Mapping the Journey

A reader of this blog writes:

Do you assess yourself at what point you are on the mystical mountain.  Do the three stages and with them the two dark nights have any bearing on growth in love of man and God?  It seems at times that over self-analysis is like watching your feet while dancing.  The dancing becomes forced and clumsy. On the other hand, there might be a need for a ladder of ascent for novices.  Do most folks spend their life in the purgative stage with some moments in the unitive and illuminative phases?  This seems to be my lot.  I can’t tell which dark night I’m in or is it just depression.  Gerald May’s book Care of Mind, Care of Spirit offers some general categories which I don’t find that helpful.  Maybe this stuff eludes hard categories.  I know it’s OK to be in the purgative stage but at times it seems hopeless for any desire and will to progress unless God acts with the gift.  Anything we receive is a gift anyway.

Thanks for writing. I think you’ve largely answered your own question, but I’ll share a few of my own thoughts as well. Writers on the mystical life from Evelyn Underhill a century ago, to Robert Davis Hughes in our own time, emphasize again and again that the classic formula of purgation -> illumination -> union needs to be understood strictly as a map, and “the map is not the territory.” Origen, who first came up with the three-part sequence of the spiritual life, based it on his interpretation of three of the wisdom books in the Hebrew Scriptures: purgation corresponds with Proverbs, illumination with Ecclesiastes, and union with the Song of Songs. I think, while this has been an interesting map and many contemplatives have worked with it over the last 1800 years, we need to acknowledge that it is, fundamentally, artificial (and dare I say, contrived). It’s important also to remember that other folks have developed other, more intricate “mystical itineraries,” as Bernard McGinn calls them. Underhill (and Hughes) offer a five-stage model, Richard of St. Victor offers a four-degree model, Bonaventure speaks of six levels of contemplation, and Marguerite Porete develops a seven stage model! So, it’s important to hold all of these “lightly” and to refrain from using them to judge or evaluate our own perseverance. These various models might be useful as tools of discernment, but I would recommend this only in conversation with a trusted spiritual director or soul friend. Often others can see what’s going on in our spiritual lives better than we can see ourselves.

I’m not sure if novices need a “ladder of ascent” any more or less than anyone else. Really, we’re all novices, some of us have just been at it longer than others.

Hughes does suggest that we should think of the spiritual life in terms of tides washing up on the shore, rather than as discrete stages in single linear progression. Thus, it is possible to engage in purgative, illuminative and unitive dimensions of one’s relationship with God pretty much simultaneously. Certainly Benedictine/Cistercian spirituality, with its commitment to the conversion of manners, suggests that purgation is a lifelong process.

One key, I think — coming again from the monastic tradition — is the idea of joyful repentance, which suggests that even the purgative way can be a source of delight in God. Granted, surrendering sin and opening ourselves up to transformational healing can be hard, ego-threatening work, but I see no reason why it must be miserable work. It’s like the question of purgatory: I think Protestants rejected purgatory because it was seen so much as a hellish place. But many Catholics regard purgatory as a place of great wonder and excitement, a room in heaven rather than in hell. Once you enter purgatory, the exit door leads to the great banquet hall. You are there simply to get a manicure and take a lovely bubble bath before your intimate date with your beloved. I for one cannot think of anything more delightful than taking the extra effort to clean myself up before a special evening with my wife. S0 — even for Protestants who reject the idea of purgatory — I think we can all agree that the hard work of holiness and penitence in this life ought to be an occasion for joy, if entered into in the right spirit — a spirit of trust and hope and confidence in God’s love for us, and humble recognition that everything we do to improve ourselves is ultimately a gift of grace to begin with.

Somehow, I suspect that once we embrace the lifelong possibility of joyful purgation, questions of illumination and union will then begin to sort themselves out.

Finally, you do mention an important matter in the question of discerning the distinction between a dark night experience and depression. I think the key here is serenity. As bleak and as foreboding as a dark night experience might be, it is always directed by the Holy Spirit and so the soul truly willing to undergo this process will, it seems to be, enter it in a spirit of humility and trust. That doesn’t have to be perfect — part of what is stripped away in a dark night is our tendency not to trust — but I think it will be a discernible quality. Ultimately, though, I think discernment really is the key here, and if anyone suspects that they are struggling with depression, they owe it to themselves and to those they love to seek out help. Likewise, the challenges of a dark night experience ought not be faced alone. So either way, a person moving into such a shadow stage of their life journey will be wise to remain (or become) connected with a soul friend, priest or pastor, or therapist (hopefully, a therapist sensitive to the dynamics of the spiritual life, and thankfully this is true of more and more therapists). I believe that love is the best antidote for depression and the most reliable lifeline through a dark night experience. So we all need to be nurturing our relationships, even if they’re professional or therapeutic in nature.

I hope this is helpful. Thanks for writing!

Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
Happy St. Hildegard's Day!
In Memoriam: Kenneth Leech
Sanctity and Struggle, or, Why Saints Have Chaotic Inner Lives (Hint: It's Because We All Do)
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • brazenbird


    Thank you for sharing this. I agree, we are all novices. The day I realized that was the day I was able to stop looking for a human shepherd to lead and teach me into a deeper spirituality with God. We are here to help each other. I’ve been blessed by a moment of holding my teacher’s hand while her wave was receding and she’s been at this far longer than I. It was a humbling and teachable moment. A reminder of things to come.

    I find myself getting less caught up in the benchmarks and I wonder if it might have to do with reframing my view of time (and thus progression) as spherical rather than linear. I don’t know though.

    Joyful repentance is so very important and not previously available to me until I released the belief in Original Sin. In reading J. Philip Newell’s books on Celtic Christianity, I’ve come to find hope instead of dread when I pray. The gift of grace began for me, not when I realized my depravity, but rather the moment I was born into the world in the image of the One who made me.

    Finally, if I may make one more comment. I have depression. I have received help in all its forms and you are certainly right to suggest that a person suffering from depression get the help that is available to them. Do not wait. There was a time when I was contemplating going off my medication because I was afraid they were interfering with my spiritual work and growth. I decided to go on taking the meds for a variety of reasons and I’m glad I did because otherwise I might not be here to share this part of the journey. I also continued on with my spiritual work. I have found that I need less and less medication and that what I suspected all along was true: the depression has been a result (in part) of anxiety in my spiritual life that manifested itself in other areas of my life.

    My only qualm is that I too believe love is the best antidote to depression and all of what ails us. BUT – before we can receive that Love there’s often a lot of work that must be done in a therapist’s chair and in the daily taking of a medication that can help us move forward. Granted, this is not everyone’s experience, but I get fluttery at the notion that Jesus can cure us or that Love can fill the gaps when a person might really need actual medical help before he or she can recognize the truths of Christ and Love.

    • Carl McColman

      …before we can receive that Love there’s often a lot of work that must be done in a therapist’s chair and in the daily taking of a medication that can help us move forward.

      I agree wholeheartedly. Thanks for making this important point.

  • Bob

    Thanks for the encouraging wisdom and knowledge of different understandings of the journey. I like the picture of the incoming tides. The map is a good tool for discernment. One point though: we might be novices but others have gone before us to map out the terrain and the lay of the land that is ahead. There is a tension there: either guilt and pressure or models to strive for. But as you said holding it “lightly” is important.