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Longing for the Face of God: Navigating the Interior Life (III/IV)

The Three Ways: Longing for the Face of God
Navigating the Interior Life (Part III of IV)

In our first post of this series we covered an introduction to the concept of the three ways of the interior life. In part II we covered the first of the three ways. In this post we will continue to focus on a summary of the second phase, the Illuminative way. If you have not yet read the previous posts, you might want to; this post is not likely to be well understood without context. For easy reference and orientation I have again provided the illustration that compares the human to spiritual development lifecycle here:


The Illuminative Way (Spiritual Adolescence):

The soul in this phase is characterized by purposeful and consistent growth in prayer, virtue, love of neighbor, a deeper awakening of the mind and heart in the ways of God, and an increasingly clear understanding of God’s will as it applies to its particular state of life. At this point, the struggle to overcome habitual sin, both mortal and venial, and resulting increase in moral stability has, for the most part, been won.

The soul here also has an ever-deepening desire for the heights of union with God and purity in thought, word, and deed. This phase is often preceded or occupied with significant suffering and purifications known as the dark night of the soul. However, the soul is also comforted with consolations from God that sustain it through difficult times. It is also common to find mystical phenomena beginning to emerge in the late purgative phase and in this phase.

The properly aimed soul in this phase (as illumined by St Teresa of Avila in the third mansion of The Interior Castle, chapter one, paragraph five) longs to avoid offending “…His Majesty, even guarding themselves against venial sins; they are fond of doing penance and setting aside periods of recollection; they spend their time well, practicing works of charity toward their neighbors; and are very balanced in their use of speech and dress and in the governing of their households – those who have them.”

To better understand this phase we will use three stages of progress from Chautard with minor modifications: 1) Fervor; 2) Relative Perfection; and 3) Heroic Perfection. It is worth noting that this third category is often the key outward indicator that the pilgrim is in transition into the final phase of spiritual perfection.


Venial Sin: Never deliberate but with surprise, sometimes, or with imperfect advertence. Keenly regretted and serious reparation made.

Imperfections: Wants nothing to do with them. Watches over them and fights them with courage and diligence in order to be more pleasing to God. Still, imperfections are sometimes accepted, though regretted at once. Frequent acts of renunciation. Their practice of a particular examen aims at perfection in a specific virtue.

Prayer: Vocal prayer is practiced diligently on a daily basis and mental prayer is constantly practiced and gladly prolonged. Prayer is often affective and the prayer of simplicity and infused contemplative prayer begins to emerge if not already present in the late purgative phase. The soul often experiences alternations between powerful consolations and fierce trials.

Sacraments: Fervently participates in weekly and daily Mass if able. Pursues confession on a regular schedule and often weekly. Imperfections are offered in confession for the purpose of obtaining the grace necessary to overcome them (i.e. devotional confession).

Relative Perfection:

Imperfections: Guards against them energetically and with much care and love. They only happen with half-advertence.

Prayer: Habitual life of prayer, even when occupied in external works. Thirst for self-renunciation, annihilation, detachment, and divine love. Hunger for the Eucharist and for Heaven. Graces of infused contemplative prayer are common and of differing degrees of intensity and usually accompanied by passive purifications.

 Heroic Perfection:

 Imperfections: Nothing but the first impulse.

 Prayer: Supernatural graces of infused contemplation sometimes accompanied by extraordinary phenomena. Pronounced passive purifications. Contempt of self to the point of complete self-forgetfulness. Prefers suffering to joys in a desire to join with Christ in his work of redemption.

In contrast to those in the purgative stage, one key aspect of progress in the illuminative phase is that the soul becomes increasingly simple and childlike. The reason for this reality is that at this stage habitual sin has faded to the background and the person is generally becoming more integrated internally and externally. This reality minimizes duplicity and complexity in the personality and results in a much greater degree of peace and ease with respect to those who are graced to encounter them. Other key elements are that the ability to selflessly love others and discern God's will dramatically increase in this phase. These aspects do not reach relative perfection until the final phase but they do clearly manifest themselves here especially in the latter half of this period of development. All in all, souls in this phase are clearly on a trajectory toward sainthood.

For those hungering for more on this topic, I will provide a two hour interactive webinar on the evening of Friday November 1st, 2013. Seats are limited so click here to register now. Participants do not need to know anything about this topic in order to join the webinar and are free to simply listen rather than interact if so desired.

In our final post we will explore the unitive way and beyond…

Also, to learn more, the best modern and reasonably in-depth treatment dedicated to this topic is entitled, Fulfillment of All Desire by Ralph Martin. For a personally applicable summary, see my recent book, Navigating the Interior Life, Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God.

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About Dan Burke

Dan is the President of the Avila Foundation, the parent organization of, the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, Divine Intimacy Radio and Divine Intimacy Radio - Resources Edition, Into the Deep Parish Programs, the Apostoli Viae (Apostles of the Way) Community, and the FireLight Student Leadership Formation Program, author of the award-winning book, Navigating the Interior Life - Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God, Finding God Through Meditation-St. Peter of Alcantara, 30 Days with Teresa of Avila, Into the Deep, Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux, and his newest book The Contemplative Rosary with St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Avila. Beyond his "contagious" love for Jesus and His Church, he is a grateful husband and father of four, the Executive Director of and writer for EWTN's National Catholic Register, a regular co-host on Register Radio, a writer and speaker who provides online spiritual formation and travels to share his conversion story and the great riches that the Church provides us through authentic Catholic spirituality. Dan has been featured on EWTN's Journey Home program and numerous radio programs.

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  • Jeanette

    My spiritual director has told me a few times to expect to ‘go ten steps forward and two steps backward’ through the spiritual life…that it is not a straightforward trajectory. I understand this statement in the purgative way. Do you have any insights into the workings of this statement as pertains to the illuminative and unitive way?

    • Jeanette – he/she is right. I will cover this in the webinar in detail. At any advanced stage the pilgrim can fall back into mortal or venial sin. Also, there are periods of struggle and different challenges at every stage. In the face of these challenges the soul can make right and wrong choices with respect to how they respond and these choices could change the trajectory of the soul. Make sense?

      • Jeanette

        Yes, this makes sense…but it seems to me that the more one advances, most especially in the latter stages of the illuminative and unitive, that it is less likely a ‘falling away’ or wrong choices would occur because of the abundance of graces received and because of a strong love for God and a strong desire to do God’s Will in all things. Thank the Lord, that He wants our sanctification even more than we do!

        • Jeanette – yes you are right. The more the soul advances, the stronger the will and thus the less likely they are to fall. Even so, St. Teresa is very adamant in warning against how easy it is to fall in the latter stages…

          • Jeanette

            I imagine Spiritual Pride would be one of the greatest culprits that would cause a fall for those advanced in the spiritual life. Thank you Dan.

          • You are very Right! All the capital sins have a spiritualized version that the evil one and the flesh can cultivate as they grow and notice the Lord’s work in them.

          • Jeanette

            That really got me thinking about the spiritual sins:
            spiritual pride; spiritual envy; spiritual gluttony; spiritual lust or infatuation; spirit of anger; spiritual greed; spiritual apathy or sloth. Thanks, this has made me much more aware.

          • Your heart is inclined to the Lord! For more reading on this, St. John of the Cross discusses these in depth when he covers the dark night of the senses. It is not a fun read, but very insightful.

          • Jeanette

            I have read it but will read it again! Thanks so much Dan.

      • Ed Hamilton

        Am I right that those who fall back into sin after advancing, are at risk of causing great psychological distress? The more one knows, the more one would suffer if he falls. Its a tremendous evil I think.

        • Ed – that is a tough question. It depends on the nature of the sin. No matter what, the more advanced the soul the more pain it feels upon offending God.

  • Gabrielle Renoir

    I knew a very holy priest who made one slip only into mortal sin and regretted it so deeply that his soul was wounded for the rest of his life even though he knew God forgave him, and he did not repeat the sin. The deeper problem was that he also caused one not so progressed as he to sin as well, and that person fell away from the faith for a time. The fact that he, a priest dedicated to serving his fellow man and bringing them to Christ, hurt someone he loved and caused that person to fall away from the faith for a time wounded him more than anything in his life. The wounded person told me that after his death, the priest’s spirit came back and returned her to the faith, something I have no reason to doubt. Her return seems fervent and permanent. We never know for sure what will be the far-reaching and long lasting consequences of our sin. We can hurt and sin against our fellow humans just as we hurt and sin against God. Even the slightest venial sin should not be tolerated by the soul who truly loves God. We should be ever-vigilant about consoling God’s wounded heart, not hurting it further.

    • $1650412

      Mortal sin leaves a profound and sore scar lifelong, on the one who commits it and those directly affected- it is much harder to go through life afterward even in a sincere penitent, even in a penitent with very clear understanding of the benefit to the soul of having had the negative experience of committed and having been restored from mortal sin- there is something there that one might wish were not there- or that one can clearly see would have been so much better if it had not been so– if I am making that clear. A kind of personal Pandora’s box.- (now that might be a spiritually immature way of looking at it on my part, I will admit- so I defer to someone more experienced to correct me if I am wrong here.) And this might be where the concept of reparation/penance is an almost essential relief mechanism for healing, or for moving ourselves, those we bring harm to, those we see harmed by the sins of others or those we see harming themselves by sin toward hope and joy and peace.

      • LizEst

        Yes, we have the scars of sins. But, we must take heart at what Scripture and Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity say, “God has taken away our sins. He said to Himself: ‘I will blot out all
        their iniquities and I will no longer remember their sins (Isaiah 43:25).'” If God has taken away our sins and remembers them no more, why should we–other than to know our weakness? The knowledge of our weakness and past sins must spur us on to greater resolve in the spiritual life, rather than mire us in the past. “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). We have to trust that God is faithful and true to His Word. We are a new creation in Christ (cf 2 Corinthians 5:17).

  • Thank God, better late than never!!!!!. I have gone through the 4 Parts of these Series and I am more confused than ever. But I have to hang on to my trust in Christ and continue to struggle daily. I know He will never give up one me and will supply whatever Graces I need to become what He created me to be. He must have had a very good reason why He gave me His Mother’s Name when I was only 20 days on this earth and His Grandparents as the Patrons of my own Parents.

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