Three Stages of the Spiritual Life

Since the Fall of Adam and Eve to the present day, human beings have had a darkened vision of world, of reality, of the truth, and of God. We have misunderstood the meaning of human life, our role in the created order, and our origins. Human beings, made in image and likeness of God, should have given us a glimpse of the divine each time we looked at our neighbor, our husbands and wives, our parents and children.

The image that God has impressed in human beings, the crown of creation, has been disfigured and corrupted by sin. Therefore, our vision of the unfallen natural human being and of God Himself has been disfigured and corrupted. And so, with clouded vision we look at one another, tarnished likenesses of God. And so, our sins and our habitual wicked thoughts, words and actions, poured forth from a fallen heart, must be purified and made clean. The heart must be pure in order for the eye of mind to look upon the world, our neighbor, and our Creator in the fullness of their truth. Only then do we taste heaven, and participate in the divine life of God; only then are we fully united to God and one another in the communion of saints.

Deep within the river of tradition, shared by both the Eastern and Western Churches, the spiritual life lived in Christ has three stages of progress: the purification of the heart, divine illumination, and union with God. These are called in Greek: catharsis, theoria, and theosis. The following will describe each of these three stages. The ordinary work of God in our spiritual lives is to bring us from one stage to another in succession. Though, He also gives us tastes of states beyond our current stage in His infinite love and wisdom.

Purification of the Heart

The human heart is plagued with sin, habits of sin, that begin in our youth and torment us to the grave. In the Greek tradition, the word for these habitual sins is “passion(s).” When a sinful passion has its root in the heart, a man is moved every which way toward greed, envy, anger, lust and pride. He seems unable or unwilling to be unmoved by the stimuli of daily life. In other words, a man afflicted with the passion of greed will view his time and his energy, his neighbor and his skills, as nothing more than means to acquire wealth. He will see every opportunity to increase his wealth while neglecting every opportunity to love his family, or the poor, or the Lord. Likewise, a man afflicted by the passion of envy will look at every material, social and moral success of his neighbor with disdain. He will irresistibly undermine their good fortune with his thoughts, words and actions. He will look at the wealth of his neighbor and immediately turn to thoughts of ingratitude for his own lack of wealth. Or, he will look at the praise given to his neighbor for a good and honorable work and immediately find fault. These passions take such deep root in the human heart that sinful thoughts, words and actions become a second nature, a fallen nature.

In order to separate the human heart from the passions, the process of purification begins with what St. Theophan the Recluse* calls, a “grace-filled awakening.” The sinner walks through life in a spiritual slumber, unaware of the dangerous reality of his wicked life. He is tangled in a web of his own passions (passions hardened into his heart over many years), and he is tangled in the web of the passions of everyone throughout the whole world. Then, grace enters his heart. A sword pierces his inner life. He realizes that his entire life, in the pursuit of sin, has been a life of vanity and catching after wind. The entire vision of the world and his whole life shatters in an instant; he awakens from his slumber. Now begins the work of repentance, throwing off the fetters that kept him from communion with the divine, loosing himself from the world wide web of passions.

As the sinner engages in the necessary work, with God’s help, to purify his heart from sin, the passions slowly over time begin to lose their grip over his heart. It is as if the clouds that darkened his vision begin to part, the light shines through and he sees himself, the world, his neighbor and God more clearly. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).

Divine Illumination

When the heart becomes pure, one can see, through meditation and contemplation, the reality of her inner life, the world around her, and God Himself. The part of the human heart that perceives the world no longer distorts and twists everything it sees, hears, touches, and thinks about. When she reads the Scripture, the illumined woman understands as God intended her to understand rather than according to merely human or darkened reasoning. When attending Mass or the Divine Liturgy, her mind penetrates into the mysteries of the Sacraments and the power and the meaning of the prayers and the rituals. Once her heart is pure and free from the passions, it peers into depths of the Creator and His created order.

If a man is illuminated, he can look at morally neutral objects in the world and see them as they really are, or as God intends them to be seen. He no longer sees the world as a means to fulfill his own passions. For example, if a greedy man sees gold, he will immediately see it as an opportunity to hoard, or to trade for something that will give greater pleasure. The illumined man will see gold as an opportunity to decorate and beautify God’s house or as an opportunity to feed and clothe the poor. Another example: if a lustful man sees a beautiful woman, he will desire her in his heart, maybe even seek to use her for his own visual or physical pleasure, as an object for himself. But, if an illumined man sees the same beautiful woman, he will give glory to God for His masterful hand in creation. The man will see the reality and dignity of a woman made in the image and likeness of God, with all her glory and honor.

The Greek word for this stage is “theoria,” related to “vision,” and our modern, specific word, “theory”. In my opinion, the ability to see the world, our neighbor, and God with clarity of vision is an essential aspect of being a good scientist. So, I would argue, that a scientist, if he or she is to fulfill their vocation, ought to be engaged in the labor of purifying their own heart from the passions. Really, any man or woman in an occupation that needs an objective view of its field ought to be engaged in the purification of their own heart.

Union with God

Finally, the third stage is called in Greek, “theosis.” I personally am not sure what this stage looks like or how it is experienced, but I do believe that many of the saints in the Church have experienced this stage of union with God in this life. “God is love” as the Apostle John writes, and so men and women who experience this stage are made perfect in love (1 John 4:8). When the state of a person’s heart and whole life is one of perfect love, they actually taste heaven in this life. Theosis then becomes an unending growth toward deeper union with God. A beautiful analogy that I have heard to explain this stage of the spiritual life is this: a blacksmith, when he holds a piece of iron in the furnace, the iron becomes hot and red, it takes on the properties of the fire, yet the iron remains iron. Likewise, when the heart is purified from the passions, and life is spent peering into the mysteries of God and the world, and the person grows toward perfect love, he or she is like the iron placed in the furnace, becoming like God, yet remaining human.

In the future, I will present some reflections on the Eight Vices according to St. John Cassian. Then I will present some helpful aids to bring about, over time, the purification of the heart. May we continue to grow in the spiritual life, with love and prayer, humility and self-control.


Author’s note: Three webinars were presented through God With Us Online, an initiative of the ECED, who provide catechetical formation for many of the Eastern Catholic Churches. The series can be found here: https://godwithusonline.org/events/purification-of-the-heart/

*St. Theophan the Recluse is a Russian Orthodox saint of the 19th century.

By

Fr. Thomas lives in Manchester, New Hampshire with his wife and daughter. He is a full-time high school theology teacher in Nashua, NH and administrator of St. Basil the Great Melkite Greek Catholic Church in Utica, NY. He serves as an assistant director, host and presenter for God With Us Online at www.godwithusonline.org. He graduated from Sts. Cyril and Methodius Byzantine Catholic Seminary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 2017 with a Master of Divinity (M.Div.) degree.

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