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The Two Trajectories of the Soul

February 5, 2014 by  
Filed under Challenges, Dan Burke, Spiritual Direction

The Two Trajectories of the Soul

TheLadderofDivineAscentMonasteryofStCatherineSinai12thcenturyThere is a troubling phenomenon noted by several Doctors of the Church regarding the common waning of spiritual development after a period of progress. It often happens after a fervent soul makes notable gains against habitual mortal and then venial sin. It can also happen on the back side of any virtue based victory. The soul becomes satisfied with itself and then reaches for the cruise control button to relax at a pace that seems “reasonable.” Usually this “reasonable” pace is an easy one and though, at first glance, it is perceived as a continued commitment to progress, it may mark the beginning of a fall.

The first problem with this perspective is that there is no such state as one that can be illustrated by the use of a kind of spiritual cruise control. Further complicating matters is that the instinct that a safe cruise control state actually exists is a strong one. Instead, this unfortunate and often unconscious belief is based on a lack of understanding of the teachings of the saints on the two trajectories of the interior life.

The truth is that there are only two trajectories in the spiritual life; we are either headed for heaven or hell. The only way to have any inclination of our actual trajectory is through clear signs of growth and progress (or the lack thereof).

This important insight is illustrated by this 12th century icon called “The Ladder of Divine Ascent”. Its home is in St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai in Egypt.

In this icon we have Christ in the upper right hand corner receiving pilgrims into heaven. On the bottom, left of center, we have the mouth of hell open to those who abandon the ladder and chose the easy open-air path to destruction. One of the many reasons that this icon is so effective is that it makes very clear that there are only two trajectories. Each pilgrim is either moving up, or headed down.

The best antidote for the cruise control delusion is spiritual reading, particularly in the writings of spiritual Doctors of the Church like Sts Catherine of Siena, John of the Cross, Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis De Sales etc. Here’s an example of a specific antidote to this delusion in St. Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle (fifth mansion chapter four):

 “…let us always endeavor to go forward, and to fear exceedingly if we do not; for without doubt the devil wishes to entrap us, …because love is never idle; and therefore not to advance is a very bad sign…”

There is much wisdom in this simple admonition that is worth elaboration and reflection:

  1. We should commit to perpetually pursue spiritual progress toward heaven. This progress is marked by an ever deepening relationship with God in prayer, and increasing virtue.
  2. We should fear exceedingly if we ever find ourselves lacking in clear progress. This godly fear will lead us into corrective action and a rededication of effort.
  3. The enemy is seeking to entrap those who do make and keep this commitment – and even more so those who suffer under the delusion that they can relax in the quest for union with God.
  4. Love never rests until it is fully engaged with its object – love never stops seeking to give itself to the other – in this case both God and his people.
  5. If we ever find ourselves, over any significant period of time, failing to realize progress in prayer, virtue, and love of God and neighbor, we should recognize this as a “very bad sign” and work with urgency to get back on a track of growth.

What is the trajectory of your soul?

PS: The latter half of my book Navigating the Interior Life will help you answer this question if you are not quite sure.

Editors Note: If you are worried about the trajectory of your soul, don't miss Dan's upcoming eight week course on prayer and the interior life. Click here to learn more.

Art: The Ladder of Divine Ascent or The Ladder of Paradise. A 12th-century icon described by John Climacus. Monastery of St Catherine, Mount Sinai. St John Climacus described the Christian life as a ladder with thirty rungs. The monks are tempted by demons and encouraged by angels, while Christ welcomes them at the summit. Pvasiliadis, Jule 11, 2007; PD-US copyright expired; Wikimedia Commons.

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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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  • Rob Sunnasy

    This is true. I have noticed it in my own life. Prayer supports one and makes life easier to deal with. The rot sets in once one becomes complacent and is lax in ones commitment to prayer. Then all things begin to go wrong. Thank you for this post. You have helped me greatly. Thank you. Rob

  • Thank you for this! Just last Monday I was talking to my spiritual director that I felt like I was regressing in my spiritual life. But wasn’t sure why. In prayer God revealed that I’ve grown complacent in my prayers. Since I still prayed everyday I did not realize it. Just goes to show what happens when we lose our guard. Its so easy to think we’re doing nothing wrong when we still pray everyday. Not realizing that its become more of a habit or chore, that genuine time spent with the Lord.

  • Camila

    Fr. Jordan Aumann agrees with you…

    “It is therefore necessary to wage an unceasing battle against our voluntary imperfections if we wish to arrive at perfect union with God. The soul must tend always toward greater perfection and try to do all things with the greatest possible intensity…We are referring primarily to the perfection of one’s motives that lead one to act: doing all things with the greatest possible purity of intention, with the greatest possible desire of glorifying God, with total abandonment to God so that the Holy Spirit can take complete control of our soul and do with us as he wishes. Our goal is complete transformation in Christ, which will enable us to say with St. Paul: “The life I live now is not my own; Christ is living in me” (Gal 2: 20)” (Spiritual Theology p. 157)

  • DianeVa

    Thanks for the post Dan, it is excellent and just what I needed to hear. I crave the reading of spiritual books along with the Gospels. I have found this to be key, a balance of both fuels my prayer life. The book “The Better Part” keeps me focused on Christ, heading up the ladder and I hope will keep me out of cruise control. Everyone around me makes “fun” and jokes of how much I read, but of really what I read. It must be focused on God and beauty for me to be drawn to it. This website is such a resource to stay rooted in as well. Thanks for all the solid resources!

  • David Crowley MSPT, CHC

    I don’t find it helpful to read that I should be more afraid or worried if I don’t “know” the trajectory of my soul. Haven’t there been saints who thought God totally abandoned them or even doubted if He was there? I have found a few of these articles discouraging. I try the best I can to seek God and have also read that the greatest mistake we make at times is thinking that we are achieving holiness by our efforts. Do we need to try harder or do we need to surrender more and trust more?

    • Steve R.

      I agree with Mr. Crowley…After life-long struggles with depression, anxiety and trying to recover from alcoholism, and an on-going emotional distress over not living my life as well as God would have liked me to, I HAVE to rely on the Divine Mercy of Christ…I have enough fears over my eternal salvation as it is; being told that I should fear even more doesn’t help. I’m sure the article is meant for those who may be complacent, but I’m sure not! I’m a sinner in desperate need of Christ’s Mercy, and hope that I have it. Thanks!

      • Camila

        “Let those who fear the Lord say,
        his mercy endures forever.

        In danger I called on the Lord;
        the Lord answered me and set me free.

        The Lord is with me; I am not afraid;
        what can mortals do against me?

        The Lord is with me as my helper;
        I shall look in triumph on my foes.

        Better to take refuge in the Lord
        than to put one’s trust in mortals.”

        (part of Psalm 118)

    • Your are right, David. Those of us who are intellectual midgets rely on the Merciful Love of God. On our own we know we can do absolutely nothing worthy of God. The only thing we are able to do on our own efforts is sin. However, only God, to Whom we must surrender totally, can help us out of own fallen nature and He will not abandon us. If this last Hope and Trust in His Unfathomable Mercy is taken away and we are told we must strive on our own to climb the Ladder of Holiness, what shall one depend on?

    • David Crowley MSPT, CHC

      I don’t mean to sound arrogant or overly critical, it is just that I struggle with worry and anxiety and part of my anxiety comes from not knowing if I am doing enough or if I am on the right path.

      • No worries. Do you have a spiritual director?

        • David Crowley MSPT, CHC

          Thanks Dan! I have an elderly priest I have been seeing on a regular basis for about 3-4 years and usually go to confession about once a week to him. He has never called himself my spiritual director, I had asked him years ago if he would be and he had me meet with another priest who he thought we be a better fit. That other priest passed away. I went to a younger priest as a spiritual director a few times. I did not feel comfortable with him. It seems funny to me that I’ve ended back up with the first priest I asked to be my director, except that he has never referred to himself as my spiritual director.

  • Michael Brooks

    One’s Spiritual Life can, and does get into a Train wreck if he/she isn’t careful, as mine is described as a Shattered Mirror, and trying to pick up the pieces. The question is….why is it that each time one tries to pick up the pieces, it is more difficult to get where you left off? I’m speaking for myself too, in these kinds of situations.

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