This work seeks to make a contribution in the area pioneered so famously by St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross and developed by countless others, namely the branch of theology called mystical or spiritual theology, which at its best furthers our collective search for markers on the spiritual journey. While this book attempts to be systematic, if not scholarly, it aspires to be practical (i.e., useful).
Each chapter will begin with an original poem that hints at that chapter’s theme, followed by a scripture quote that does the same. The poetry is not so much an attempt to emulate St. John of the Cross as it is an effort to communicate in a medium that is more artistic than analytical. Yet like St. John, it is meant to liberate meaning rather than to fence it in.
Next, the chapter will be categorized (loosely, in some cases) into one of the three broad classic stages or phases of the spiritual journey: purgative, illuminative, or unitive. These lines of demarcation are not strict. Indeed, they vary from writer to writer and no one has yet come up with the definitive assignments of these categories for the frequently offered seven steps in the spiritual journey.
Perhaps inspired by the Holy Spirit, sometimes known as the Breath of God, we have a division called “Breathe In” and “Breathe Out”. The first element of the division pertains to the initial arrival at this step in the journey and tends to characterize its genesis. The second part of the division drives toward both completion of this step and preparation for—or even transition to—the next, and can be thought of as an inflection point within the given step. A single beatitude (or sometimes two) is highlighted for each division, and a corresponding gift of the Holy Spirit is paired with the beatitude(s). Each beatitude and gift makes two distinct appearances along this roadmap, which creates the effect of a spiraling or weaving. As you will see, a final extra division emerges from the momentum of this motion.
In some cases, the main sin and its opposing virtue are shared by both divisions, but in other instances they are specific to only one of the two divisions, and so are arranged accordingly.
One of the seven sacraments seems to match the overall thrust of a given step and captures the essence of the step more eminently than any of the other sacraments, so it is offered as a further identifying feature of the given segment of road under consideration. The same can be said of the suggested phrases from the Lord’s Prayer, as well as for the signs offered from John’s Gospel.
Finally, the given step is mapped to a corresponding landmark (or perhaps a grouping of landmarks) in both St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross.
There is a paradox that lies in the heart of human existence. It must be apprehended before any lasting happiness is possible in the soul of man. The paradox is this: man’s nature, by itself, can do little or nothing to settle his most important problems. If we follow nothing but our own natures, our own philosophies, our own level of ethics, we will end up in hell.
This would be a depressing thought, if it were not purely abstract. Because in the concrete order of things God gave man a nature that was ordered to a supernatural life. He created man with a soul that was made not to bring itself to perfection in its own order, but to be perfected by Him in an order infinitely beyond the reach of human powers. We were never destined to lead purely natural lives, and therefore we were never destined in God’s plan for a purely natural beatitude. Our nature, which is a free gift of God, was given to us to be perfected and enhanced by another free gift that is not due it.
This free gift is “sanctifying grace.” It perfects our nature with the gift of a life, an intellection, a love, a mode of existence infinitely above its own level. If a man were to arrive even at the abstract pinnacle of natural perfection, God’s work would not even be half done: it would be only about to begin, for the real work is the work of grace and the infused virtues and the gifts of the Holy Ghost.
What is “grace”? It is God’s own life, shared by us. God’s life is Love. Deus caritas est. By grace we are able to share in the infinitely selfless love of Him Who is such pure actuality that He needs nothing and therefore cannot conceivably exploit anything for selfish ends. Indeed, outside of Him there is nothing, and whatever exists exists by His free gift of its being, so that one of the notions that is absolutely contradictory to the perfection of God is selfishness. It is metaphysically impossible for God to be selfish, because the existence of everything that is depends on His gift, depends on His unselfishness.
When a ray of light strikes a crystal, it gives a new quality to the crystal. And when God’s infinitely disinterested love plays upon a human soul, the same kind of thing takes place. And that is the life called sanctifying grace.
The soul of man, left to its own natural level, is a potentially lucid crystal left in darkness. It is perfect in its own nature, but it lacks something that it can only receive from outside and above itself. But when the light shines in it, it becomes in a manner transformed into light and seems to lose its nature in the splendor of a higher nature, the nature of the light that is in it.
So the natural goodness of man, his capacity for love which must always be in some sense selfish if it remains in the natural order, becomes transfigured and transformed when the Love of God shines in it. What happens when a man loses himself completely in the Divine Life within him? This perfection is only for those who are called the saints–for those rather who are the saints and who live in the light of God alone. For the ones who are called saints by human opinion on earth may very well be devils, and their light may very well be darkness. For as far as the light of God is concerned, we are owls. It blinds us and as soon as it strikes us we are in darkness. People who look like saints to us are very often not so, and those who do not look like saints very often are. And the greatest saints are sometimes the most obscure–Our Lady, St. Joseph.
(from The Seven Storey Mountain, Part Two, Chapter One)