THE SPIRITUAL LIFE
A TREATISE ON ASCETICAL AND MYSTICAL THEOLOGY
by the Very Reverend Adolphe Tanquerey, S.S., D.D.
SECOND PART PRELIMINARY REMARKS1
#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
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
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.
I. BASIS OF THE DISTINCTION OF THE THREE WAYS
#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
A) No doubt, many texts could be found in the Old Testament suggesting the
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
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
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
minded..be 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
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
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).
I I. THE PRACTICAL WAY TO EMPLOY THIS DISTINCTION WISELY
#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-
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.
III. IMPORTANCE OF THE STUDY OF THE THREE WAYS
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
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.