When I was a good bit younger, in college actually, I had to take a few economics and marketing courses. At that time I thought to myself, “God has a bad marketing department,” since things like Scripture and prayer were often so difficult to understand and do. God seemed to insist that we pray, but everyone I ever asked admitted that prayer was difficult. And while many had reasons they offered as to why prayer was difficult, I still wondered why, if God could just zap prayer and make it delightful, He didn’t just do so. “Yes,” I thought, “God has a bad marketing plan!”
But of course God isn’t selling products; He’s raising children. He’s healing hearts, and heart surgery involves pain and often lengthy procedures. Many purifications, mortifications, and changes are going to be necessary if we want to attain holiness and Heaven.
Let’s look at three reasons our soul needs purification. Note that purifications of the soul are akin to, but distinct from, the mortifications necessary for our body and the passions related to it (e.g., gluttony, lust, and greed). For our soul, too, can be weighed down with excesses and defects.
Drawing from the spiritual masters and St. Thomas Aquinas, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange details three reasons that our soul needs purification, especially as we begin to make progress. They are spiritual pride, spiritual gluttony, and spiritual sloth. Each of these brings conditions and temptations to a soul that is beginning to make some progress in prayer and fervency. The very gifts of progress and fervency are also possible dangers to the ongoing growth that is needed. Thus God purifies us in diverse manners in order to avoid having these traps capture us entirely.
Let’s look at each in turn. The text is my own, but the insights and inspiration are found in Fr. Garrigou-LaGrange’s Three Ages of the Interior Life, Vol two, pp. 44ff, Tan Publications.
I. Spiritual pride – This comes when a person, having made some progress and experienced consolations as well as the deeper prayer of a proficient, begins to consider himself a spiritual master. He or she may also start to judge others severely who seem to have made less progress.
Those afflicted with spiritual pride often “shop around” for a spiritual director, looking for one who affirms rather than challenges their insights. Further, they tend to minimize the true reality of their sins out of a desire to appear more perfected than they really are.
Soon enough we have a Pharisee of sorts, who regards himself too favorably and others too poorly. There is also the problem of hypocrisy, since spiritual pride would have one play the role of a spiritual master and proficient, when one really is not.
God, therefore, must often humble the soul who has begun to make progress. In a certain sense He slows the growth, lest the greatest enemy, pride, claim all the growth.
II. Spiritual sensuality – This is a kind of spiritual gluttony, which consists in being immoderately attached to spiritual consolations. God does sometimes grant these to the soul, but the danger is that the consolations come to be sought for their own sake. One starts to love the consolations of God more than the God of all consolations. Growth in the love of God for His own sake is too easily lost or becomes confused and entangled. Or even worse, it becomes contingent upon consolations, visions, and the like.
Hence God must often withhold these for the sake of the soul, which must learn the discipline of prayer, with or without consolations, and to love God for His own sake. Uncorrected, spiritual gluttony can lead to spiritual sloth, which we consider next.
III. Spiritual sloth – This emerges when spiritual gluttony or other expectations of prayer are not met. There sets up a kind of impatience or even disgust for prayer and the narrow way of the spiritual life. Flowing from this is discouragement, a sluggishness that cancels zeal, and the dissipation of prayer and other spiritual practices. One allows endless distractions, makes excuses, shortens prayer and other spiritual exercises, or does them in a perfunctory manner.
Here, too, God must seek to purify the soul of attachment to consolations, lest such sloth lead to a complete disgust and a refusal to walk the narrow way of the spiritual life. Perhaps this sort of purification will take place through secondary causes, wherein the Lord acts though a spiritual director to insist on prayer, no matter how difficult. Perhaps, too, certain seasons such as Lent and Advent, or other “ember days” and the like will be used by God to bring greater zeal to the soul weighed down with spiritual sloth.
Clearly, God must correct this spiritual sloth and help us to accept God and prayer on His terms, not ours. The insistence on delight and consolations on our own terms is a great enemy to the docility and humility necessary for true growth.
Yes, there are many purifications necessary for us, whether we like to admit it or not. We might like to think that our spiritual life would itself be free from excesses or defects or at least would be a sign of great progress. But often even the most beautiful prayer experiences and spiritual stages are replete with the need for purification and further growth. Perhaps this is what Isaiah meant when he wrote,
In our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved? We have all become like one who is unclean, and even our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment(Is 64:5-6).