Every time we go to Mass, we learn something new about our faith. It goes without saying that we learn something new about our faith when we read a book on a Catholic oriented subject, a similar oriented magazine article, this pastor page essay, a newspaper article reporting on something said by Pope Francis, watching EWTN, listening to Relevant Radio, and so on. There are so many ways. However, it pays to acknowledge what we already know. It might be from all the religion we learned as a child. It might be (this is a shocker!) quite simply the insights that have occurred to us in the normal process of growing spiritually.
All the above constitutes spiritual growth. I know that I have mentioned, either here or in homilies, or both, the three stages of spiritual growth as seen by spiritual masters from past centuries. They are the purgative, illuminative, and unitive stages of the spiritual life. Moving along in proper order, the first stage deals with purgation. Here through prayer, fasting, experiencing the sacraments and reflecting upon spiritual themes through writings, I enter a state of consciousness by which I see through my various addictive behaviors (illuminative stage) and gradually transcend them. Some people would say that I learn to see through my sinfulness of addictive behaviors and I learn to recognize them for the illusions that they are. A common analogy is to be frightened of entering a room because I see what appears to be a coiled snake, but as I get closer I see that it is just a coiled rope. Viewed now from the advantage of real life, I may find myself attracted to seeking positions that seem to offer me power over others, or perhaps I find myself attracted to pornography, only to learn through insight that both examples do not offer me anything healthy, rather I learn that they ruin relationships and leave me hollow and empty inside. Through illumination I see them as the illusions that they are. I may learn by experience that If I choose to serve other people selflessly instead, I am choosing wisely.
And then there is the unitive stage of spiritual growth. Here one experiences a sort of oneness with God. Over time I have come to understand that this stage, as well as the other two, are experienced by all of us every day. Or at least they can be. It all depends on whether I am growing consciously or not. Am I actively seeking to deepen my relationship with God, or living an active spiritual life? If the answer here is yes, that it is quite likely that I am indeed moving through these three stages every day. This results in real spiritual knowledge.
I can always tell the spiritual growth of my congregation. Some people are lost in their own thoughts; some are thinking for the umpteenth time about a problem they cannot solve (and they find it difficult to give to God, or to forgive what needs forgiving); some look at me with an expression of deep concentration and thought – and some look at me with a smile, and while smiling they are nodding their heads. They already know. Their knowledge comes from these spiritual stages mentioned above.
These stages come from the observations of spiritual masters from centuries past. The masters watched people just like us. And they concluded that all people move through these stages, some faster than others. But all people go through them. People just like us.
God bless you!
Peace, Fr. Walter