul is passive. The work of the soul in this stage is to cooperate with God as God does to and in the soul what only He can and must do, if the soul is to proceed in the spiritual journey to holiness.

Signs of the Dark Night of the Senses

John of the Cross has written explicit signs, that a Catholic can experience in himself, that tell him that he is indeed entering this dark night – this time of privation of the senses, to make way for powerful building of deeper faith in and reliance on God in his soul. It may seem darkness, yet it is an infusion of yet-invisible light! It may seem emptiness, but it is an in-filling of the Holy Spirit. It may seem barrenness, but it is imminent fruitfulness not yet breaking above ground.

These are the signs. They must be all present, all three, in the soul at the same time, for the person to know with certitude that this is the expected dark night. In this night, one must simply trust God, and let Him do His work. One must set aside any fears: “let not your heart be troubled!” One must trust God. Here are the signs:

  • One finds no consolation in the things of God, nor in created things.
  • One keenly desires to serve God, with a thirst for justice and fear of sin. One finds strength in time of temptation.
  • There is great difficulty in discursive meditation, with instead a tendency to the simple affective gaze toward God.

When the darkness of the Dark Night lifts, God makes His presence known to the soul in radically new and unexpected ways – with an experiential sense of the presence of God.  Such new kinds of prayer are known as the beginnings of infused contemplation. Prayer before this time is called ascetical prayer, from vocal prayer through the several grades of meditation. Kinds of prayer after this time include what is called mystical prayer: (infused, given by gift from God in His time and manner) contemplation.

Conclusion: The Crucial Value of Knowing about the Stages

It is important to know about the traditional three stages, because one simply cannot attain his Christian vocation to holiness and the perfection of charity without growing through these stages! In our natural life, no child can become an adult, without leaving childhood and first becoming an adolescent, and then maturing according to our nature into adulthood. So also in our spiritual life, a fifty-year-old still at the “beginning” has yet to properly grow and progress toward maturity – and we are called to spiritual maturity in Christ.

A beginner, in the purgative stage, will – if he is an earnest, faithful, zealous and growing disciple of Jesus Christ – will grow to experience the Dark Night of the Senses, so well described by John of the Cross. When he does, if he does so with no expectation nor knowledge about how to receive it and cooperate with God through it, the chances are great that he will not persevere through it, but will fall back. To fall back would be – and is for the many who do, for lack of knowledge and direction – a real tragedy for them personally, and for the whole Church that is thus impoverished by losing the contributions of a potentially fruitful and vital member, who did not advance. We need to know the road set before us! We need to strive to persevere to the end, to God’s full and beautiful intention for us: holiness, and the perfection of charity.

Further Reading

To help complete what may have begun in a reader of Rediscover Catholicism, I recommend a few of many possible references:


  1. Dear Thomas,

    Thanks for writing both Part 1 and Part 2, and also for the list of “Further Reading” for those who are seeking more. While you put your own book last, it might be best for anyone who feels they are at the very beginning of their journey to read it first. It might also serve as a good book for those who find the classic works of the saints and learned men to be seemingly more intended for religious.

    Your book was written especially for the Laity to better understand their call to holiness, and is an excellent introduction to the classics. It is a book everyone can be blessed by, no matter what stage of the journey they may be traveling, or what particular state of life: clergy, religious or laity. By God’s Grace, I hope many will go beyond this blog now and continuing in His Grace, become more and more serious about growth in the spiritual life.

    The Body of Christ needs to be built up in love by every member working properly:

    And he gave some as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers, to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the extent of the full stature of Christ so that we may no longer be infants, tossed by waves and swept along by every wind of teaching arising from human trickery, from their cunning in the interests of deceitful scheming.

      Rather, living the truth in love, we should grow in every way into him who is the head, Christ,from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, with the proper functioning of each part, brings about the body’s growth and builds itself up in love.

    (Ephesians 4:11-16)

  2. Thank you for these insights into the journey Dr. Richard, especially for revealing the three steps that we can expect to take on the way… As a new convert, Mr. Kelly’s book definitely spoke to me in this fresh faith of mine, and I understand his reasons for writing at the ‘infant’ level in order to reach the broadest audience looking to ‘rediscover’ their faith.

    I pray that those who are impassioned by Mr. Kelly’s writing will seek these deeper truths, and not be satisfied with an endless mercenary faith in God, but have the courage to look for and go through these dark nights. Trusting in the Lord to see us through the crucible to the daylight of deeper faith.

    I enjoy your insights very much Dr. Richard, thank you again!

    • Hello Charles – thank you for your comments. I’m happy that you heard something “more” in my brief summary of the three stages, or ages, of the interior life. It seems that many hear of it – but to little effect or response, maybe sensing that this ancient theology is merely many words of little importance. It is important to know what lies ahead, on a long journey!

      Blessings and grace to you, on your journey.

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