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State or Way (Purgative, Illuminative, Unitive)

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The word state is used in various senses by theologians and spiritual writers. It may be taken to signify a profession or calling in life, as where St. Paul says, in 1 Corinthians 7:20 : "Let every man abide in the same calling in which he was called". We have, in this sense, states of perfection, classified in the Church as the clerical state, the religious state, and the secular state; and among religious states, again, we have those of the contemplative, the active, and the mixed orders.

The word is also used in the classification of the degrees or stages of Christian perfection, or the advancement of souls in the supernatural life of grace during their sojourn in the world. This has reference to the practice of all the virtues, both theological and moral, and to all their acts both external and internal. It includes two elements, namely our own efforts and the grace of God assisting us. This grace is never wanting for those acts which are positively commanded or inspired by God, and the work of perfection will proceed according to the energy and fidelity with which souls correspond with its aids.


In is in the latter sense we have to understand the word state in this article, and, according to the various classes of souls who aspire to perfection in this life, The Fathers and theologians distinguish three stages or states of perfection. These are the states of beginners, the state of progress, and the state of the perfect. These states are also designated "ways", because they are the ways of God by which souls are guided on the road to heaven according to the words of the Psalmist: "He hath made His ways known to Moses : His wills to the children of Israel " ( Psalm 102:7 ). Hence, we have the division of the spiritual life which has been adopted since the time of the Pseudo-Dionysius into the "purgative way", the "illuminative way", and the "unitive way". (See St. Thomas, II-II:163:4 ; Francisco Suárez, "De Religione", Tr. VIII, lib. I, c, xiii). St. Thomas well explains the reason for this division when he says:

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The first duty which is incumbent on man is to give up sin and resist concupiscence, which are opposed tocharity ; this belongs to beginners, in whose hearts charity is to be nursed and cherished lest it be corrupted. The second duty ofman is to apply his energies chiefly to advance in virtue ; this belongs to those who are making progress and who are principally concerned that charity may be increased and strengthened in them. The third endeavor and pursuit of man should be to rest in God and enjoy Him; and this belongs to the perfect who desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ.

Among the condemned propositions of Miguel de Molinos, the author of "the Spiritual Guide" (in which the false mysticism known as Quietism is propounded), is the following: "These three kinds of way, the purgative, illuminative , and unitive , are the greatest absurdity in Mystical Theology " (cf. Constitution "Coelestis Pastor" of Innocent XI, 1687). Avoiding this and other errors of false mystics, it must be borne in mind that energy and activity are required in every stage of our spiritual life, and that we have to accept the degrees of that life and to follow the kind of prayer which is proper to one or other of them according to our state, whether it be the purgative, illuminative, or unitive. Various descriptions of these three ways are given by eminent masters of the spiritual life. Substantially they may all be said to agree, though in details and manner of treatment they may differ.

The Purgative Way

The purgative way is the way, or state, of those who are beginners, that is, those who have obtained justification, but have not their passions and evil inclinations in such a state of subjugation that they can easily overcome temptations, and who, in order to preserve and exercise charity and the other virtues have to keep up a continual warfare within themselves. It is so called because the chief concern of the soul in this state is to resist and to overcome the passions by nourishing, strengthening, and cherishing the virtue of charity. This can and ought to be done not only by keeping the Commandments, but by foreseeing the occasions in which the precepts oblige , so as to be ready by a prompt and well disposed will to resist and avoid any sins opposed to them. This state, although, in one sense, it is imperfect, in another sense may be called a state of perfection, because the soul remains united to God by grace and charity so long as it is free from the stain of mortal sin. Purity of soul may be said to be the proper end of the purgative way, and the forms of prayer suitable for this way or state are meditations on sin and its consequences, and on death, judgment, hell, and heaven. The acts which aid toward uprooting the remnants and habits of former sins, and preventing one from ever returning to them, are corporal austerities, mortification of the appetite, abnegation of one's own will, and conformity to the will of God. In a word, the distinctive notes of this state are war against those temptations which entice the soul to sin by the attraction of pleasures of the senses and the natural shrinking from pain; and repugnance to acts known to be contrary to the will of God. The characteristic virtue of this state is humility, by which the soul is made sensible of its own weakness and its dependence upon the succours of the grace of God.

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What mystical writers describe as the active and passive purifications of the spiritual life may be brought under, and arranged according to, their three states of perfection, though not confined to any one of them. The active purification consists of all the holy efforts, mortifications, labors, and sufferings by which the soul, aided by the grace of God endeavors to reform the mind, heart, and the sensitive appetite. This is the characteristic work of the purgative way. The passive purifications are the means which God employs to purify the soul from its stains and vices, and to prepare it for the exceptional graces of the supernatural life. In the works of St. John of the Cross these purifications are called nights, and he divides them into two classes, the night of the senses and the night of the spirits. In the state of beginners the soul is often favored by God with what are called "sensible consolations" because they have their beginning and are felt chiefly in the senses or sensible faculties. They consist in sensible devotion and a feeling of fervour arising from the consideration of God's goodness vividly represented to the mind and heart; or, from external aids, such as the ceremonies of the Church. These consolations are often withdrawn, and a state of desolation ensues, and then the passive purification of the senses begins.

The Illuminative Way

The illuminative way is that of those who are in the state of progress and have their passions better under control, so that they easily keep themselves from mortal sin, but who do not so easily avoid venial sins, because they still take pleasure in earthly things and allow their minds to be distracted by various imaginations and their hearts with numberless desires, though not in matters that are strictly unlawful. It is called the illuminative way, because in it the mind becomes more and more enlightened as to spiritual things and the practice of virtue. In this grade charity is stronger and more perfect than in the state of beginners; the soul is chiefly occupied with progress in the spiritual life and in all the virtues, both theological and moral. The practice of prayer suitable for this state is meditation on the mysteries of the Incarnation, the life of Our Savior, and the mysteries of His Sacred Passion. As Ven. Luis de Lapuente says,

Though the mysteries of the Passion belong to the illuminative way, especially in its highest degree, which approaches nearest to the unitive way, nevertheless, they are exceedingly profitable for all sorts of persons, by whatever way they walk, and in whatever degree of perfection they live; for sinners will find in them most effectual motives to purify themselves from all their sins ; beginners to mortify their passions ; proficients to increase in all kinds of virtue ; and the perfect to obtain union with God by fervent love. (Introduction to "Meditations on the Passion")

The fundamental virtue of this state is recollection, that is, a constant attention of the mind and of the affections of the heart to thoughts and sentiments which elevate the soul to God -- exterior recollection which consists in the love of silence and retirement, interior recollection in simplicity of spirit and a right intention, as well as attention to God in all our actions.This does not mean that a person has to neglect the duties of his state or position in life, nor does it imply that honest and needful recreation should be avoided, because these lawful or necessary circumstances or occupations can well be reconciled with perfect recollection and the most holy union with God.

The soul in the illuminative way will have to experience periods of spiritual consolations and desolations. It does not at once enter upon the unitive way when it has passed through the aridities of the first purgation. It must spend some time, perhaps years, after quitting the state of beginners in exercising itself in the state of proficients. St. John of the Cross tells us that in this state the soul, like one released from a rigorous imprisonment, occupies itself in Divine thoughts with a much greater freedom and satisfaction, and its joy is more abundant and interior than it ever experienced before it entered the night of the senses. Its purgation is still somewhat incomplete, and the purification of the senses is not yet finished and perfect. It is not without aridities, darkness, and trials, sometimes more severe than in the past. During the period of desolation it will have to endure much suffering from temptations against the theological virtues and against the moral virtues. It will have to endure sometimes other diabolical attacks upon its imagination and senses. Also, God will permit natural causes to combine in afflicting the soul, such as the persecutions of men, and the ingratitude of friends. Patient suffering and resignation have to be borne during all these trials, and the devout soul should remember the encouraging words of the pious and learned Blosius :

Nothing more valuable can befall a man than tribulation, when it is endured with patience for the love of God ; because there is no more certain sign of the divine election. But this should be understood quite as much of internal as of external trials which people of a certain kind of piety forget.

And again he says,

It is the chain of patient suffering that forms thering with which Christ espouses a soul to Himself. (Institutio Spiritualis, viii, 3) The Unitive Way

The unitive way is the way of those who are in the state of the perfect, that is, those who have their minds so drawn away from all temporal things that they enjoy great peace, who are neither agitated by various desires nor moved by any great extent by passion, and who have their minds chiefly fixed on God and their attention turned, either always or very frequently, to Him. It is the union with God by love and the actual experience and exercise of that love. It is called the state of "perfect charity", because souls who have reached that state are ever prompt in the exercise of charity by loving God habitually and by frequent and efficacious acts of that Divine virtue. It is called the "unitive" way because it is by love that the soul is united to God, and the more perfect the charity, the closer and more intimate is the union. Union with God is the principal study and endeavor of this state. It is of this union St. Paul speaks when he says: "He who is joined to the Lord, is one spirit." ( 1 Corinthians 6:17 ). Souls thus united to God are penetrated by the highest motives of the theological and moral virtues. In every circumstance of their lives the supernatural motive which ought to guide their actions is ever present to their mind, and the actions are performed under its inspiration with a force of will which makes their accomplishment easy and even delightful. These perfect souls are above all familiar with the doctrine and use of consolations and desolations. They are enlightened in the mysteries of the supernatural life, and they have experience of that truth proclaimed by St. Paul when he said: "We know that to them that love God, all things work together unto good, to such as, according to His purpose, are called to be saints." ( Romans 8:28 ). The form of prayer suitable to persons in the unitive way is the contemplation of the glorious mysteries of Our Lord, His Resurrection, Appearances, and Ascension, until the coming of the Holy Ghost, and the preaching of the Gospel. These mysteries may also be the subject of meditation for beginners and for those in a state of progress, but in a peculiar manner, they belong to the perfect. Union with God belongs substantially to all souls in a state of grace, but it is in a special manner the distinguishing characteristic of those in the unitive way or in the state of the perfect.

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It is in this state that the gift of contemplation is imparted to the soul, though this is not always the case; because many souls who are perfect in the unitive way never receive in this life the gift of contemplation and there have been numerous saints who were not mystics or contemplatives and who nevertheless excelled in the practice of heroic virtue . Souls, however, who have attained to the unitive state have consolations of a purer and higher order than others, and are more often favored by extraordinary graces ; and sometimes with the extraordinary phenomena of the mystical state such as ecstasies, raptures, and what is known as the prayer of union.

The soul, however, is not always in this state free from desolations and passive purgation. St. John of the Cross tells us that the purification of the spirit usually takes place after the purification of the senses. The night of the senses being over, the soul for some time enjoys, according to this eminent authority the sweet delights of contemplation ; then, perhaps, when least expected the second night comes, far darker and far more miserable than the first, and this is called by him the purification of the spirit, which means the purification of the interior faculties, the intellect and the will. The temptations which assail the soul in this state are similar in their nature to those which afflict souls in the illuminative way, only more aggravated, because felt more keenly; and the withdrawal of the consolations of the spirit which they have already experienced in their greatest affliction. To these trials are added others, peculiar to the spirit, which arise from the intensity of their love for God, for Whose possession they thirst and long. "The fire of Divine love can so dry up the spirit and enkindle its desire for satisfying its thirst that it turns upon itself a thousand times and longs for God in a thousand ways, as the Psalmist did when he said: For Thee my soul hath thirsted; for Thee my flesh O how many ways" ( St. John of the Cross, op. cit. infra, bk. II, xi). There are three degrees of this species of suffering designated by mystical writers as the "inflammation of love ", the "wounds of love ", and the "langour of love ".


Consolation and desolation may be said to be phases of the various stages or states of the spiritual life, rather than distinct states to themselves. The character of permanence does not usually belong to them. They succeed each other, as a rule, and devout souls have to experience both the one and the other, but as they may have sometimes a long period of consolation or desolation the term states may be used in a wide sense when treating of them. Speaking in a general sense, the sense of consolation is that in which the soul enjoys a spiritual sense or impression of close union and intimate converse with God. The state of desolation, on the contrary, is that in which the soul feels itself as it were abandoned by God. Consolation and desolation may be more easily understood when considered in opposition to each other.


In the spiritual order consolation is of three kinds.

The first kind, which is known as "sensible consolation", is that which has its beginning and is felt chiefly in the senses or sensible faculties. It consists in sensible devotion and a feeling of fervour arising from the consideration of God's goodness vividly represented to the mind and heart; or from the external aids and ceremonies of the Church. It is not to be disregarded on this account because it leads us finally to good. St. Alphonsus says, "Spiritual consolations are gifts which are much more precious than all the riches and honors of the world. And if the sensibility itself is aroused, this completes our devotion, for then our whole being is united to God and tastes God." (Love for Jesus, xvii).

The second kind of consolation, which is often the result of the first, and usually remains with the third, is characterized by as facility and even a delight in the exercise of the virtues, especially the theological virtues. St. Ignatius says that any increase in faith, hope, and charity, may be called a consolation (Rule 3 for the discernment of spirits ). By this kind of consolation the soul is raised above the sensible faculties; and in the absence of sensible consolation, truth is perceived at a glance, faith alone operating, enlightening, directing and sustaining the soul, and fervour of the will succeeds to sensible fervour. We should be thankful to God for consolations of this kind and pray for their continuance, and it is these we ask for in the prayer "En ego" usually recited after Communion.

The third kind of consolation affects the higher faculties of the soul, namely the intellect and the will, and in a more perfect way than the second. It consists in special tranquillity and peace of soul, and is the result of the firm determination of the will to live for God with entire confidence in His grace. It is present when, as St. Ignatius says, "the soul burns with the love of its Creator, and can no longer love any creature except for His sake" (Rule 3 for the discernment of spirits ). The soul is conscious of its happiness even though the inferior and sensible faculties may be depressed and afflicted. This is the most perfect kind of all, and it is not often experienced except by the perfect. As the first kind is said to belong to beginners in the way of perfection, the second to those making progress, so the third is said to belong to the perfect.


Spiritual desolation means the feeling of abandonment by God, and of the absence of His grace. This feeling of estrangement may arise from various causes. It may be the result of natural disposition or temperament, or of external circumstances; or it may come from the attacks of the devil ; or from God Himself when for our greater good He withdraws from us spiritual consolation. In contradistinction to consolation spiritual desolation may be of three kinds.

The first is called sensible desolation and is the opposite of sensible consolation. It includes aridities, dissipation of mind, weariness, and disgust in the exercises of piety ; and it is often experienced by beginners in the practice of mental prayer. It may co-exist with consolation of a higher order just as, in the natural. order, we may pain of body and joy of soul at one and the same time.

The second kind of desolation affects the intellect and will, and consists in the privation of the feeling of the presence of the supernatural virtues as described by St. Teresa in her Life (ch. xxx). This trial is extremely severe, but if generously accepted, and patiently endured, it may be turned into great merit, and many fruits of sanctity will be the result. (See letter of St. Francis of Sales to S. Jane Frances de Chantal, 28 March, 1612).

The third kind of desolation is still more severe. It is a darkening of the mind and a feeling of abandonment so great that the soul is tempted to distrust concerning salvation and is tormented by other terrible thoughts against faith, against purity, and even by blasphemous thoughts--the most painful experience which a holy soul has to endure (see St. John of the Cross, op. cit., infra, bk. I, ch. xiv). It would be a great mistake to imagine that spiritual desolation arrests progress in virtue or enfeebles the spirit of fervour. On the contrary, it affords occasion of heroic virtue and of absolute detachment from sensible pleasure, whether natural or supernatural. At the same time we may hope and wish that these interior griefs may be diminished or made to disappear, and we may pray God to deliver us from them, but if all our efforts are in vain, and God permits the desolation to continue, it only remains to resign ourselves generously to His Divine Will.


For the better understanding of the three states or ways in their relations to each other and their effects upon souls tending toward perfection the following directions and observations may be useful.

(1) The three states or ways are not so entirely distinct that there may not appear in any one of them something of the other two. In each and all of them is found the effort and care to preserve and guard the soul from sin, though this is said to belong (appropriately) to the purgative way; in each, virtue has to be practiced, and from its practice light and progress result. Again, in each of them the soul gives itself to God to live in Him and for Him the supernatural life which He imparts to it, and this amy be said to be the commencement of the unitive way. The characteristic and distinctive feature of these states is determined by the form which is dominant in the soul in its efforts toward perfection. When strife and fear predominate, the soul is said to be still in the purgative way. If charity is dominant above all the soul is in the unitive way; but so long as this mortal life lasts, for the strong and the feeble there will always be the labor and activity of purgation, illumination, and of union in the work of supernatural perfection. Francisco Suárez teaches this doctrine in very distinct terms. "These three states", he says, "are never so distinct that any one of them may not participate of the other two. Each of them takes its name and character from that which predominates in it. And it is certain that no one can attain to such a state of perfection in this life that he may not or cannot make further progress." (De Orat., I. II, c. xi, n. 4).

(2) According to the usual manner of advancement, the majority of souls are gradually raised to the state of perfect union after passing through the states of purification and illumination. But this rule is by no means absolute, and a miraculous intervention of an extraordinary grace may bring a soul suddenly from the lowest depths of moral abjection to the most sublime heights of charity, as may be seen in the case of St. Mary Magdalen and other celebrated penitent saints. On the other hand we may find saints in whom the purgative state may predominate even to the end of their lives, and God sometimes withholds the favors of the unitive way from many faithful and fervent souls who have advanced generously in the degrees of the purgative and illuminative ways, and who have all along preserved the fervour of holy charity, which is the essence and crown of perfection.

(3) As a rule, supernatural phenomena of mysticism appear in the most perfect state, namely that of union; one special favor of the mystical life, namely spiritual espousals, supposes the unitive way, and cannot be ascribed to either of the inferior grades of perfection. Many of the other mystical favors, such as ecstasies, visions, locutions, etc., may be found, by way of exception, in the less advanced stages of the spiritual life. As regards the gift of contemplation, although it is proper to those who are perfect in virtue and holiness, still it is sometimes granted to the imperfect and even to beginners so that they may taste of its sweetness. Souls by the exercise of Christian asceticism can prepare themselves for this intimate communication with God, but they should await with humility and patience the time and occasion in which they are to be introduced by their heavenly Spouse into the mystical state of contemplation.

(4) In order to decide as to the dispositions required for frequent and daily communion, it is no longer necessary for a spiritual director to find out or to judge whether a soul is in one or other of these states according to the rules laid down by some modern theologians. All that is now required, as stated in the first clause of the Decree of the Sacred Congregation of the Council of 20 December, 1905, is that the recipient be in a state of grace and approach the Holy Table with a right intention. As already stated, these three states are not easily distinguishable, and the lines of demarcation between them cannot easily be discerned, and therefore could not have been regarded as at any time as very useful as a rule of guidance for frequent Communion. Now the rule is inapplicable, for those in the purgative way may receive Holy Communion just as often as those who are in the illuminative and unitive, as is evident from the decree referred to. We are not, however, to suppose that the rules given by theologians and ascetical writers, founded as they are, on the teachings of the ancient Fathers, with regard to Holy Communion according to the three states or ways no longer serve for edification. They indicate to us what is to be expected as the fruits of frequent Communion received worthily. Frequent Communion is the chief means of preserving and perfecting in our souls the spiritual life, and of supporting them in all its ways.

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