According to the classic description of the three stages in the Christian life, the final stage of intimate union with God ( the unitive) is preceded by progess in the exercise of the theological and moral virtues ( the illuminative) which has been made possible by purification from deliberate venial sin (the purgative).
However there is also a need in our days, for pedagogical purposes, to add an extra stage, due to contemporary confusion and a numbed sense of sin.
First Stage: Fighting to reach Base Camp
The extra stage emphasizes the absolute starting point of the conquest of habits of mortal sin before concentrating one’s attention on the Purgative stage, which is purification from deliberate venial sin – an abyss of a difference from mortal sin: “Who shall climb the mountain of the Lord? The man with clean hands and pure heart, who…Psalm 23?
If the classic three levels in the Christian life are like a mountain ascent, then the first stage is about getting on the mountain path to begin with. The soul therefore that commits mortal sin frequently should declare a state of “martial-law” as in war-time until he has conquered the enemy.
If the Christian commits mortal sin, what is left of his Christian life? Divine Life (Sanctifying Grace) has disappeared for with mortal sin he has committed spiritual suicide. He is as the “walking dead”, the Nazgul in The Lord of the Rings:
“A mortal, Frodo, who keeps one of the Great Rings,does not die, but he does not grow or obtain more life, he merely continues, until at last every minute is a weariness. And if he often uses the Ring to make himself invisible, he fades: he becomes in the end invisible permanently, and walks in the twilight under the eye of the dark power that rules the Rings. Yes, sooner or later—later, if he is strong or well-meaning to begin with, but neither strength nor good purpose will last-sooner or later the dark power will devour him.”
A habit of mortal sin must be something that any Christian regards with horror. How then could one think of becoming a priest who is obliged by his vocation to a higher degree of holiness? In any case a habit of mortal sin implies a terrible darkness within the soul of a history of committing deliberate venial sins, possibly warped moral ideas, no daily mental prayer, utter carelessness about occasions of sin, little or no spiritual warfare: all of this has created a “bent” man. How could such a man commit himself to leading the Catholic lay faithful to holiness? You can’t do much to help others if you’re bleeding to death yourself – no matter the good intentions.
As St.Gregory the Great said: “the hand that must wash away the stains and defilements of others must not be polluted”. “The priest must first be cleansed before he can cleanse others; he must first himself approach God before he can lead others tohim; he must first sanctify himself before he can sanctify others; he must first be himself a light before he can illumine others.” (St.Gregory Nazianzen)
Seminary is not meant to be a place for “moral rehabilitation” but for asceticism. There is an ocean of a difference because asceticism presupposes the man has already broken completely with habits of serious sin.
The Purgative Stage: Beginning the Ascent
Once the seminarian have entered onto the mountain path, because he desires to protect the divine life ( sanctifying grace) within him, he struggles to avoid deliberate venial sin and to conquer his evil impulses so as to reach the intermediate goal of purifying his soul for the sake of virtue.
He is following Christ’s words: ” If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.”(Luke 9:23) and the example of St.Paul: “So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others, I myself should be disqualified.” (1Cor 9:26-27).
To purify himself from the spiritual pollution within , he daily receives Holy Communion, confesses his sins frequently, engages in asceticism constantly, does mental prayer, and performs other religious exercises. He is ever vigilant because, as Gandalf said, “Always after a defeat and a respite, the Shadow takes another shape and grows again.” (J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings)
He is determined that he will not be a mediocre priest: “The mediocre priest – writes the great French novelist, Bernanos – is the evil priest. The evil priest is a monster. It is the mediocre priests who ruin the world.”
The Illuminative Stage: Progress in the Theological and Moral Virtues
“Give the password,” said the chief soldier. “This is my password,” said the King as he drew his sword. “The light is dawning, the lie broken.”( C.S.Lewis, The Last Battle )
The seminarian, having left behind most of his attachment to deliberate venial sin by vigorous rejection of temptations, rugged “broncobusting” and daily meditation, advances in increasing light (understanding) for he comes ever closer to Jesus Christ, the Light of the world.
Now he emphasizes the practice of virtues rather than the elimination of deliberate venial sins ( although the two are inseparable in this life).
So the seminarian repeats with St.Paul: “But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13-14)
Now the soul exercises the infused moral virtues and the extraordinary occurs in the soul: “When I had drunk the spirit from Heaven, and the second birth had restored me so as to make me a new man then immediately in a marvelous manner doubts began to be resolved, closed doors to be opened, dark places to be light; what before was difficult now seemed easy.” (St.Cyprian).
In prayer, souls of the Illuminative Way feel an increasing attraction to dedicate the time to affections and petitions to God (the affective form of mental prayer), increasingly leaving aside reasoning ( the discursive form), with an ever more ardent desire to know, love and imitate Christ.