Many of you are acquainted with the brief description of progression in our spiritual journey that emerged well over a thousand years ago. The ways are: purgation, illumination, and union. They function as stages: we begin with a conversion from sin; we are enlightened by the example of Jesus, and we seek to follow him; we then receive access to an intimate union with God.
For many years I have been intrigued by the difference between this threefold way and the four weeks of the Exercises of St. Ignatius. What is the relationship? Ignatius himself in his Exercises made a connection between his first week and the purgative way, his second week and the illuminative way; but he does not go any further with a reference to the other two weeks and the unitive way. In recent years I have studied this issue, and discovered that some Ignatian scholars have attempted to fill out Ignatius’ terse comment. The approach that I found most helpful is suggested by Gaston Fessard, a French Jesuit, in his book on the dialectic of the spiritual exercises. He suggests a interesting pattern of overlap between the ways and the weeks, in brief: purgative way (weeks one and two), illuminative way (weeks two and three), unitive way (weeks three and four).
The purgative way begins in the first week, which is devoted to conversion from sin, but continues in the second week, in which this basic conversion is brought to bear on all the aspects of our lives. Our heart may be turned towards God, but there are many dimensions of disorder, of reluctance to follow the patterns of grace that lurk in our lives that we must discover and overcome. The main reference in the second week to that process is the meditation on the two standards.
The illuminative way begins in the second week, but continues in the third. What unites these two weeks is the fact that Ignatius invites us to contemplate the events of Christ’s life from his entry into this world to his leaving it. This life provides a model for our own, and we seek to find out the specific ways in which we are called to be disciples of Christ and share in his mission. We discern a choice of how to serve, or, having made that choice, we seek the ways of conforming to Christ as we live it out. When we move into the third week, we contemplate the final events of Christ’s earthly life, his passion and his death. He lived out his mission to the end, and we seek to confirm our discernment of how to share in that mission and to be faithful to it to the end as well.
The unitive way corresponds to the paschal mystery, which has two phases, passion, humiliation, and death (third week), followed by consolation, glory, and resurrection (fourth week). The unitive dimension is very clear in the third week: our contemplation becomes less complex and we tend to simply rest what we see and hear, just being there with Jesus who suffers them for our sake. This union continues in a different mode as we move into the fourth week. The keynote of our union is joy rather that sorrow. Our share in his mission is not only confirmed, but it is transformed, being integrated in the resurrection which gradually transforms the world. It ceases to be just my mission, but a mission in which God transforms me, uses me, achieves what he intends through me. I thirst for God, but now God thirsts in me.The keynote of this mission is bringing consolation to others as Christ brought consolation to his disciples devastated by his death. We have received compassion, and we now bring compassion, as Pope Francis so often bids us.
This is sketchy and underdeveloped. Those interested might want to have a look at an article coming in the April 2022 issue of The Way, which provides more ample justification and development of this theme.