Seasons and Soul Development
The weekly meditation prompts at The Edge of the Enclosure offer ideas for personal meditation on themes related to the coming Sunday or the liturgical season. The cycle of the Christian year offers a profoundly rich instruction in soul-development. While the liturgical cycle did not develop to unfold the mystical journey in itself, the seasons correspond to the modes of relationship to the divine described by the Christian mystics of our tradition.
Each season of the Christian year provides a myriad of resources for corporate worship and the soul’s nurture: Biblical texts, hymns, colors, decoration, traditions, literature, music, images and metaphors, and even foods and customs particular to that season. Observing the practices of the church deepens access to the mysteries of that season year by year. Each season in some way prepares us for or celebrates the Paschal Mystery: the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit upon the church. Likewise, each season teaches the soul how to be in a nuanced mode of relationship to that Mystery.
Modes of the Soul
From the beginning of the church, men and women have described universal mystical states of the soul in Christian terms. Language developed to describe these various modes: conversion, purgation, illumination, nights, and union. Progression through these modes of relationship is not necessarily sequential. Illumination is not “better” than purgation, nor union “better” than illumination, for example. Neither is such progression desirable. Called to be faithful to the present, to “pray as you can, not as you can’t,” modes of prayer are prophetic gifts to the church and to the whole of humanity. Diversity of temperment, experience, and individuality enhance these offerings.
We are called, however, to deepen our own spiritual lives and to extend ourselves in mission, activism, and service. Deepening the practice of prayer in the cycle of the liturgical year prepares us for the time we may be called to sit and wait, or live or act from that unique “season of the soul.”
Each season offers its own path to the paschal mystery and union. Each season and its practice, lessons, tools, tasks, carry into other seasons. Conversion is a daily process, as is purgation, illumination, the nights of unknowing. Each season teaches skills necessary for the life of the soul.
Consequently, the most helpful analogies of the soul cycle offer fluidity of movement such as a three-dimentional maze or labyrinth, or present complex layers such as the so-called “Metatron's cube." Teresa of Avila’s elegant metaphor of the interior castle is based upon Jesus’s own image of “many mansions” (John 14:2-3). Teresa writes,“Let us now imagine that this castle, as I have said, contains many mansions, some above, others below, others at each side; and in the center and midst of them all is the chiefest mansion where the most secret things pass between God and the soul.”
Development of the Schema
While acknowledging that each person’s path is different, the following general modes or moods or states are described widely in Christian mystical literature. (I avoid the word “stage” because of its implications of stasis, judgement, and quality.) Building upon the scheme described by Pseudo-Dionysius (5-6th century) of purgation, illumination, union, Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) unfolds seven mansions, the last of these rendered with thoroughness, subtley, and brilliance by John of the Cross (1542-1591). Taken together with their commentators including A.Poulain, S.J., P. Marie-Eugene, O.C.D., and Evelyn Underhill’s synthesis outlined in her book Mysticism, the following scheme emerges:
The Purgative Way
Passive Purgation (or, the “first” night)
The Illuminative Way
The Dark Night of the Sense
The Dark Night of the Soul
Apostolic Union (my phrase)
I describe briefly in my book Grace’s Window how I made the connection of this scheme to the Christain cycle of the year. Working on a master’s degree studying aescetical and mystical theology (spirituality), especially Teresa and John, I also served on the altar guild of my little parish. I set the lections (scripture portions) for each Sunday and as I read them I could not help but notice the correspondance to the soul cycle and the liturgical year.
Advent Conversion, Purgative Way
Christmas Passive purgation
Epiphany Illuminative Way
Lent The Dark Night of the Senses
Easter First Union
Ascension The Dark Night of the Soul
Pentecost Apostolic Union
Season of Pentecost living the mystery in the world
Of course we are always “living the mystery in the world,” but the liturgical cycle offers us a yearly course of practice for all the seasons of our soul and insight into other people’s souls that together we may do the work of the Kingdom with passion, understanding, richness and compassion.
We are called to be, as Teresa put it, Christ’s hands in the world. I do not believe the purpose of the spiritual life is personal salvation. Our life, the life on this planet, we are one organism. We succeed or suffer to the extent that all humanity and all being succeeds or suffers. Praying strengthens us for service, self-sacrifice, and the transformation effected in the Paschal Mystery to which we are called daily.
- Suzanne Guthrie