Three Ages of the Interior Life in Relation to the Jewish Temple

Dr Taylor Marshall:

The great saints and masters of the mystical life in the Catholic tradition often speak of the three ages of the spiritual life. These stages correspond to the three areas of Solomon’s Temple:

1) Purgative (outer court)
2) Illuminative (holy place)
3) Unitive (holy of holies)

1) The purgative way is when a Christian truly examines his life and seeks to root out sin and seek personal sanctity. This entails frequenting the sacraments (especially Holy Communion and Penance), beginning a life of penance and charitable deeds, a growing hatred for venial sins, a love for Scripture (particularly the Psalms), an awareness of predominant faults, a purification of the intellect and will.

2) The illuminative way begins with a “dark night of the senses” (not the dark night of the soul), which leads to a passive purification of the senses. This journey includes a growth in the virtues, particularly the virtues of humility and charity. The soul has great confidence and hope in God. True devotion to Mary develops. Infused prayer begins.

3) The unitive way is the stage of Christian perfection and begins with the dark night of the soul. The soul now willingly suffers for God and loves God in all circumstances. The soul delights in spiritual childhood and simplicity as we see in St Therese and other great saints. These souls practice heroic virtue, which are the kind of virtues that we find in the canonized saints. Those in the unitive way accept divine abandonment and love Christ crucified. They practice reparation for the sins of others that wound Christ. They experience mystical union and other mysteries that cannot be explained.

These three ages of the mystical life are found in Solomon’s temple.

1) The stage of purification is the outer court where the altar of fire is found and also the basin for cleansing. Here, water and fire purify those who approach the temple of God’s presence.

2) The stage of illumination is the holy place within the Temple were the hallowed lamp stands giving light. Also present there is the altar of incense representing true and fruitful mental prayer and infused prayer. There is found the bread of presence which signifies a love for the Eucharist.

3) The stage of union is the holy of holies which is dark, black cubic room cut off from the eyes of most men. There is the ark of the covenant and the propitiatory. Here is the presence of God. Here is divine intimacy.

As Catholics, we should seek to be near to God. The old temple gives a simple plan. Begin with years of purification. Prayer. Penance. Daily examination of conscience.

PS: According to Saint Isidore and Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, a priest must be in the unitive way before he should allow himself to be consecrated as a bishop. Also a man must first be in the illuminative way before being ordained a priest. You will find similar things said by the Saint Denys the Areopagite.



6 thoughts on “Three Ages of the Interior Life in Relation to the Jewish Temple

  1. Indeed when I was a English Benedictine way back in my 20’s, for a few years, I remember studying this three-fold idea of spirituality, which here is somewhat presented in the or a Judeo-Christian element. I have continued these many years in reading and doing study on Christian Mysticism. I have my own old copy of the classic by the Anglican, William Ralph Inge D.D. (one time Dean of St. Paul’s), “Christian Mysticism”, (379 pages). The first four chapters are just gand! Not to mention his four Appendix!

    Now, I am much more toward the books of the profound Bernard of Clairvaux, see his book: On Loving God! And too the mystical tradition of a Blaise Pascal (see the document known as the “Memorial”, Pascal’s own record of his great “conversion”.) Which of course Pascal carried a copy of this for years in his coat! And I would recommend reading the mystical writings of Jakob Boehme, though certainly very fallible, but in the history of the Pietist’s, German Romantics, Quakers, etc. But of course any so-called Christian Mysticism, must always be measured by our greatest Christian mystic, and his theology of Christian Mysticism, Saul/Paul, that great Apostle of the Risen, Ascended: “Christ Jesus”, Himself!

    1. Here is a nice simple statement by our English Brit, J.I. Packer …

      ‘Meditation is the activity of calling to mind, and thinking over, and dwelling on, and applying to oneself, the various things that one knows about the works and ways and purposes and promises of God. It is an activity of holy thought, consciously performed in the presence of God, under the eye of God, by the help of God, as a means of communion with God.’

      1. thank you for sharing this very useful and conformable “active work of Meditation”! I have never heard/read “Meditation” placed in this light – that is, in the forefront of our thoughts, as a forerunner to our thoughts – a Guide and Directive of any mental or even physical activity – truly a holy and postive thrust shaping words and deeds! I will copy this and place it alongside of my “Daily Offering”, both of which are complimentary in ‘keeping God front and center’; Transforming each new day and therefore, helping to mold one’s dispostion to reflect that as well!

      2. @Margaret: 2 Peter 1: 1 thru 11 are some of my favorite verses on this subject!

        “To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours in the righteousness of our God and Savor Jesus Christ.” (verse 1)…”in the righteousness of our God..”, from here comes everything, our God In Christ! Indeed the Grace & Glory of God!

      3. WE are right and righteous only ‘In God, In Christ’! Yes, justification & santification are very close together, but Justification comes first in the so-called ‘ordo salutis’ (order of salvation, the term for cause and effect in the temporal order of time). Btw, faith follows regeneration in us! We must be made alive first! Yes, we Reformed have OUR theological scholasticsm! 😉

      4. In the very poverty and impotence of the Christian faith the fusion of God’s alien and God’s very own work takes place, just as it did in the death and resurrection of Christ. The conformity to Christ is not created by any form of imitation, and faith in Christ is the only likeness with Christ that is not infected with the human piety of imitation. Paul said be imitators of me, as I follow faith in Christ! (Phil. 3: 8-9)

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