Friday, March 18, 2011

Growth in Holiness: Then Gain

A few weeks back I wrote about the Purgative Way, as described in Robert Hugh Benson’s book, The Friendship of Christ. Mr. Benson described how growth in holiness must start with a purging of what is wrong in how we see things, earthly things, spiritual things, and finally ourselves. This Purgative Way of growing in holiness sets the stage for a closer relationship with Christ, classically called The Illuminative Way of spiritual growth.

Benson notes that the Purgative Way is the soul’s way of putting off the “old man”, but now the “new man” must be put on; the soul must be illuminated in Christ. In (the first step of) the Purgative Way the soul learns that external things, in themselves, are worth nothing. In the Illuminative Way she learns how to use them rightly – that they are worth a great deal. During the Purgative Way, the soul saw many people and things as irritants, as occasions of sin; in the Illuminative stage, she sees the value in each person. The first step of the Illuminative Way, then, consists, not merely in experiencing these things, but in perceiving their value, intellectually and interiorly. Understanding their value, she bends all her will to accept them and use them as God wills. Therefore, exactly at this stage, the soul ceases to be bewildered by the problem of pain.

The second step of the Illuminative Way – corresponding to that of the Purgative – consists in light being gained from God as to the reality of interior things – for instance, the truths of religion. A soul in the elementary stage of faith adheres to an enormous number of dogmas, but she (does) not intellectually understand. Before this stage, faith is accepted without understanding, wholly on faith. Many can fall away from this, if compelling arguments come against their understanding. But when “Illumination” comes, an extraordinary change takes place. Point after point in those jewels of truth which up to now have been opaque and colorless, she can “explain”, to comprehend. By grace and perseverance, she may experience by God’s favor those clear-sighted intuitions which so marked a characteristic in the saints. It is a wonderful thing when you really “know” the truths of your faith. Perhaps you can’t explain them all as a theologian, but you know in your heart they are true. This is a major growth in holiness, not having to understand everything, but believing with all your heart regardless.

The third stage of Illumination deals with those relations between Christ and the soul that are involved in the divine friendship. The soul is not focused on self-reliance, but has a confidence in the abiding presence of Christ, a divine friendship. It is henceforth not only enjoyed, but in a certain degree consciously perceived and understood. This is nothing else than “Ordinary Contemplation”. It consists in a consciousness of God so effective and so continuous that God is never wholly absent from the thoughts; the soul has initiated into the friendship of Christ. Benson goes on to state that this is the highest state of holiness man can hope for in this life, but with the heights reached here, there is much risk of falling. Spiritual pride can take hold of a person who gets so close to Christ. In fact, every heresy and every sect that has ever rent the unity of the Body of Christ has taken its rise primarily in the illuminated soul of this or that chosen friend of Christ. What Benson is saying here is what many have said in so many ways: It takes a very wise man to do something very stupid; and it takes a very holy man to commit a great sin. What is absolutely needed, then, is an increase of devotion and submission to the exterior voice with which God speaks in his Church: for, notoriously, nothing is so difficult to discern as the difference between the inspirations of the Holy Ghost and the aspirations or imaginations of self.

Benson in a couple of short chapters in his book describes in a very understandable way, the way that most people progress, or do not progress, in holiness. There is an initial attraction to faith or things of religion, and an enthusiasm for things of God. Life is good, the things of faith – mass, devotions, and prayers – reinforce the initial feelings, and the overall feeling of self-worth is enhanced. God is good; the world is good; I am good. Everything is good. But if that’s as far as we grow in faith, we are set up for a downfall. Life will not always be good; into every life pain must fall, and with it may fall a weak faith. God will not always appear to be good; we will find many things about this world which seem wrong --- why would God do that? With a weak faith, we are set for a fall, for a challenge to God: If you were God, you wouldn’t allow this! And perhaps even a deeper fall is possible, when I realize that I am not perfectly good by myself. No matter how rich, how smart, how blessed with family and friends, by myself I can feel very alone --- no one understands, not even God. These falls in what started out as a lively faith can and do happen, to all of us. But these falls don’t have to make us lose our faith, they can just be the “housecleaning” necessary, the Purgation needed, to clean out our “dreams” of faith, and set them up to be replaced with a wonderful reality of true faith.

To me, the Illumination found in growing in faith starts when a person realizes that life, his life, is not only about him. Love of God, friends, happiness, money, things, all these bring some happiness into his life, but those things are not the reason for his life. We are put here to grow in holiness, and that means work. It means learning the real value of all those things which seem good to us --- for they always won’t seem so good. We wrote a little while back about how some things are intrinsically good, and some are good in that they are useful tools. The things above that appear good for us are tools, which we can use for even better things. Money and things are of no real value to us unless we use them for things beyond us --- that commandment about love of God and neighbor. When we see Sunday mass or prayers as not a thing which gives us a time out, but a thing we understand in the total universe of things, the total plan of God of which we are just some small part --- but we want to do that part well, then we are really seeing the value of those religious things; the dogmas become absolute universal truths in our hearts, truths we want to live out and share with others. And when we know and want all these things, we will want to talk them over at most any time of the day, with our friend, Jesus. This is growing in holiness. This is what we are living for.

I’m not sure any man knows where he is at in his faith walk. Even now I have obvious needs of purgation, when I suddenly realize I was placing too much importance on this earthly convenience, or when that Church teaching or churchman irritates me, or when I realize most deeply what a sinner I am. But then there are times I see the increasing joys with illumination, how to use my time, money, and talents to help others – and, praise God, see the results. Oh, those are great blessings. And there are many hours when I sit alone, in the chapel or even in my room, and know beyond a doubt that I am not alone. Those hours give me great peace and a desire for them to never end; knowing there is no worry worth worrying about, and knowing there is a Love which will fix everything, everything.

No, we can’t know where we are at in our faith journey, my friends, but a journey it is. We can’t choose not to take this journey, not pack our bags; for this life will end some day, and we’d be wise to be as ready as we can for that day. Life is an adventure, work and pain, yes, but also great happiness and joy. The path for spiritual growth means taking the time and effort to learn, for you can’t grow closer to Christ, to find Him as a friend, until you take the time to know Him. Lent is a good time to start. Scripture, books by saints and holy men, and just time in His presence, all these will help you to get to know Him. And asking Him: Would you tell me about yourself, and what you expect of me? Asking His help is a good way to start also.

He does answer, you know.


  1. Thank you for both of your posts on the purgative and illuminative way. It sounds as if the Friendship of Christ is easier to read and understand than some of the older books on this subject.

  2. This is described as Benson's best spiritual book, although he wrote novels and poems also. In this book is also a great chapter on Christ in the sinner:

    "To fail to recognize Christ, therefore, in the sinner is to fail to recognize Christ when he is most fully and characteristically himself. All the devotion in the world to the white host in the monstrance; all the adoration in the world to the stainless child in the arms of his stainless mother -- all this fails utterly to attain to its true end, unless there accompanies it a passion for the souls of those who dishonor him, since, beneath all the filth and corruption of their sins, he who is in the Blessed Sacrament and the crib dwells here also, and cries to us for help."