A Journey Through the Spiritual Life (#4)
You are called to be His disciples
Looking back, I see that my “first conversion” took place in two steps. First, my miraculous return to the faith. Second, my encounter with God on retreat and learning how to pray. Afterwards, I began to take my faith more seriously, read everything I could get my hands on about faith, and started participating in faith-based activities. A major aspect of that was charismatic and focused on intercessory prayer for others, including prayer for healing.
When we moved to Minnesota several years later, I found myself with time on my hands. Starting my own law firm with little work meant plenty of time to recover from my “burn out,” but also meant time to pray, study and start doing ministry. At this stage in my spiritual life, intercessory prayer was exciting! There were new insights and revelations every time we prayed. I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit. Prayer was uplifting. (Spiritual sensuality.) I started to think I was actually pretty good at this praying stuff and struggled to follow the simple advice of my wise spiritual director. (Spiritual pride.)
I began spending Thursdays with the “Jesus Heals Ministry.” We began the day with Mass and a holy hour, and then took appointments all day at a convent with people who wanted prayer ministry. Each appointment was about 45 minutes long. One day, we were praying as a team for a woman for inner healing. She was not very specific about what was going on, but we prayed. During the prayer, I had a very specific image of a certain type of ship. I pushed it away, thinking it was not relevant. Back it came. Finally, the third time I saw the image I realized I needed to share it. I spoke up and told the woman what I had seen and said it made no sense to me. She burst out in tears—that was the kind of ship her husband worked on; she had come for prayer because of difficulties in her marriage. Praise God, who revealed in the Holy Spirit where she needed to open herself to prayer.
This experience was dramatic, but similar experiences continued until I moved back to Virginia. After I moved back, these kinds of spiritual experiences started to taper off. Prayer was not as exciting. There were no “images” or “revelations.” While ministry continued, the new group I was praying with was more experienced (at least it seemed)—I was the rookie who did not understand how things worked. Eventually, it seemed like I had hit a wall spiritually. I believed, but all of the sensory rewards had disappeared. Dryness set in.
It’s not as if there were never good spiritual experiences during this time—there were. But during this time God sent my prayer life into the desert. I also went through different phases of serious demonic attacks and spiritual suffering. Fortunately, God did not abandon me during this phase. There were still good faithful people in my life, including my wife, who kept me going. But for a variety of reasons, work picked up dramatically over these years and the opportunities for ministry dried up. Prayer became more rote and often the extent of my daily prayer was a rosary in the car on the way to the office. I had entered the night of the senses and was not happy about it. (Spiritual sloth.)
Had I been paying more attention to the books I was reading, perhaps this period would not have been so surprising. The transition from the purgative way into the illuminative way is a difficult one, marked by aridity and darkness.1 The light goes away; everything becomes difficult. “It is disconcerting for [one] to see themselves fall so suddenly from the high state in which they had thought themselves to be. . . . Just when they are beginning to serve and love Him earnestly, He buries them in oblivion and abandons them to their own weakness!”2
A second conversion is necessary to move forward “because of the inordinate self-love that still remains in beginners after months and years of labor.”3 “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”4 The principal defects of beginners remain: spiritual pride, spiritual sensuality, and spiritual sloth.5 In hindsight, all of these defects were clearly present in my spiritual life.
One writer describes a similar experience to what I had during this transition: “I did not like facing the truth: the self-centered young man who so recently believed he was about to scale the heights of Mount Carmel was in fact hardly in the foothills and would never make much headway on his ascent until he was relieved of all the baggage weighing him down.”6 True.
The difficulty is that we cannot get to the root of these problems by our own efforts.7 We must undergo a passive purification of the senses. This is also known as the “night of the senses.” St. Paul alludes to this in the letter to the Ephesians, when he says to “Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”8
The passive purification of the senses marks the entrance into the illuminative way.9 The passive purification “must be undergone on earth while meriting or in purgatory without meriting, in order to reach perfect purity of soul, without which one cannot enter heaven.”10 It is God who leads us “through fire and water and [allows us to] suffer other strenuous purgations in order to erase and destroy the impurities of self-love.”11 Surrender and acceptance of the will of God in all things is essential here.
Several signs mark the entrance into this phase.12 One experiences aridity in prayer and an inability to meditate and make reflections, but a keen desire for God remains. “The true purgative aridity is accompanied in general by a painful anxiety because the soul thinks that it is not serving God.”13 Nevertheless, a strong desire to serve God no matter the cost arises in us.14
This is the phase when many abandon prayer entirely.15 Weak souls, with little faith or generosity, filled with self-love, fall off into a lukewarm life.16 “The spiritual man who has reached this stage is like a man who in climbing a mountain comes to a difficult spot where, to make progress, he must have a keener desire for the goal to be attained.”17
This is the time to take courage and renew your efforts! Jesus told us to enter by the narrow gate.18 We must persevere faithfully in our prayers and good works.19 It is the time to “rise up from the sleep of negligence and to walk courageously in the way of God.”20
Success in this part of the journey will ultimately require one to develop inner unity in order to seek the one thing necessary—to love God and serve Him only.21
“You who have been created to the image and likeness of God ought to tend to unity. Your spiritual life is weak because it lacks unity. Examine your heart and see what a multiplicity of affections and preoccupations fill it: yes, you love God, but, together with Him, you also cherish your pride, comfort and interests. You love God, but, at the same time, you love some creature with a disordered affection, that is, in a way and in a measure that does not please God. You are attached to these people, to these things—objects, money, occupations—which give you satisfaction. . .and all these affections, these attachments weigh upon you, drive you in a thousand different directions, dispersing your strength and preventing you from seeking the one thing necessary: ‘to love God and serve Him only’ (Imit. I, 1,3). The more you lack profound unity—unity of affections, desires and intentions—the weaker you will be and the more greatly will they endanger your interior life, for, as Jesus said, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself shall be brought to desolation’ (Lk. 11:17). Look, then, at God, the sovereign Unity, and beseech Him to help you to have unity in yourself.”22
My prayer for you today in the Name of Jesus is that you would be renewed in the spirit of your mind, surrendering to God’s work of purification, and allowing God to bring your spirit into unity, loving and serving God and not yourself. May you persevere in your daily prayer time regardless of how it feels! May the Holy Spirit strengthen you in the inner man to continue the upwards climb!
Power Tools for Prayer, Chapters 5-6 (Unity & Respect).
The Three Ages of the Spiritual Life: Prelude of Eternal Life (frequently cited in footnotes), Vol. 2: The Entrance into the Illuminative Way, pp. 21-29, The Passive Purification of the Senses, pp.40-53, Conduct to be Observed in the Night of the Senses, pp. 54-63.
Luke 9:61-62; John 1:35-51; Mark 2:13-17; Matthew 4:18-22; Matthew 16:21-28; Luke 10:38-42; John 13:33-35; Phil. 3:7-16.
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.
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Fr. John G. Arintero, OP, Vol. 2, The Mystical Evolution, at 75 (1951).
Garrigou-Lagrange, Vol. 2, The Three Ages of the Spiritual Life: Prelude of Eternal Life, at 25.
Matthew 18:1-4. Bible quotations are from the Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition, unless otherwise indicated.
Id. at 41.
Vol. 2, Three Ages, at 43.
Id. at 23.
Id. at 35.
Mystical Evolution, at 72.
Vol. 2, Three Ages, at 43-46.
Id., at 48.
Id. at 49.
Mystical Evolution, at 76-77.
Id. at 78-79.
Vol. 2, Three Ages, at 55.
Mystical Evolution, at 74 (quoting St. Gertrude); Vol. 2, Three Ages, at 55.
Vol. 2, Three Ages, at 23 n.8 (quoting St. Benedict).
Fr. Gabriel, Divine Intimacy: Meditations on the Interior Life for Every Day of the Liturgical Year, at 683 (1952).