I am currently moderating an adult study class of Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. We are using the Christopher West series Introduction to Theology of the Body. Pope John Paul II uses the language of the mystics to describe a spiritual journey. He divides it into three phases: purgative, illuminative, and unitive.
Of course, before one even gets to the initial stage of the journey, one must commit to making the journey in the first place. I can say I want to travel to New York City, but if I never look into the travel options, costs, lodging, and sites to see I will never find myself in New York City. It isn’t really my destination.
The same is true of our spiritual journey. Do you want to be ultimately united with God for eternity? Is Heaven really your destination? If so, what have you done to get yourself headed in that direction?
The normal process when planning a journey is to consult the experts who have made the journey before you. If I decided to hike the Appalachian Trail but never looked at a map or read a guidebook or looked at recommendations of those who had already made the trek, my chances for success are slim.
For the journey to eternity with God we have some very good guides. We can start with the Scripture:
Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (Jn 14:6)Jesus gave us His words as recorded in Scripture. But Jesus gave us even more. He gave us His Church:
Jesus said to him in reply, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." (Mt. 16:17-19)
Therefore, it is important for us to acknowledge the Church as the authoritative guide for our journey to eternity with God. Her teaching authority, given to her by Christ, is the Magisterium. As long as we withhold such recognition, we will struggle with the Church teachings and our journey is in peril.
You don’t have to take my word for this. In fact, my credentials as a guide are pretty limited. I am a sinner on the road just like you are. On the other hand, the saints are quite credible witnesses. They are the Church Triumphant. They have successfully navigated the journey. How did they do it? They followed Christ through His Church.
Now you have come to terms with the idea of the Church serving as your guide. That is just the very beginning of your spiritual journey. Many teachings of the Church are not intuitive. Consider the commenter’s question about contraception. What is so bad about contraception? It would prevent abortions wouldn’t it? In spite of your misgivings, you work to act in concert with Church teaching. This is the purgative phase of your spiritual journey. Through force of will you are following the rules, but your heart isn’t really in it. If you never move past this purgative phase, the chances of your continuing to “follow the rules” and stay on the journey are not very good. You cannot stay in this phase indefinitely. I think this is where a lot of people just give up and say, ”The Church is not for me. It doesn’t agree with me.” That is why the Church never wants us to just follow blindly. If you find your heart is not in concert with Church teaching you are obligated to study and pray to understand why. You may be surprised to find out that the problem is not with the Church but rather it is with you.
Through study, prayer, and discernment your heart can change. Little by little the wisdom of the Church teaching will become clear. As you see Church teachings in this new light you enter the illuminative phase of your spiritual journey. No longer are you following the rules just because you have to but rather because you want to. Using the example of contraception as an example, you come to understand that marital love is supposed to be an icon of the love of Christ for His Church. It should be total self-giving with nothing held back. Children are a gift from God. No life is conceived by accident. Every life has a role to play in God’s plan for salvation history. We must acknowledge the superiority of God’s wisdom to our own. As this teaching is illuminated more and more in your heart it becomes easier and easier to follow. It is no longer a struggle of the will. It is incorporated into your ethos.
When your will is in perfect alignment with the will of God, you have reached the unitive phase of your spiritual journey. Truthfully, it is the work of a lifetime to have every aspect of your being aligned with God’s will. None of us can kick back and say we have arrived. There is always one more step to take.
I can honestly say that over the years I have had my share of questions about Church teachings. I can also say that given time, prayer, and grace, there has not been a teaching that I could not embrace—some more easily than others. Every time I experience a conversion of heart, it becomes easier to trust the Church and conform my conscience the next time I feel conflicted. So whenever you feel like the Church is dragging you kicking and screaming, don’t give up. You are just in that purgative phase of the journey.