After recently completing our 90 day Exodus journey I’ve just begun to be able to reflect and unpack the experience we endured as a band of brothers. Men, striving towards what we’re meant to be… great.
Not a mythical great, or a soft and fuzzy great, but a greatness which is born from struggle, incremental acts bathed in fortitude and a large dose of grace, which interacts in us like a shot of metabolic steroids for the soul. It’s grace which enhances our ordinary efforts and pushes them to limits we never thought we had.
During our 90 day journey our group was blessed to have the spiritual direction of a very wise and holy priest. It was fruitful in many regards to have someone who has been there, or is there, to guide us and encourage us.
One of the most impressionable words that came from this man, who is not known for being soft, occurred when he told us each time we met that he was proud of us. These simple words cut deep. It’s something we all need to hear. You are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.
I remember sitting in his office discussing with him what God was doing in our lives and how new it was for each of us. He slowly rocked back in his chair with a look of delight on his face and began to explain that the journey that we were on corresponds to how the Fathers of the Church and many Saints have explained the Christian life. He described the spiritual journey in what has been classically categorized as the purgative, illuminative and unitive stages.
In just 90 days our experience mirrored these stages. During the purgative stage we become self-aware, seeing our inordinate desires for what they are and battle them through prayer, penance and by guarding our hearts.
The next stage, which coincidentally corresponded with days 30-60, is referred to the illuminative period. This stage is described by “the beam of understanding” projecting more broadly to favors received and begins to turn towards the rewards promised (1). Controlling our passions becomes easier during this phase which allows us to see life and have gratitude for what we have been given. Life seemingly slowed down here.
The final stage is described as the unitive stage. People in this phase experience great peace as they are drawn away from temporal things and are not agitated by their passions, but have their eyes fixed on Christ.
These stages of the Christian life are experienced in a progressive manner but they all over lap and have a cyclical tempo which tends towards an ever growing depth. It is interesting that we can see these stages interwoven into the fabric of life.
Military boot camps are styled after this process so that when the young soldier begins his indoctrination, he is stripped of his old life. Next the warrior is slowly put back together, but in a fashion in which they are shown how this purgation has made them better and they can begin to project forward to what this new mold promises. When the soldier reaches the last stage they can clearly see how they are a different person, a warrior, a weapon. Here they see how their new skills and habits fit together in the grander scheme of battle.
The intriguing part about this process is that it’s normal. This is the way Christians throughout the centuries have become Saints and often times were willing to lay down their lives for truth… for Christ.
In this same way we can see it in all of our new endeavors, whether it is learning a new job or becoming a father. We are all meant to progress, to move forward, dig deeper. We’re all called gradually to a place of perfection… to greatness.
(1) The Enkindling of Love, The Triple Way, St. Bonaventure. Translated by Regis J. Armstrong, O.F.M. Cap.