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Forms of Lay Spirituality


Many people, including Catholics and ex-Catholics, seek “spirituality” in Buddhism, Yogic meditation, New Age Movements, the Cosmic Consciousness movement, and other such sources. For me, one of the saddest developments in spiritual “exploration” emerged in a letter from the former Jesuit Provincial of Wisconsin, a good friend for many of us at Marquette University, who became Pastor at Creighton University for fourteen years. Now an octogenarian, he wrote to fellow Jesuits and friends that he had decided to leave the Jesuit priesthood and all “hierarchies,” to attain “unity with the cosmos.” He wrote, “It is time for the Church to turn her attention from saving face to saving the earth, from saving souls to saving the planet.”

Feelings of “transcendence” have been common to human beings around the globe from time immemorial, and have given rise to whole religions. But in Catholicism the study of spirituality (ascetical theology) is far advanced beyond basic religious experiences and even the systematic Eastern meditative practices.

The traditional presentation of the spiritual stages, found in the works of John of the Cross, Bonaventure, Bernard of Clairvaux, and others, is often in terms of three stages – the “purgative, illuminative, and unitive” states – although some writers like St. Theresa, who speaks of seven “mansions,” incorporate subdivisions.

The Purgative stage is characterized by conversion, a firm resolve to avoid sin and the near occasions of sin, the practice of regular prayer, and in some cases sensory consolation or delight in spiritual things.


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