In the fourth century Evagrius Ponticus described three levels of spiritual growth which is the basis of all orthodox Christian spiritual direction. These are commonly known as Purgative, Illuminative and Unitive.
I have found the three ways helpful guides as I long to grow closer to God. They help me recognize spiritual growth in my life as well as explain spiritual progress to others. These three ways point me to God and show me how to detach from the world. They remind me that the goal of my Christian life is to be one with God.
In the Purgative, souls purge themselves from the world. Along with humility, losing interest in the world’s offerings is the real beginning of the spiritual journey. Finally the world pales in comparison to knowing the love of God. Priorities change. How you think about material possessions becomes transformed. Jesus called us to humble repentance. That is the first stage of returning to our true identity as God’s dearly beloved children. The purgative is a conversion of the heart. Jesus said: “Where your treasure is there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). When you treasure God more than the world, you are moving through the purgative way. You begin to see how foolish you have been to try to derive satisfaction from the world. Sometimes you are the last to notice that you are not the same person you used to be. Your humble repentance has transformed your wants, your hopes and your dreams. Not only do you purge the world from your obsession, you are no longer totally consumed with yourself.
A deepening level of spirituality touches souls who have made a break from the slavery of the world. Their minds are converted with light from God. They are able to discern heavenly perspectives, especially about suffering. Jesus told us that “we must take up our cross and follow Him” (Matthew 6:24). Souls that are illuminated with the light of Christ embrace the mystery of suffering. They believe everything that happens in their lives, whether good or bad, will accomplish God’s glory when they place their trust in God. Intimacy with God is desired more than an easy life. It’s at this stage of the spiritual journey that past friends and family may become disappointed because the person they liked is now focused on totally different values. Not only does the soul not like what is once liked, it also sees and understands more about God’s glorious work in the world. It is as if the mind is illuminated and can see beyond the circumstances to the glory and purposes of God. This soul is making great spiritual progress in turning back to God.
The goal of our Christian life is the Unitive way. This is the conversion of the spirit when we are one with God. Another world for this is Theosis. Jesus prayed that “we could see His glory” (John 17:1-5). That is what happens in the Unitive way. It is a Mountain top experience with God that all souls long for. We are created to partake in the glory of God. This is what was lost in our demise through sin. God longs for us to share in His glory. As we progress through humility and obedience, intimacy with God is our soul’s destination.