The Spiritual Life

Author: Adolphe Tanquerey



by the Very Reverend Adolphe Tanquerey, S.S., D.D.



#618. The general principles explained in the first part of this work apply to all souls, and already constitute a body of motives and of means calculated to lead us to the highest form of perfection. But as we have stated above (n. 340-343) there is a diversity of degrees in the spiritual life--different stages to traverse. Hence, the importance of adapting the general principles to the individual needs of souls, taking account not only of their peculiar characters, their various attractions and their different callings, but also of the degree of perfection they have so far attained, in order that the spiritual director may guide them in the most suitable manner.

The purpose of this second part is to follow a soul in its gradual ascent from the moment it first conceives a sincere desire of advancing in the spiritual life, on to the loftiest heights of perfection--a long road indeed, but one wherein the soul tastes the sweetness of the choicest consolations!

Before entering upon the description of the three ways we shall explain: (1) the basis of this distinction, (2) the practical way to employ it wisely, (3) the importance of the study of the three ways.

n1. S. THOM., IIa Ilae, q. 24, a. 9; q. 183, a. 4, THOM. DE VALLGORNERA, "Myst. theol.," q. Il, a. II; LE GAUDIER, "De Perf. vitae spir.," IIa Pars, sect. I, cap. I SCARAMELLI, "Directorio ascetico," Traite II, Introd.; SCHRAM, "Instit. theol. myst." XXVI; SAUDREAU, "The Degress of the Spiritual Life," Preface; DESURMONT, "Charite Sacerdotale," 138-140; "Cursus Asceticus," VoL 1. Prolegomena.


#619. We make use of the expression, the three ways, to conform to traditional usage. We must note however that it is not question here of three parallel or divergent ways, but rather of three different stages, of three marked degrees, which souls who generously correspond to divine grace traverse in the spiritual life. Each way in turn has many degrees which spiritual directors must take into account, the most notable of which we shall indicate. Likewise, there are in the various stages many forms and variations dependent upon the character, the vocation, and the providential mission of each soul.1 But, as we have said, following St.Thomas, we way reduce these degrees to three, accordingly as a soul begins, advances or reaches the goal. (n. 340-343) This is the general sense in which we make a threefold division based upon authority and reason.

n1. Thus in the unitive way two distinct forms are generally distinguished as we shall later on explain: the simple unitive way, and that which is accompanied by infused contemplation.

#620. (1) This doctrine is based on the authority of Scripture and Tradition.

A) No doubt, many texts could be found in the Old Testament suggesting the triple distinction.

Thus Alvarez de Paz makes it rest upon the following passage, which provided him with his division of the spiritual life: "Turn away from evil. and do good: seek after peace and pursue it."1 Turn away from evil: avoid sin; this is the purification of the soul or the purgative way. Do good: practice virtue; this is the illuminative way. Seek after peace: that peace which intimate union with God alone can give; here we have the unitive way. This interpretation of the text is ingenious, but we must not see therein a conclusive proof

n1. Ps. XXXIII, 15.

#621. B) In the New Testament: a) Among others, one could cite the following words of Our Lord which sum up Christian spirituality as described in the Synoptics: " If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me."1 Self-denial, self- renouncement---let him deny himself---behold the first degree. The carrying of one's cross already presupposes the positive practice of virtue, or the second degree. Follow me is, in reality, intimate union with Jesus, union with God, and, hence, the unitive way. Here, again, we have the basis for a real distinction, but not a rigorous proof of the three stages.

n1. "Luke," IX, 23.

#622. b) Neither does St. Paul explicitly make any such distinction, yet he gives a description of three states of soul which later on gave origin to this classification.

I) Recalling what athletes did in striving after a perishable crown, he compares himself to them, for he also strives to run and struggle, but instead of beating the air he buffets his body and brings it into bondage lest he sin and be rejected: " I therefore so run, not as at an uncertainty: I sought, not as one beating the air. But I chastise my body and bring it into subjection: lest perhaps when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway.1 These are indeed, penitential exercises, practices of mortification inspired by a wholesome fear in order to subject the flesh and purify the soul. How often does he not remind Christians of the necessity of putting off the Old Adam and of crucifying their flesh with its vices and lusts? This corresponds with what we call the purgative way.

2) Writing to the Philippians he declares that he has not yet reached perfection, but that he tries, following His Master, to attain it, and that without looking back he forges ahead toward the goal: "Forgetting the things that are behind and stretching forth myself to those that are before, I press toward the mark, to the prize of the supernal vocation of God in Christ Jesus.2 He adds that whoever would seek after perfection must do in like manner: " Let us therefore as many as are perfect, be thus ye followers of me, brethren.."3 And in another place: "Be ye followers of me, as I also am of Christ."4 These are the distinguishing marks of the illuminative way, wherein the principal duty is imitation of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

3) As to the unitive way, he describes its two forms, the simple unitive way by the constant effort to have Jesus live in him: "I live, now not I, but Christ lives in me,"5 and the extraordinary unitive way which is accompanied by ecstasies, visions, and revelations: "I know a man in Christ: above fourteen years ago (whether in the body, I know not, or out of the body, I know not: God knoweth), such a one caught up to the third heaven."6

In St. Paul, then, as in the Gospels, we find that a true Christian must purify his soul, practice virtue, and strive after union with God, yet it is not clear that these constitute three successive stages of the spiritual life rather than three aspects of one process that goes on simultaneously.

n1. "I cor.," IX, 26-27. n2. "Phil.," III, 13-14. n3. "Phil.," III, 15-I7. n4. "I Cor., IV 16. n5. "Gal.," II, 20. n6. "II Cor.," XII, 2.

#623. Tradition gradually worked out this distinction, basing it at times upon the difference that exists between the three theological virtues, at others, upon the various degrees of love.

a) Clement of Alexandria is one of the first to employ the first of these methods. To become a gnostic or a perfect man, many stages must be traversed: to shun evil through fear, and to mortify the passions; then, under the influence of hope, to do good or practice virtues and lastly, to do good out of love for God.1 Cassian, from the same point of view, arrived at the differentiation of three degrees in the soul's ascent toward God: fear, peculiar to slaves, hope, fit for mercenaries working for a reward, and love, becoming the children of God.2

b) St. Augustine takes another point of view: perfection consisting in love, it is in the practice of this virtue that he discerns four degrees: incipient love, growing love, full-grown love, and perfect love.3 Since the last two degrees relate to the unitive way, his doctrine is, at bottom, the same as that of his predecessors. -- St. Bernard also perceives three degrees in the love of God: after showing that the genesis of human love is love of self, he adds that man, realizing his own insufficiency, begins through faith to seek for God and to love Him on account of his gifts; this intercourse leads him then to love Him both because of His benefits and for His own sake; finally, he comes to love God with an altogether disinterested love.4 Lastly, St. Thomas, perfecting the teaching of St. Augustine, shows clearly the existence of three degrees in the virtue of love that correspond to the three ways or stages, n. 340-343.

n1. "Stromata," VI, 12. n2. "Confer.," XI, 6-8. n3. "De natura et gratia," cap. LXX, n. 84 n4. "Epist." XI, n. 8, P.L., CLXXXII, 113-114.

624. (2) Reason shows the correctness of this division.

A) It is evident that before arriving at an intimate union with God, the soul must first of all be purified of its past faults and be strengthened against future ones.

Purity of heart is, on the authority of Our Lord, the first essential condition for seeing God, for seeing Him as He is in the next life, and also for seeing Him now imperfectly and obscurely hut truly, and for uniting ourselves with Him: "Blessed are the clean of heart for they shall see God."1 But this purity of heart presupposes a cleansing from former faults by means of a sincere and rigorous expiation, an earnest and relentless fight against sinful tendencies and the practice of prayer, meditation and such other spiritual exercises as are required for the strengthening of our will against temptation--in a word, all those means that tend to purify the soul and ground it in virtue. The sum-total of these means is what is called the purgative way.

n1. "Matth., V, 8.

#625. B) Once the soul has been thus purified and reformed, it must be adorned with Christian virtues, virtues of a positive character, that will make it more like unto Christ. Its task then is to follow the Master step by step and gradually reproduce Christ's interior dispositions by the concurrent practice of both the moral and theological virtues. The former mold and strengthen the soul; the latter already initiate its union with God. Both are practiced simultaneously according to the needs of the moment and the attractions of grace. The better to attain this end, the soul perfects its own form of prayer, which becomes more and more affective, and strives to love and to imitate Jesus Christ. It thus advances toward the illuminative way, for to follow Jesus is to walk in the light: He who followeth me, walketh not in darkness.

#626. C) A moment comes when the soul, purified from its faults, made strong and docile to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit, longs but for an intimate union with God. It seeks Him everywhere, even in the midst of the most absorbing occupations; it clings to Him and enjoys His presence. Mental prayer grows in simplicity; it becomes a lingering, loving thought of God and of things divine, under the influence, latent or conscious, of the gifts of the Holy Ghost. This is the unitive way.1

Within these three great stages there are indeed many degrees and diversities of "the manifold grace of God."2 We shall describe a few. An acquaintance with the others may be obtained by studying the lives of the Saints.

n1. "Peter," IV, 10. n2. St. John of the Cross, and after him a number of authors, use a special terminology with regard to the three ways, a knowledge of which is important, He styles beginners those on the threshold of obscure contemplation or the "night of the senses"; he calls the advanced those already within the realm of passive contemplation; and the perfect, those that have passed through the "night of the senses" and the "night of the soul". Cfr. HOORNAERT, note on the "Dark Night," t. III, des Oeuvres spirituelles, (p. 5-6).


#627. To make a right use of this distinction, great tact and intelligence are required: one must indeed study the principles explained here, but still more, study each soul

in particular, with its- characteristic traits, taking cognizance of the special action of the Holy Ghost upon it. In order to aid the spiritual director, a few remarks will not be amiss.

#628. A) There can be nothing absolute or mathematical in the distinction of the three ways. a) A soul passes imperceptibly from one to the other, for there are no well-defined boundary lines dividing one sharply from the other. To decide, therefore, whether a soul is as yet within the limits of the purgative way, or has already crossed the borders of the illuminative way, is often impossible; for there is between the two a common ground, the exact bounds of which cannot be determined. b) Besides, the soul's progress is not always a sustained advance; it is a vital action, with its ebb and flow; at times the soul presses onward, at times it recedes; at others, it actually seems but to mark time making no apparent headway.

#629. B) There is in each of the three ways a number of different degrees. a) Among beginners, there are those who have a heavy burden of sin to expiate; others there are who never lost their baptismal innocence. It is evident, all things being equal in other respects, that the former must undergo a longer course of penance than the latter. b) Besides, there are differences arising from temperament, degree of earnestness and constancy. There are souls that eagerly embrace penitential practices, whilst others, on the contrary, do so with reluctance; some are generous and would refuse Almighty God nothing; some respond to His advances only half-heartedly. Undoubtedly, among such souls, all as yet in the purgative way, a marked difference will be in evidence ere long. e) Nay, there is a considerable distance between those who have devoted but a few, short months to the purification of their souls, and those who have already consecrated many years to this task. d) Likewise, and above all, account must be taken of the action of grace. Some souls seem to receive it in such an abundance that we can look to a swift advance toward the heights of perfection; others receive it in far smaller measures and their progress is slower. A spiritual director must bear in mind that his action must be subordinated to that of the Holy Ghost, n. 548.

He must not imagine that there are such things as molds into which all souls must be poured. On the contrary, he must proceed on the assumption that each soul possesses peculiarities of which account must be taken, and that the outlines traced by spiritual writers must be elastic enough to be adapted to each case.

630. C) In the direction of souls there is a twofold danger to avoid. Some would, by a forced march, rush through the early stages, the sooner to arrive at divine love; others, on the contrary, but mark time and, through their own fault, tarry in the lower levels because of a lack of generosity or a lack of method. A spiritual director must frequently remind the former that to love God is, indeed, an excellent thing, but that we do not attain to a pure and effective love, except trough self-abnegation and penance, (n. 321). The latter he must encourage and advise, in order to stir them to action and aid them in perfecting their method of prayer or of self- examination.

631. D) When spiritual writers speak of a particular virtue as being proper to this or that of the three ways, the statement is to be accepted with a great deal of caution. The truth is that all fundamental virtues belong to each of the three ways, varying only in degree. Thus beginners must, assuredly, exercise themselves especially in the virtue of penance, but they cannot do so without the practice of the theological and cardinal virtues, though in a different way from that of the more advanced souls. Beginners practice these virtues chiefly in order to purify their souls through self-denial. These same virtues must be practiced in the illuminative way, but to a different degree, in a more positive fashion, and with a view of resembling all the more the Divine Model. The same must be done in the unitive way, but to a higher degree still, as an earnest of love for God, and under the influence of the gifts of the Holy Ghost.

In like manner, the perfect, whilst exercising themselves above all in the practice of the love of God, do not give up the purification of their souls through penance and mortification; but a purer and more intense love mellows their penitential practices, and gives them greater effectiveness.

#632. E) A similar remark must be made with regard to the different kinds of prayer. Thus, discursive meditation is, generally speaking, suitable for beginners; affective prayer, adapted to advanced souls; and the prayer of simplicity and contemplation, proper to the unitive way. Yet, experience shows the degree of prayer does not always correspond to the degree of virtue, that owing to temperament, training or custom, some persons linger in the exercise of discursive meditation or affective prayer, who are the while intimately and habitually united to God; and that others possessed of greater insight and more affectionate natures, readily practice the prayer of simplicity without having as yet attained that height of virtue which the unitive way demands.

It is important that from the outset we bear in mind these observations so as not to place the virtues in imaginary, air-tight compartments. In the exposition of each virtue, we shall accordingly note carefully the degrees that are in keeping with beginners, with advanced souls, and with those that have attained perfection.


The foregoing remarks show how useful and how necessary is the intelligent study of the Three Ways.

#633. (1) To spiritual directors this study is a real necessity. It is obvious, in fact, "that beginners and perfect souls are not to be guided by the same rules",1 for, as Father Grou2 says, "the grace given to beginners is not that bestowed on souls already advanced, nor is the one granted these the same as that received by those who have reached the heights of perfection."

Thus, discursive meditation, necessary to beginners, would paralyze the efforts of more advanced souls. Likewise, with regard to the virtues, there is a manner of practicing them adapted to the purgative way, another to the illuminative, another to the unitive. A spiritual director who has not delved into these questions is liable to guide almost all souls after the same fashion and to counsel each according to what has answered his own purpose: because he finds affective, simplified prayer of great avail to himself, he will be led to prescribe the same method to all his penitents, unmindful of the fact that, as a rule, this is reached by gradual stages; if he finds in the habitual practice of the love of God all that he needs for his own sanctification, he will be inclined to recommend to all the ways of love, forgetting that fledglings are unable to fly to such heights; should he have never been himself initiated into that form of prayer which consists in a lingering, loving thought of God, the prayer of simple regard, as It is called, he will blame those who exercise themselves therein, claming that this is but spiritual sloth. The director, on the other hand, who has carefully studied the gradual ascent of earnest souls, will know how to give competent counsel and to impart effectual guidance adapted to the actual state of his penitents and calculated to produce the greatest measure of good in their souls.

n1. "Articles d'Issy," n. XXXIV. n2. "Manual For Interior Souls."

#634. (2) The faithful themselves will profit by the study of these various stages of the spiritual life. To be sure, they will be guided by the advice of their spiritual directors; yet, if through well-chosen readings they come to grasp-- at least in the main--the differences that exist between the three ways, they will understand better the counsels given them and will turn them to greater profit.

We shall then take up successively the study of the three ways, bearing in mind, however, that there are no clean-cut divisions between them and that each admits many varieties and forms.