Monday, 26 August 2019

The Three Stages of Christian Mysticism

From Cassian and Dionysios to John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, the Christian mystical path has been traditionally divided into three stages, although the terms sometimes vary. For example Jan van Ruusbroec's Spiritual Espousals has three parts : het "werkende leven" or the "active life", het "innighe, begeerlijcke leven" or the "yearning life" and het "godscouwende leven", or the "contemplative life".

The following division made by Vallgornera shows what these authors considered the characteristics of the three ages of the spiritual life:
I) The purgative way or stage, proper to beginners, in which it is a question of the active purification of the external and internal senses, of the passions, of the intellect, and of the will, by mortification, meditation, prayer; and finally, it is a question of the passive purification of the senses, in which infused contemplation begins and by means of which the soul is raised to the illuminative way, as St. John of the Cross says.(4)
2) The illuminative way or state, proper to proficients, in which, after a preliminary chapter on the divisions of contemplation, are discussed the gifts of the Holy Ghost and infused contemplation, which proceeds principally from the gifts of understanding and wisdom, and which is declared desirable for all interior souls, as being morally necessary for the full perfection of Christian life. This second part of the work, after several articles relating to extraordinary graces (visions, revelations, interior words), ends with a chapter of nine articles relative to the passive purification of the spirit, which marks the passage to the unitive way. This again is what St. John of the Cross taught.(5)
3) The unitive life or stage, proper to the perfect, in which it is a question of the intimate union of the contemplative soul with God and of its degrees up to the transforming union. (THE THREE AGES OF THE INTERIOR LIFE,  Prelude of Eternal Life, Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange
The basic meditation technique of the Christian Mystic is called orison:
The Christians use a term, “Orison” or degrees of prayer. It is not the ordinary type of petition or asking for something, but it is more of a yearning of the soul for the Divine. This orison is an act of love or a supernatural intercourse between the soul and the divine. Orison covers all steps from the beginning to the merging with God. It includes all forms of prayers, meditation and contemplation. It is a discipline of the mind, which should be cleared of external and extraneous objects into a stage of emptiness. Going deeper and deeper into the layers of silence and emptiness a passage will be found, and this will lead the mystic to the Divine. This journey is sometimes dark and bare and sometimes full of light and joy. To the mystic it seems free and easy. This training and purging is a progressive cleaning of the mirror, a progressive self-emptying of all that is not real. It should finally attain that consciousness that can see Reality, which ironically is without image. It is a Void! Christians called it naked orison. (Western mysticism 2,  Dr. Tan Kheng Khoo -

The 3 stages of the mystical path according to the Précis de Théologie Mystique et Ascétique (The Spiritual Life: A Treatise on Ascetical and Mystical Theology) , Adolphe Tanquerey (1926):
1-     Purification of the soul or purgative path
Ch.1 – 1- Prayer
2- Piety
3- Meditation
Ch. 2 -  Repentance
Ch. 3 – Mortification
1-      Body; 2- senses; 3- passions; 4- spiritual faculties
Ch. 4 – Fight against the 7 deadly sins
1-      pride; 2- envy; 3-jealousy/anger; 4- gluttony; 5- luxury; 6- sloth; 7- greed
Ch. 5 - Fight against temptations

2-    The illuminative path
Ch. 1 – Affective orison
Ch. 2 – Cultivate the 7 virtues
1-      prudence; justice; 3- strength; 4- temperance (chastity, humility, gentleness); faith; 6- hope; 7- charity
(sacred heart of Jesus)
Ch.3 – 1- Continue the fight against the 7 deadly sins; 2- fight against apathy

3- The unitive path
Ch. 1 The simple unitive path
  1. 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit
1-      Council; 2- piety; 3- Strength; 4- Fear; 5- Knowledge; 6- Intelligence; 7- Wisdom
2-     Orison of simplicity
Ch. 2 – Infused contemplation
A loving, simple, permanent attention of the spirit to divine things (F. de Sales)
1- a- Orison of quietude (arid)
The dark night of the soul, beginning of infused contemplation, secret, obscure, unconscious, accompanied by anguish, pain, trials, temptations, hardships, desire for more intimate union with god.
b- Orison of quietude (soft)
The fourth room of Teresa of Avila’s mystic castle, quiet orison, passive introspection, a sweet and affectionate absorption of the intelligence and will in God, produced by a spiritual grace of the Holy Spirit, feel the presence of God.
2- Orison of full union
Suspension of powers, absolute certainty of the presence of God in the soul, a very intimate union of the soul in God, accompanied by the suspension of all the inner faculties, ardent zeal, detachment, perfect submission to the will of God, great charity to others.
3-    a- Ecstatic union (Spiritual espousal) (soft)
Absorption of the soul in God, suspension of the senses, spiritual inebriation, half hour duration, up to seven days intermittently, 3 phases: simple, ravishment, flight of the spirit, like a delicious wound, longing for the spouse, ravishment is impetuous and violent, flight, souls feels transported, feeling of separation of soul from body, perfect detachment, increasingly affectionate appreciation of the humanity of Christ, profound patience
b- Ecstatic union (hard)
The night of the spirit, further purification to rid of remaining imperfections, sufferings of the intelligence, overwhelmed by pure light of the spirit, sufferings of the will, feeling of abandonment by God, ardent love of God, feeling of inner light, sweet feeling of serenity and strength, progress on the 10 steps of the ladder of love.
4-    Transformative union or spiritual wedding
Intimate, serene, permanent
a-     Vision of Jesus – great vision of the beatitude of heaven in a transcendent, sublime mode, becoming one with God.
b-     Vision of the Trinity, feeling that the Trinity resides in oneself, holy abandonment to God, willingness to suffer in serenity, absence of inner pains and desires, absence of ravishments, ardent zeal for the mortification of souls.

images thanks to


  1. I am a Christian Mystic, and I need to learn what it means to me.

  2. thanks for visiting - I hope you found my humble research efforts useful...

  3. Thank you so much. I’m a Christian mystic. And I can relate to your information. It helps me to understand. I don’t fully understand. All that’s involved, so I’m learning. Thank you again

  4. Thank you for this information.
    Exactly what I was searching for.

  5. glad to be of service... ps- new post -

  6. On January 7, 2022, the following retreat will be offered at the Manresa Jesuit Spiritual Renewal Centre in Pickering, Ontario (

    “On the Road to Union with God.”

    Friday, January 7 – 7 p.m. to Sunday, January 9 - 1 p.m.

    A silent Ignatian weekend retreat for MEN. Generally, there are three broad recognizable stages as
    we grow closer to God: the Purgative stage, the Illuminative stage, and the Unitive stage. We will
    explore this journey with the help of the life of the saint who were persons like you and me who had
    to get in touch with their own human frailty along their own unique life-journey. The hope is that
    the retreatant comes to a higher understanding of self in relation to our infinite loving and merciful
    God in the context of their own earthly life-journey.

    Facilitated by Fr. Henk van Meijel, S.J.