A Journey Through the Spiritual Life (#8)
You shall be my witnesses
“Christian perfection consists in union with God.”1
This is our objective here on earth. Jesus prayed for us to come into full union with Himself and the Father.2 By virtue of the perfect prayer of Jesus, this union is possible for any baptized Christian who perseveres in prayer.
Union with God starts and ends in prayer. In fact, prayer IS union with God.3 It is in prayer that we find strength. It is in prayer that we find peace. It is in prayer that we find the love of God, the living water. This is why St. Paul says that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”4
Every ordinary person, no matter their state in life, gifts, talents or responsibilities, can live in union with God. You should not dismiss the possibility of a mystical prayer life because you live an “ordinary” life. You were created for union with God.
Nor should you fall into the trap of false humility, dismissing the possibility of living in union with God because you consider yourself a sinner. (Spoiler alert, we are all sinners!) St. Paul, perhaps the greatest Christian mystic of all time, described himself as the greatest of sinners:
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners; but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.5
Regardless of where you are in your spiritual journey, if you take away nothing else from this series of articles on the three ages of the spiritual life, it is my prayer for you that you would make a resolution to set aside time to pray every day.
The third age of the spiritual life—the unitive way—is “spiritual maturity, the perfect age attainable in this life.”6 “Although commonly regarded as the last stage in the spiritual life, it is recognized that the three traditional levels of progress in holiness are not chronological. They may be present, in greater or less degree, at any point in a person's growth in sanctity.”7
When we reach some degree of union with God, “we will find an orderly peace and tranquility; we will realize a harmony of soul which, when fully subject to God, will receive His vivifying influence; there will be a harmony of body and soul, of the senses and the spirit. We will find peace and will be able to give it to others.”8 “Such souls almost always keep their peace even in the midst of the most painful and unforeseen circumstances, and they communicate it frequently to the most troubled.”9
“The end of the interior life here below, is union with God, a union still imperfect but which is the principle and pledge of perfect union which awaits us in Heaven.”10 “Its principal feature is a more or less constant awareness of God's presence, and a habitual disposition of conformity to the will of God.”11 “The spiritual age of the perfect is characterized by almost uninterrupted conversation with God, loved purely above all, together with the ardent desire of making Him known and loved.”12
Those in the unitive way “still commit venial sins through fraility or surprise, but they avoid deliberate venial sin and also slight, conscious and voluntary imperfections. They are faithful to the inspirations of the Holy Ghost, whether these inspirations remind them of a duty, even though quite unimportant, or of a simple counsel.”13 “The Spirit of God reveals to these souls what they should know, reminds them of what they should remember, . . . causes them to forget whatever deserves to be forgotten, to love what is worthy of their love, and to love nothing that is not found in God.”14
“Union with God has many degrees, as do charity and the gifts of the Holy Spirit.”15 “In the perfect, the prayer of desire is almost continuous.”16 Love constantly urges us “to seek the presence of the loved one,” which is union, “or at least to converse with him in one’s thoughts.”17 “Such a constant union is realized in contemplation, and though the false mystics say to the contrary, it cannot be permanent: the weakness of our nature often forces us to interrupt it, at least during sleep.”18 “Uninterrupted union is not of this world; it is the condition of the saints in Heaven.”19
Lest anyone think that the three ages of the spiritual life are not biblical, the Church Fathers recognized the three ages of the spiritual life in the Scriptures. For example, Origin wrote at length about the correlation between the books in Scripture by Solomon and the three ages of the spiritual life. In his Commentary on the Song of Songs, Origin linked the Book of Proverbs with the purgative way; Ecclesiastes with the illuminative way; and the Song of Songs with the unitive way.
3. The Place of the Song of Songs among the Works of Solomon
[L]et us first investigate the reason why, when the churches of God have adopted three books from Solomon’s pen, the Book of Proverbs has been put first, that which is called Ecclesiastes second, while the Song of Songs is found in the third place. . . . Wishing, therefore, to distinguish one from another those three branches of learning, which we called general just now—that is, the moral, the natural, and the inspective, and to differentiate between them, Solomon issued them in three books, arranged in their proper order. First, in Proverbs he taught the moral science, putting rules for living into the form of short and pithy maxims, as was fitting. Secondly, he covered the science known as natural in Ecclesiastes; in this, by discussing at length the things of nature, and by distinguishing the useless and vain from the profitable and essential, he counsels us to forsake vanity and cultivate things useful and upright. The inspective science likewise he has propounded in this little book that we have now in hand—that is, the Song of Songs. In this he instils into the soul the love of things divine and heavenly, using for his purpose the figure of the Bride and Bridegroom, and teaches us that communion with God must be attained by the paths of charity and love. . . . The ordinary use of proverbs shows us this, and John in his Gospel writes of the Saviour saying: These things have I spoken to you in proverbs; the hour cometh when I will no more speak to you in proverbs , but will show you plainly of the Father. . . . This, then, was the reason why this master, who was the first to teach men divine philosophy, put at the beginning of his work the Book of Proverbs, in which, as we said, the moral science is propounded—so that when a person has progressed in discernment and behaviour he may pass on thence to train his natural intelligence and, by distinguishing the causes and natures of things, may recognize the vanity of vanities that he must forsake, and the lasting and eternal things that he ought to pursue. And so from Proverbs he goes on to Ecclesiastes, who teaches, as we said, that all visible and corporeal things are fleeting and brittle; and surely once the seeker after wisdom has grasped that these things are so, he is bound to spurn and despise them; renouncing the world bag and baggage, if I may put it in that way, he will surely reach out for the things unseen and eternal which, with spiritual meaning verily but under certain secret metaphors of love, are taught in the Song of Songs.
This book comes last that a man may come to it when his manner of life has been purified, and he has learnt to know the difference between things corruptible and things incorruptible; so that nothing in the metaphors used to describe and represent the love of the Bride for her celestial Bridegroom—that is, of the perfect soul for the Word of God—may cause him to stumble. For, when the soul has completed these studies, by means of which it is cleansed in all its actions and habits and is led to discriminate between natural things, it is competent to proceed to dogmatic and mystical matters, and in this way advances to the contemplation of the Godhead with pure and spiritual love. . . . If, then, a man has completed his course in the first subject, as taught in Proverbs, by amending his behaviour and keeping the commandments, and thereafter, having seen how empty is the world and realized the brittleness of transitory things, has come to renounce the world and all that is therein, he will follow on from that point to contemplate and to desire the things that are not seen, and that are eternal. To attain to these, however, we need God’s mercy; so that, having beheld the beauty of the Word of God, we may be kindled with a saving love for Him, and He Himself may deign to love the soul, whose longing for Himself He has perceived.20
As we reach the end of the journey through the three ages of the spiritual life, my prayer for you today is that you would answer the knocking on the door of your heart by the Lord Jesus and open wide your heart to receive the love of God. I pray that every obstacle and hindrance to you drawing closer to God would be banished in the Name of Jesus and that the fire of the Holy Spirit would burn away every spirit of prayerlessness in your life. I pray the anointed words of St. Paul over every reader of this article:
Prayer for the Readers
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fulness of God.21
Power Tools for Prayer, Chapter 12 (Persistence).
The Three Ages of the Spiritual Life: Prelude of Eternal Life (frequently cited in footnotes), The Spiritual Age of the Perfect: Their Union with God, pp. 422-432.
John 15:16; Phil. 3:5-14; Ephesians 5:1-20; Matthew 13:31-33; Luke 8:5-15; Matthew 9:35 - 10:16; Mark 16:14-20; John 20:19-22.
Eric A. Welter is an employment lawyer and trial attorney with a long-time devotion to intercessory prayer. He is a Catholic Christian who has been involved with intercessory and healing prayer ministry for over twenty years. The Abound in Hope Ministry website is https://www.aboundinhope.org/ministry.
Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., Christian Perfection and Contemplation, at 37 (1937) (reprinted 2003 by Tan Books).
John 17:20-26. Bible quotations are the from Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition, unless otherwise noted.
“Prayer is nothing else but union with God.” (St. John Vianney.) Note that St. Teresa of Avila describes one level of contemplative prayer as the “prayer of union,” which is different than union with God in prayer regardless of where we stand in the journey.
Christian Perfection, at 36.
Catholic Dictionary, Unitive Way.
Vol. 2, Three Ages, at 426.
Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., Knowing the Love of God, Ch. XVIII (1969) (reprinted by St. Joseph Communications 2015).
Catholic Dictionary, Unitive Way.
Vol. 2, Three Ages, at 426.
Christian Perfection, at 168.
Christian Perfection, at 154-55.
Christian Perfection, at 169.
Origen, The Song of Songs Commentary and Homilies, at 40 (Newman Press 1956); see also A Catholic Introduction to the Bible, Old Testament, at 660-61 (Ignatius 2018).