According to the doctrine of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, the progress of growth in holiness and union with God in prayer rises together. Beginning with the most simple and human practices the person is transformed, supernaturalized, in their exterior life with man and in their interior life with God. This progress can be summarized as being emptied of self and being filled with God, or putting off the old man (Adam) and putting on the new man (Christ), or simply, conformity to Christ. It involves acts on the part of the Christian, but even more so the initiative and grace of God to raise the person to the heights of holiness, to which all are called but which few seem to achieve. Padre Pio is one who answered that call.
Growth in the Spiritual Life.
The Second Vatican Council in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium (Ch. V) affirmed what the Church has always taught, that every Christian is called to holiness. Jesus said "be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect" (Mt 5:48), yet few seem to know how to go about that. Padre Pio, however, following the example of the saints, climbed this mystical ladder that leads to God (Gen 28:10-12).
The common teaching of the Church divides the path to sanctity into three divisions. These are general stages, suited to the purification of fallen human nature, that apply to all in some measure, but not necessarily in the same way. God in His Wisdom conforms this general pattern to the need of each, depending on the type of life (active versus contemplative), as well as the individual strengths and weaknesses of the person. However, the divisions are useful for what they say about growth in holiness and prayer.
I. The Way of Beginners.
The person who turns to God in faith and been baptized has entered upon the way of the beginner (Jn 3:5). They have been made just in the sacramental waters of baptism, received sanctifying grace, the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity (1 Cor 13), the infused or supernatural moral virtues (Wis. 8:7) and the Gifts of the Holy Spirit (Is 11:2-3). However, they are yet babies on the way. God gives them milk not solid food (1 Cor 3:2), because they cannot tolerate anything stronger. They are called to surrender more and more to the righteousness within them, so that they can be completely sanctified (Rom 6:19), receiving grace upon grace (Jn 1:16).
But in order to receive the soul must first be emptied, of attachment to sin, of attachment to creatures and of attachment to self (Jn 3:30). For this reason the Way of Beginners is also called the Purgative Way. The beginner in the spiritual life must dedicate himself to giving up mortal sin, the serious moral lapses that not only can end his progress in the spiritual life but precipitate him into hell if he should die in that condition. A life of mortal sin is incompatible with the grace of God (1 Cor 6:9-11). The beginner must root out such sin from his life since God will not force him to be holy when the sinner himself places obstacles to the operation of grace. This can only be accomplished by persistent personal effort to avoid sin and to repent immediately from it when it is committed. Christ has supplied the sacramental grace-filled means (Penance, Eucharist) to obtain victory and if used often and well it will be had. The beginner must do his part, however, avoiding mortal sin, and when that is conquered, working to eliminate even venial sin from his life. As shall be seen this last is unlikely to be accomplished at this early stage of the spiritual life.
Together with the effort to overcome oneself must be the effort to draw closer to God (James 4:8). This is done through prayer. Knowledge of God leads to greater love of God, greater love of God to the desire to know God better. For good reason Scripture reveals that intimacy with God is like the intimacy and knowledge of marriage (Gen. 4:1, Hosea 2:19-20, Song of Songs, Eph. 5: 23-32, Rev.19:9) in which loving and knowing are one. God is known only by faith, so the person who wants to grow in charity (love of God, and of others for God's sake) must grow in the virtue of faith. This is accomplished by exercising the faith we already have. By cooperating with the grace of faith we already have we dispose ourselves for its increase, an increase which only God can give. This is done by prayerful meditation on the truths we know by faith. The Scriptural call to do this can be found in the Bible's great book of prayer, the Psalms.
1 Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
2 but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.
3 He is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.
7 The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple;
8 the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes;
9 the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring for ever; the ordinances of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.
11 Moreover by them is thy servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.
12 But who can discern his errors? Clear thou me from hidden faults.
13 Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me! Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.
14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
The prosperity of the just man is not material prosperity but prosperity in the ways of grace, in knowing and loving the Lord. This comes to him from walking in the counsels of the Lord (rooting out sin from his life) and meditating on the Law of the Lord day and night. By Law is meant the Torah, the books of Moses, what had been revealed by God up to that time. For the Catholic, Divine Revelation consists of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, thus everything which is in the deposit of the faith, that which the Church teaches as revealed by God, is a fitting object of meditation.
The person who meditates, therefore, considers what God has revealed in order to change his life. This means that meditation is more than study. It is a prayerful conversation with God about His truth and its meaning and application in my life. How does it teach me to love God? How does it teach me to love neighbor? What changes in my life does it demand? Meditation leads one to a greater knowledge of revealed truth and a greater knowledge of God, as well as practical effort to love and serve God and neighbor more.
As a person practices meditation faithfully, whether using Scripture, the Catechism, the rosary or some other source of Divine truth, it is the natural process of the human mind to simplify its concepts of things - bringing out of the complexity of many ideas a simpler grasp of the truth. Like knowing a person well, knowledge of God and His revealed truth becomes more intuitive and less pure reasoning. In the human heart the love of God also becomes simpler and more direct, unconfounded by less worthy motives. This kind of prayer has been called acquired contemplation (as regards the intellect) or the prayer of simple union (as regards the will). Acquired means that it is within the reach of human effort and is not by itself supernatural. If meditation is looking at a beautiful sunset and thinking about the reds, the greens, the purples, the clouds, the earth, analyzing and appreciating it from various angles and perspectives, contemplation grasps the whole as if one, experiencing the awe and breathtaking wonder of it. In the will the person finds themselves loving God with ease, without having to make many acts to rise to fervor. This twin simplicity of intellectual and will-acts is the immediate prerequisite for supernatural prayer, what is called infused contemplation or mystical prayer, which only God can give.
II. The Way of Proficients or The Illuminative Way.
By the end of the Purgative Way the person has done all that he can do humanly speaking, assisted by God's actual grace, to love God by overcoming sin and to know God by understanding His revealed Truth. What is required for continued growth is God's intervention in the soul to root out the vestiges of sin and to enlighten the soul about the truth beyond what meditation has accomplished.
At a time of God's choosing God begins to infuse the supernatural light of contemplation into the soul of the person during prayer. According to St. John of the Cross this new light is at first not comprehensible. The one who before was able to meditate, to obtain great fruit from the time set aside for prayer, now finds himself in darkness, dryness, confusion, unable to receive any consolation from prayer. St. John tells us this is because the mind is not equipped to receive this light. Like the human eye looking into the sun, which it is not naturally equipped to look at, instead of seeing better the person can't see at all. To this God adds external difficulties and sufferings, which forces him to trust in God more, rather than less. Thus, without light, they must have faith, without support they must have hope and without consolation they must love. This Dark Night of the Senses, as St. John calls it, purifies the soul and enters it upon the way of holiness and mystical prayer.
When the Dark Night is over the person is able to appreciate and understand the graces of contemplation they are receiving, because the Dark Night has purified him and conformed him to this supernatural way of prayer. It is thereafter during such illumination that God grants the person insights into the Truth that are given as a gift and not as the fruit of theological study or meditation. Private revelations, locutions and the like may begin to occur at this time. However, they are not a necessary component of the Illuminative Way, which consists essentially in the deeper understanding of the mysteries of the faith given as a gift of intellectual light from God. The soul is also filled with great zeal for God's honor, desiring to propagate the love of God through the apostolate or such means as are available to it.
Despite this great advance in holiness, St. John of the Cross warns against any complacency, and especially against pride. The Dark Night of the Senses has rooted out the grosser vestiges of sin, but sin can still manifest itself in spiritual forms, since for each of the capital sins there is a spiritual form. For example, the one who might no longer fall into material avarice can still be spiritual greedy. This capital sin can take the form of excessive curiosity, for knowledge, for new lights, new revelations, not putting into practice what they have learned but becoming a spiritual dilettante. Since the devil can appear as an angel of light, St. John strongly cautions souls against seeking extraordinary graces of any kind. Because of the many dangers of pride and self-deception, the need of a spiritual director for someone who has begun to receive mystical graces is great.
III. The Way of the Perfect or Unitive Way.
In order to be purified of the last spiritual vestiges of sin, its roots sunk deep into the soul, the person whom God calls to enter into the Unitive Way must go through another Dark Night, this time of the spirit. St. John tells us that this Dark Night of the Spirit is far more intense than the Night of the Senses, since the purgation needed to purify spirit, the soul, is greater than that needed to purify the senses. In this it can be compared to the purification of purgatory, but accompanied by the material turmoil, such as sickness, persecution, human abandonment, that God sends the soul at this time. Like the earlier Night the soul must rely on God alone, in pure faith, hope and love.
Upon exiting this trial the soul, by its freely chosen total abandonment and fidelity to the grace of God, finds itself in irreversible union with Him. God grants it what has been called the Mystical Marriage (anticipating the Marriage of the Lamb and His Bride at the end of time) or the Conforming Union. The human will, flooded with the experience of God's goodness, is no longer capable of turning away from Him. It is captured by the beauty of the Bridegroom. Any imperfections in its moral life are just that, the indeliberate frailty of nature, rather than the deliberate venial sins of the will. Mortal sin is an impossibility, since the experience of God confirms it in grace. As St. John of the Cross states, only the veil of the flesh separates the soul in the state from the Beatific Vision. At death it is assured of immediate entry into God's Presence, since it has undergone its purgatory on earth.