When I was a good bit younger – in college, actually – I took a few courses in economics and marketing. I remember thinking to myself, “God has a bad marketing department,” because it seemed to me that things like Scripture and prayer were often so difficult to understand and do. God wants us to pray, but everyone I ever asked admitted that prayer was difficult even if the specific reasons were different in each case. I wondered why God didn’t just make prayer delightful. “Yes,” I thought, “God has a bad marketing plan.”
God isn’t selling products, of course—He’s raising children. He’s healing hearts, and heart surgery is a lengthy procedure that often involves pain for the patient. Many purifications, mortifications, and changes are going to be necessary if we want to attain holiness and get to 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 to control the passions related to it (e.g., gluttony, lust, and greed). 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. God purifies us in different ways in order to avoid having these traps capture us entirely.
Let’s look at each in turn. The writing is my own, but the insights and inspiration came from Fr. Garrigou-LaGrange’s Three Ages of the Interior Life, Volume 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 may also start to pass judgement on others who seem to have made less progress.
A person afflicted with spiritual pride often “shops around” for a spiritual director, looking for someone who affirms rather than challenges his insights. Further, he tends to minimize his sins out of a desire to appear better than he really is.
Soon enough he becomes a Pharisee of sorts, regarding himself too favorably and others too harshly. He also tends towards hypocrisy, playing the role of a spiritual master and proficient, when he is not.
God, therefore, must often humble the soul that 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 can 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 can easily be lost or become confused and entangled. Even worse, it may become contingent upon consolations, visions, and the like.
Hence, God must often withhold consolations so that the soul can master the discipline of prayer with or without consolations and learn to love God for His own sake. Uncorrected, spiritual gluttony can lead to spiritual sloth.
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 for 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 begins to fall prey to distraction, to make excuses to avoid prayer, and to shorten prayer and other spiritual exercises or do 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. The Lord can effect this sort of purification through a spiritual director who insists on prayer no matter how difficult. God sometimes uses certain seasons such as Lent and Advent or other ember days to bring greater zeal to the soul weighed down by spiritual sloth.
Clearly, God must correct spiritual sloth and help us to accept Him 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, we need many purifications, whether we like to admit it or not. We might like to think that our spiritual life would be free from excess or defect 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).