Solemnity of Pentecost, John 15:26-27, 16:12-15
Jesus said to his disciples: “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth.”
Both before his saving death and again after his resurrection, the Lord Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit upon his Apostles. This promise was fulfilled at the feast of Pentecost.
We all recognize the great importance of Pentecost for the life of the Church, since this day is often called the “Day of the birth of the Church”. Further, one can see that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles gave them that missionary zeal to convert the whole world.
What is perhaps less clear is the importance of Pentecost for the interior life of the Apostles, and what this has to do with our own spiritual growth.
The Three Ages of the Interior Life
Following the best of the Catholic spiritual tradition, ranging from St. Dionysius the Areopagite to St. John of the Cross, maintains that the spiritual life of the believer can be understood to pass through three successive stages of growth, which are called the “three ages” of the interior life.
These three ages are properly understood as a progressive growth in the theological virtue of charity. First, the soul abandons all that destroys charity (i.e. mortal sin), then all that hinders charity (i.e. venial sin), and then even every slight movement and occasion which threatens charity (i.e. every occasion of sin).
The Purgative Way
First, there are the beginners who are in the purgative way. These have made their first conversion, moving from a state of mortal sin into the state of grace. Though they perhaps fall often, the beginners at least desire holiness and strive to avoid mortal sin which wholly kills charity in the soul.
Their own efforts will not be sufficient for these beginners to pass to the next stage of the spiritual life, on account of the exalted nature of the life of grace. Thus, the Lord himself must purify them, and he does this through what St. John of the Cross has called the “Dark Night of the Senses”. In this night, God frees the soul from attachment to worldly things and from self-love.
The Illuminative Way
Second, there are the proficients who are in the intermediate way, which is called the illuminative way or the way of infused contemplation. These have undergone the second conversion, which is the dark night of the senses. They have been purified not merely by their own efforts, but by the passive purifications which the Almighty has given them. The proficients not only avoid mortal sins, they even avoid occasions of venial sins. Their charity is much stronger than that of the beginners, but they yet require further purification to reach the heights of sanctity.
The proficients, in order to reach perfect union with God, must be brought by the Almighty into a second night – The “Dark Night of the Soul”. In this night, God purifies the soul which still has too much self-love and which continues to struggle with a slight spiritual pride.
The Unitive Way
Third, there are the perfect who are in the unitive way. These ones are not “perfect” in the sense that they never commit any (even venial) sin or in that they continually enjoy the beatific vision after the manner of the saints in heaven. However, they are “perfect” insofar as nearly all the impediments to charity have been purified and rooted out from their souls. In these ones, charity has come to a certain perfection – even while they remain wayfarers on earth, there is something of heaven within their soul (and they dwell in the innermost mansion, with God himself).
The Interior Life of the Apostles and our own
At first, this threefold division of the interior life may seem somewhat artificial. Someone might ask, “Where is all this in Scripture?”
The great saints, and especially St. Catherine of Siena, together with the theologians (notably, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange) recognize that the interior life of every Christian must be modeled to a certain extent on that of the Apostles. Reading the Gospels, and also Acts of the Apostles, we can see that the Apostles themselves underwent these three stages of spiritual growth.
Upon their calling, the Apostles experienced the first conversion and became beginners in the purgative way.
At the Crucifixion, the Apostles suffered the Dark Night of the Senses which ended with the Resurrection and their entrance into the illuminative way of the proficients.
Finally, a further purification was effected at the Ascension which served as a Dark Night of the Soul. At Pentecost, with the descent of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles came into the unitive way of the perfect.
We can at times be tempted to think that only the great saints are called to the unitive way of the perfect, that such holiness is beyond us. However, everyone is called to spiritual perfection, and everyone is called to be a saint (though perhaps a hidden one).
It is good to remember that the soul is a living organism (it is a supernatural organism) and, like all things living, it is either growing or dying. Thus, each day, we either grow closer to God or we fall away from him – there can be no standing in place.
Now, our Savior told the Apostles that they had great need of the spiritual union which would be effected in their souls at Pentecost – this is the unitive way. If the Apostles required the purification brought about through the Ascension and the further increase in charity effected at Pentecost, how much more do we require this grace!
Each and every one of us is called to the perfection of the unitive way, but the only means for attaining to this great height is to first lower oneself through humility. Humility! Humility! Only through the patient bearing of humiliations (and through loving not only those who are good to us, but even our enemies) can we climb the spiritual mountain!
If spiritual perfection consists in the perfection of charity, and if there is no greater charity than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, it must be clear that holiness is found in putting our own self-love and self-will to death so as to live more and more for God and for our neighbor.