The Carmelite Spirituality

A few ladies and I are working through a study on prayer, and this week there was brief mention of schools of Christian spirituality. I have to admit I don’t know much about the different spiritualities, nor have I ever considered myself possibly fitting into one spirituality over another. Mention was made in our study that often a spirituality is chosen because it is suited to a certain temperament. I have done a bit of reading on temperaments, and I do know that I am melancholic. (A good book to read on this subject is The Temperament God Gave You by Art & Laraine Bennett available from Sophia Institute Press.) I’m interested in pursuing this topic more in the upcoming months to see if a certain spirituality appeals to me, but in the meantime, here’s an interesting summary of the stages of spiritual development as outlined by St. Theresa of Avila that I found here. From that article I have listed the stages below. I have not read The Interior Castle by St. Theresa of Avila, but I do know she speaks of the person as being a dwelling place for the Lord. This dwelling place has seven mansions, or in the case below, they are listed as stages. I have been asked a few times what the mansions are, and until now, had not been able to answer that question.

Stage 0: In the world

In this stage, the person is very much “in the world,” in which they have not made a commitment to God to the extent of being willing to repent, change direction, and modify their life. They may be believers, but as the Bible says even the demons believe! (James 2:19) What is lacking is the transition from being believers to becoming disciples of Jesus.

Stage 1: The Entranceway

In this stage, the person has made a firm decision for God and has repented. The word “repent” means to “change direction.” In this stage, the person has made a firm decision to orient their life to God and desires to cease offending God through serious sins. Often in this stage a person makes a general confession of their whole life up until that point, just to let go of the past and make a fresh start. It is possible that in this stage a person may continue to commit certain serious sins which, for reasons of habit or other causes, are not in fact subjective moral sins. Obviously all sin offends God, but it may take time for a person to be freed of these sins. God works at His own pace.

Stage 2: Enthusiastic discovery

In this stage, a person feels God is very present in their life. There is an active pursuit of God, undertaken with joy. Everything seems new, both spiritual things and even the ordinary things of everyday life. There is a hunger and thirst for the things of God. It is a bit like falling in love.

In this stage, the person is exploring the spiritual life. It is important to respond to this enthusiasm, helping the person to find answers to their questions, putting them in touch with new spiritual experiences (e.g. new forms of prayer, encountering groups of Christians, developing a more in-depth knowledge of the Bible, etc.) It is a mistake in this stage to dampen someone’s enthusiasm, although it may need to be channelled to spiritual things which have stood the test of time and meet general approval (e.g. the liturgy) rather than the more fantastic but questionable things (e.g. excessive focus on apparitions and private revelations).

Stage 3: Finding your place

In this stage, God is still very close, but the person is settling down a bit. Patterns of devotion develop, as the person discovers “what works best” for them (based on their temperament, etc.). A person in this stage is in touch with a stable community of Christians able to support them in their faith journey (e.g. a prayer group, a daily Mass community, etc.). Sometimes, they will develop an unofficial rule of life designed to guide them on their path.

In both stages 2 & 3 God often graces the person with special consolations: strong positive emotions, extraordinary prayer experiences (such as inner locutions, which often come when journalling), a general sense of His presence and comfort. These consolations are sometimes called divine touches, and when we receive them we can feel like we are about to burst with love.

It should be noted that in these stages there is often a strong zeal to do the work of the Lord. The motivation for this work is often rooted in the intelligence and our perception of what is true and correct (i.e. we will change the world to what it should be). This is often because a conversion is like having your eyes opened to a whole new reality – you see things differently, and better – so there is a zeal to share this new enlightenment. An example would be that in the earlier stage we try and convert someone by showing how the Gospel is true.

Stage 4: The Dark Night of the Senses

This stage has been most succinctly described by St. John of the Cross. The purpose of this state is to purify the mind of the person, and especially to purify his habits. Up until this stage, the person has still been carrying with him certain habitual sins or habitual tendencies to sin. God has tolerated these as the person has slowly strengthened in his faith and devotion, but it is now time to let go of these more habitual sins and imperfections.

Therefore, in this stage God withdraws his divine touches and the consolations that go with them. A stage of true spiritual dryness sets in. God is present, but more objectively (in the Eucharist, for example), but this presence is not felt subjectively like it once was.

Why does God do this? Up until now, a person has conquered their big sins and now has the tools to grow BUT is also often content to remain at that level, especially after having the joy of receiving the divine touches. We, therefore, need a kick in the pants to progress further to perfection.

This stage is characterized by a strong combat with venial sins, especially those that have grave matter. Our examination of conscience shifts from examining our sins to examining our sinfulness (the Seven Deadly Sins are especially useful as an examination tool). What is needed is to come to an honest appraisal of self, and a detachment from those things – even (and especially) good things – which nevertheless are part of patterns in our lives which lead us to sin.

In stage 4 there is often a cooling off of one’s ardour for doing the work of the Lord. This is because it doesn’t bring the consolations it used to – but that is just another part of this stage. This can be accompanied by feelings of guilt and doubt about whether or not one was ever really in it for the right reasons in the first place, etc. Stage 4 purifies one’s motives. In the meantime, what is most important is to remain faithful to one’s duties of state.

Stage 5: Active Holiness and Selflessness

This stage is characterized by a new zeal for the Lord’s work, but instead of being motivated by the intelligence seeking to promote truth, it is motivated by the will seeking to promote love. In this stage the person has an active love for others, born out of sacrifice (of time. of money, etc.). The person is learning to make a true gift of self, and because the energy behind this zeal is charity, God often blesses it with extraordinary fruits.

Stage 6: The Dark Night of the Soul

In the prior dark night, there was a purification of the “senses”, which means those parts of our intelligence and will related to the more physical, sensate parts of our nature. For example, our memories reside in our brain, and so the former dark night might involve healing certain memoreis. Certain sinful tendencies have a corporeal dimension (e.g. excessive drinking), and these are purified in the previous stage as well.

This “dark night” is different. In this stage, the sensible portions of our nature have largely been healed and mastered. What happens now is a new dark night, meant to purify the intelligence and the will AS SUCH, especially the will. In this stage, God withdraws his consoling presence once again, but because the person now has a certain detachment from sensible things, this dark night is felt more intensely.

The spiritual battle can be intense, often emerging as terrible (and even bizarre) temptations. This is normal: because the person is freed of attachments to even their previous “favourite” sins, the soul therefore has no “familiar territory” to go for sin. In such a situation, when temptations do come up, they can be anything, no matter how strange, bizarre, or out of character. Chief among these temptations are temptations against faith in God, but they can include anything – blasphemy, murder, sexual deviance – anything.

The solution to this Dark Night of the Soul is total rootedness in God, to the point of forgetting self. In this Dark Night, we walk by faith, hope, and love, without consolation. Ultimately, this stage is about getting rid of the last vestiges of spiritual pride in us. For this reason, passing through this stage involves growing in humility. A good spiritual director can help someone through this stage, and a person in this stage should become totally transparent to their spiritual director, describing everything that is happening (even name the temptations felt) without shame.

Because this stage involves a person in the purest elements of their free will, it is impossible to predict the outcome. God’s grace is always present, of course, but in this stage a person is in some ways most free to accept or reject that grace. The stakes are high in this stage, and people sometimes come out of it quite broken (e.g. religious persons losing their vocation), because they were, on some level, unable or unwilling (at this stage there is not much difference between these terms) to let go of the final element of their pride.

It should be noted that this stage can be provoked by extreme external events in a person’s life, such as terminal illness, or some other extreme loss. St. Therese of Lisieux experienced her Dark Night of the Soul on her deathbed. St. John of the Cross was kidnapped by his own religious brethren and kept in solitary confinement for months. The foundress of the Sisters of Ste-Anne was kicked out of her job as superior and relegated to the laundry for decades – her loss was one of dignity, and of her apostolic work that she had founded. Any such loss can provoke this Dark Night – a parent who loses a child, for example.

Stage 7: Divine Union, or Spiritual Marriage – the Burning Bush stage

In this stage we are like the Burning Bush that Moses encountered: truly ourselves, but wholly possessed by God (and yet not consumed). In this stage a person has achieved the perfect elevation of their being. In a sense they have become like Adam before the Fall – still able to sin, but with the very notion now alien to their nature. In such a stage a person is truly in the world, but not of it. The world is seen differently, as though one were constantly looking through God’s eyes. Apostolic zeal also reappears, but not like it was in stage 5. In this stage, specific works may be very small, but characterized by great love, such that just smiling at someone, or giving them a flower, might be enough to overwhelm them with consolation. Great conversions of heart often come from such seemingly small gestures.

St. John taught that someone who attained Stage 7 had no purgatory left to undergo after death, as any necessary purgation had already been accomplished on Earth. Stage 7 is just the natural flowering of this before we die; we are already in heaven, even in the body, just awaiting the beatific vision.

Question: What stage am I in?

People on the spiritual path, especially beginners, often want to know which stage they are in. In fact, while these stages are numbered in a linear way, it is possible to jump around a bit between them. What is key is not to ask “where am I today” but “where am I habitually”. And it is possible to find certain features of multiple stages at once in the life of a person, usually from the stage immediately before or immediately after their current habitual stage (but not always limited to that). The saints have taught that sometimes God “lifts us up” out of ourselves and gives us a special grace to experience a stage we normally have not attained yet (even to the point of having a tasted of Stage 7, which is often the case for people who have sudden and radical conversions in their lives – just one taste is enough to change everything). We eventually come back down, to our stable level, as we cannot even tolerate that much grace yet – we are not yet habituated to the varying degreees of God’s light. But with time, He works on us, always bringing us closer to Him at a pace and in a manner best suited to our uniqueness.


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