Wednesday, September 25, 2019

September 2019, Retreat Talks on the Three Ages of the Interior Life and the Apostles (Father Ryan Erlenbush, Corpus Christi Parish)

Talks given for a Secular Carmelite Retreat for lay people devoted to our Lady of Mount Carmel and the Carmelite spirituality, September 13 and 14.

Theme: The Three Ages of the Interior Life as modeled in the experience of the Apostles in following the Lord.  God leads our soul through three phases or "ages" of the spiritual life: The purgative ways of the beginners, the illuminative way of the proficients, and the unitive way of the perfect. We see that the Apostles were also lead through these stages to spiritual maturity as they grew closer with the Lord.

I. Introduction to the Three Ages of the Interior Life

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II. The Purgative Way of Beginners

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III. The Illuminative Way of Proficients

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IV. The Unitive Way of the Perfect

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Introduction to Three Ages of the Interior Life

I. The call to Christian Perfection, grace as the beginning of Life Everlasting
We must remember that all are called to perfection—“Be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Every vocation and state of life: Universal Call to Holiness.
We begin with thoughts of heaven, and recognize that “heaven is within you” – Even as St Teresa of Avila states in the Interior Castle.

II. Infused contemplation is the normal way to sanctity, it is not an extraordinary grace but the ordinary growth of the spiritual life. The virtues find their perfection in the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, which themselves lead to contemplation. This is infused contemplation, the working of the Gifts in the interior life of the soul.

III. What do we mean by the “three ages” of the interior life? Even as there are “ages” or “stages” in our natural life (childhood, adolescence, adulthood), so also in the spiritual life – we grow. The three ages are the beginners, the proficients (intermediate), and the perfect. St John of the Cross speaks of the purgative way (mortification, penance), the illuminative way (contemplation), and the unitive way.

IV. The “dark nights” through which we pass.  As there are periods of “crisis” in the natural growth of a child to a man (coming to the age of reason, puberty), so also in the spiritual life. The dark night of the senses and the dark night of the soul – however, unlike the body, these are often not passed through only once, but must be endured several times until the soul is properly purified. Because so many people are unschooled in the ways God generally directs souls, they reach a dark night and give up, not realizing that God is inviting them to come to deeper union with him.
NOTE: This is why it is so important to read the best books from the great saints on the spiritual life, and not be satisfied with the popular writings of the day.

V. Lest this become too abstract, we will consider how the Lord led the Apostles through these three ages – our spiritual lives are modeled by the lives of the Apostles.  Purgative way: From first being called to the time of the Crucifixion. Illuminative way: From the Resurrection to the Ascension. Unitive way: From Pentecost to their martyrdoms.

VI. What is most important is to emphasize that our “first conversion” is not a stopping point! Neither is it enough simply to reach the way of proficients – we are called to perfection! The first conversion to begin following the Lord already contains within itself the intention to be fully united to him, even as the first profession of the religious already contains the intention of permanence.  (One of the main reasons so many end up in purgatory rather than heaven is that they failed to reach the unitive way in this life – and God always provides the grace to gain Christian Perfection).

VII. Even as it is unnatural and unhealthy if a boy were to reach adolescence and remain there, never growing into adulthood – so also, it will not be enough for us to convert and follow the Lord only in the first two ages; we must strive for the way of the perfect.

VIII. We will speak a great deal about the interior life and prayer, but always remember that humility and the practice of virtue is key.  What good would tears and soft sighing during prayer be, if we fail to make any real changes in our life? But it is prayer which will give us the strength to follow the Lord through the practice of virtue.

IX. Words of encouragement for the retreat:
A. Keep the quiet – not only through refraining from outward speaking, but also restricting the senses of sight and hearing. Even more, keep the interior quiet – focusing the mind on God, gently turning ourselves from thoughts of the world to thoughts of God.
B. The Liturgy: Take the Mass as the core of the day, the high point of the day, the essential moment of each day of the retreat – especially preparation for Mass and thanksgiving after. The Breviary is the prayer of the Church and nourishes us, especially during the retreat. Adoration and other quasi-liturgical moments.
C. Meditations: Connected with each lecture, I will give suggested Scriptural passages for meditation – insofar as they may be helpful.

X. Meditations. John 1:35-51. Matthew 4:18-22. Matthew 5:1-16.


The Purgative Way of Beginners
The Apostles: From their calling to Good Friday

I. The First Conversion: The incredible value of grace, which is the beginning of the life of heaven (as a seed to a tree).  Consider that which is without life (rocks), that which is with vegetative or animal life (trees, beasts), that which has rational life (men, angels). Yet infinitely greater still is the life of God, the divine life which dwells within us by grace.  Now, on earth, God is within us – but in heaven, we dwell within God.

II. Thus, we must be firmly resolved to avoid mortal sin, but also deliberate venial sin. For, sin destroys or wounds the divine life in us. Likewise, treasure the life of grace we enjoy – and be grateful for it.  Comparison to St Raymond Nonnatus, if a liberated captive were to voluntarily return to imprisonment, this is like choosing sin.

III. Review of the three ages, and comparison to the seven mansions of St Teresa of Avila. The purgative way of beginners corresponds to the first three mansions of St Teresa. The illuminative way of proficients to the fourth and fifth mansions. The unitive way of the perfect is the sixth and seventh mansions. We will discuss each of these in detail as we come to them.

IV. Characteristics of the beginners – the purgative way. In this first age of the interior life, the soul is very active. We engage in mortifications and penances, the practice of virtues, humility, examinations of conscience, etc. The reception of the Sacraments (especially confession and communion) are extremely important. All of this will continue in the later ages, but this activity on the part of the soul stands out more in this age than any other.

V. The prayer of beginners: Actively meditating upon the mysteries of the faith. The beginners are very much “in control” of their prayer, and often there is a complexity to it (meaning, various topics covered in each period of prayer). Vocal prayer is very important, and active meditations – note the difference, in Catholic usage, between meditation (which is active) and contemplation (which is passive).

VI. Direction of beginners: They need wise, firm and paternal direction, which focusses especially on mortification, prayer, the sacraments, practice of virtue and the sanctification of daily life. Beginners must be on guard particularly against relapses into sin.  Additionally, beginners must avoid spiritual gluttony whereby they seek consolations in prayer and “good feelings” – they must also not seek to progress too quickly, but patiently await God’s working in their souls. Lastly, beginners must avoid a secret pride or rigidity in their mortifications and austerities – while necessary, our active works of purification will only take us so far, and it is God who causes growth in the soul.

VII. Practices for beginners: Self knowledge is so important!  Discerning the predominant fault, and working against it daily. The daily examination of conscience and frequent confession. The practice of mortification – so many never grow because of the lack of mortification (compare our age to the penances of previous generations of Catholics).

VIII. Prayer in beginners: Focus on the mysteries, without trying to “clear the mind” (note from St Teresa on why it is impossible, and why Eastern prayer is so dangerous). After setting the scope of the prayer and determining the mystery to be considered, focus especially on the love of God revealed for you in that mystery.  Follow this meditation with many acts of love and great affection – but without trying to engage the emotions excessively. Daily resolutions to put the fruit of prayer into practice.

IX. The Apostles as beginners. We recognize the many imperfections of which the Apostles still had to be purified after they began to follow the Lord. They often misunderstand the Lord, or are slow to believe. They argue amongst themselves and seek their own glory. And, while they have left everything to follow the Lord, they still seek greatness and success.

X. A crisis will come: The Dark Night of the senses. The Crucifixion of Jesus.

X. Meditations: Consider when Jesus was asleep in the boat during a storm (Mark 4:35-41). When the Apostles debated who was the greatest, at the Last Supper (Luke 22:14-28).


The Illuminative Way of the Proficients
The Apostles from the Resurrection to the Ascension

I. A further conversion is needed, to bring us from the age of beginners to the age of proficients. This comes as a surprise to most who are authentically seeking to follow the Lord, and when they are challenged to grow, they can easily become discouraged.

II. The Dark Night of the Senses. God desires to lead the soul into a more intimate union, so that she relies not so much on her own works but on him. Although the soul is alive to the spiritual life, she needs to be purified in a manner which is beyond her own capabilities (for the Divine Life far exceeds anything that can be gained by human effort). Thus, God draws the soul into the passive purification of the Dark Night – withdrawing consolations, the soul finds joy neither in God nor in the world, but is shrouded in darkness.  In fact, God has not withheld light, but is pouring into the soul a much more brilliant spiritual light – the light of infused contemplation, but the soul is not yet able to recognize this gift or take joy in it.  [St John of the Cross cautions against too easily presuming we are in the Dark Night – many think every desolation is a night]

III. The Crucifixion as the Dark Night of the Senses for the Apostles. They had hoped for success and a tangible victory, but all this was stripped away by our Lord’s Death. There is a passive purification of the soul, something which the Apostles could never have gained through their own efforts. What can the soul do during the Dark Night of the senses? Persevere in prayer, practice works of mercy – consider the women who cared for our Lord’s body and then went to the tomb early on Sunday morning.

IV. Four practices during the Dark Night of the Senses: A spiritual director will be most helpful (comments on what to look for, and what to do if you can’t find a director). Persevere with confidence in God and do not afflict yourself (do not look excessively for a fault on your part, but trust that God is working). When mediation becomes difficult and impossible, as it will in the dark night, the soul should rest in a simple loving gaze toward God (when meditation is not so difficult, it should be practiced in a very simple way – example, slowly considering the Our Father prayer). Finally, do not even desire to move forward too quickly, or before the Lord brings you there.

V. Then, even as the Resurrection came on the third day, without any expectation or human effort, so also the Lord will bring people through the Dark Night to the Illuminative way.

VI. Mediations. Matthew 27:57-28:10. John 20:1-31.


The Unitive Way of the Perfect
The Apostles from Pentecost to their martyrdom

I. The soul is betrothed to God in the illuminative way of the proficients, she is greatly desirous of union with her King.  Consider the Fifth and Sixth Mansions of St Teresa – the soul like a butterfly, not able to ascend to heaven but no longer satisfied with remaining on earth. Suddenly, just before she gains her Lord, the soul is plunged into a great darkness.

II. The necessity of a further purification of the soul: Consider the Apostles in the time of the illuminative way. They are advanced, but still so imperfect – Peter and John at the sea of Tiberius (John 21:15-25); The Apostles just before the Ascension (Acts 1:6-14). They seek spiritual things (Heaven and the Gospel) but still in a human way – but divine realities must be sought in a divine way. And so, our Lord must remove his visible presence from them (consider how unexpected this is, how surprising that we benefit from the Ascension) – and they must wait, with Mary, until the Holy Spirit is sent.

III. The Dark Night of the Soul is of such intensity that the first purification/night seems as nothing. The soul feels completely abandoned by God, but she still has faith – she may even feel as though she is damned. This is purgatory on earth. The only thing that helps: Acts of charity.

IV. The unitive way of the perfect – heaven on earth. The soul lives in continuous union with God. However, there are still venial sins and misunderstandings at times – but the love is perfected. Even St Peter was in error after Pentecost, when he would not eat with the Gentiles (Galatians 2:11-14)


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