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Brookline Carmel Bulletin                        

January   15, 1961

Cogitatio Sancta

(Holy Meditation)


Evolution of the Spiritual Life   



Nobody becomes a saint overnight.  The transition from Sons of Wrath to perfect Sons of Light is a long, gradual process.  Like any traveler between two far distant points, the pilgrim on the road to holiness needs to have at hand some kind of index that will enable him to determine accurately his position ‘en route’.  Spiritual tradition satisfies that need.  It has handed down to us two convenient indices.  Each of them divides the path into three stages and gives us the characteristics of each stage, or ‘way’.  The oldest of them labels the stages the Way of Beginners, the Way of Proficients, and the Way of the Perfect.  The other distinguishes the Purgative Way, the Illuminative Way and the Unitive Way.  Each scheme looks upon the evolution of the spiritual life from a different point of view.  The former bases its view upon the development of Charity, that is, upon the intensity and relative stability of Sanctifying Grace in the soul.  The other conceives of progress in holiness in terms of the encounter between God and the soul, between the soul and divine realities.


According to the first division, the Beginner is one whose principal effort consists in withdrawing from sin and struggling against the urgings of concupiscence.  The Proficient is one who concerns himself chiefly with the acquisition of virtue.  The Perfect man is he to whom the practice of exalted virtue has become second nature.  As is readily apparent, this division admits of universal application.  We’re all obliged to withdraw from sin, overcome concupiscence, and practice virtue.  Such is the ordinary way of living up to the precept:  Be ye also perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect”.


The other division derives from terminology found in the works of mystical writers.  The Purgative Way is that in which principal concern is the pursuit of true wisdom.  A man in the Illuminative Way strives mainly to enkindle within himself the flames of divine love.  In the Unitive Way God personally lifts the soul up to union with Himself in a way that transcends all knowledge, reason and understanding.  This last stage represents a clear-cut case of mystical prayer.  Because mystical experience does not fall within the ordinary Providence of God, but is granted according to the divine good pleasure without any meriting on the part of the recipient, this second division applies, at least in its totality, to very few.  It applies in part to all who make a practice of formal prayer.


It should be noted that the distinguishing features of the various stages in each scheme are modified by the words ‘principal’, ‘chiefly’, ‘mainly’.  In other words, there is no sharp line dividing the adjoining stages.  Obviously, a Beginner doesn’t only struggle against sin and concupiscence; he also tries to acquire virtue.  A Proficient striving for virtue must still wage war on sin and concupiscence.  Similarly, a man in pursuit of true wisdom must try to enkindle in himself love for God; and one whose chief concern is love is still supposed to advance in divine wisdom.  The second and third ‘ways’ in each scheme also overlap considerably.


In trying to discover how far along he is, a person who practices prayer usually uses both indices and is inclined to reduce one scheme to the other, setting up a rigorous correspondence between their respective stages.  This is likely to introduce confusion, for it is not necessarily true that Beginners are those who meditate (learn true wisdom), nor Proficients these who contemplate (nourish love by gazing upon truth).  Neither is it true that the Perfect enjoy mystical experience.  St. Teresa of Avila tells us that at times God grants mystical contemplation to those who are far from perfect – sinners, even.  But more important than that, the transition from meditation to contemplation can be explained according to the natural processes of learning without regard to moral considerations. Thus, in a given case, a man with a keen penetrating mind might pass quickly from meditation to contemplation and still be engaged in major warfare against sin and concupiscence.  Likewise, someone not so gifted intellectually might be solidly grounded in virtue, yet still find it necessary to meditate.


To substantiate this claim we need only consider how the physical sciences develop:  First a vast quantity of observational data is amassed and reflected (meditated) upon carefully.  Then the mind goes to work and formulates hypothetical laws that govern and explain all that phenomena.  The hypotheses are further tested and refined until finally a few basic laws are revealed in all their stark simplicity.  Now the scientist is ready to contemplate.  In all the concrete situations pertaining to his discipline he sees with a gaze of simple intuition the basic laws at work.  Or, contemplating the basic laws, he sees at a glance, and not without a certain amount of pleasure, all the actual and possible individual and concrete cases contained in them as so many logical consequences.  Consider, for example the relationship between the Science of Mechanics and Dynamics and the three laws of motion discovered by Newton.


Similarly, in our meditations we mull over the whole history of God’s dealing with men.  Apply our reason, aided by Faith, to all its deeds and utterances, we are able eventually to abstract and lay bare the fundamental laws and facts comprising the whole of divine reality.  Having found them, we should find great delight in contemplating them.  A simple intuitive gaze upon them enkindles and nourishes the flame of divine love in our hearts.  Thus contemplation is the logical outcome of meditation faithfully practiced.  Meditation becomes unnecessary eventually.  To return to it once contemplation becomes habitual is like going back to re-climb a mountain after having reached the summit, the desired goal.

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