In the volume, Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life, theologian Sarah Coakley has an essay on “deepening practices” (79-93). In it, she argues for an alignment of three sets of practices with the traditional three stages of spiritual progress. In mystical theology, there are three steps in a deepening pattern or practice of prayer: the “purgative,” the “illuminative,” and the “unitive.” Of course, the three are not so neatly divided, but are interwoven in the “messy reality” of day-to-day faithfulness (79).
To the first stage, the “purgative,” Coakley links the sort of practice of turning away from evil practices associated with new converts or beginners in the faith. In this early phase, “Much of the emphasis is on setting one’s life in a direction different from that of the world” (84). The second stage, the “illuminative,” Coakley illustrates with Benedict’s monastic Rule. This stage is about ingraining the love of Christ on one’s interior through repeated, habitual practices. Over time, things like worshiping together, welcoming the stranger and giving charity to the poor shape one’s life to become more like Christ. A “habituating of love” takes place (86). This not just in external matters, as in the first stage, but in one’s deep attitudes or dispositions.
The third and final stage, the “unitive,” as the name suggests, is the stage of spiritual union with God. At this level of grace, the soul is so empty of self and filled with God that it becomes “transparent to the divine” (90). Here a level of holiness or sanctification is reached that “even the skeptical outsider” must begin to recognize as a supernatural grace (80). As with von Balthasar, so too with Coakley: “The saint is the apology for the Christian religion” (The Glory of the Lord, vol. 1, 229). Importantly, however, this level is not necessarily even consciously attained for the believer. Sanctification, or growth in grace, proceeds, as Coakley writes,”discreetly, quietly, and often even unconsciously in the recipient—through the ‘long haul’ of repeated practices of faithfulness” (83).
As we progress, through the “‘long haul’ of repeated practices of faithfulness”, a subtle transformation of our beliefs takes place as well. What initially began perhaps as a dogmatic clinging to truths proposed to us by an authority, by the Church, becomes the truth out of which we live and breathe. Our practices begin to “infuse beliefs with richer meaning” (92). Coakley speaks of the final stage this way:
This practice of contemplation is, strictly speaking, God’s practice in humans—a more unimpeded or conscious form of that distinctive human receptivity to grace that has sustained the process all along and that is itself a divine gift. But it does not obliterate or invalidate all the other practices; rather, it sets them all in a new light, reversing more obviously now the logical relations of beliefs and practices as this practice finally discloses the incorporative telos and meaning of ‘beliefs.’ In particular, the Trinity is no longer seen as an obscure though authoritative ecclesial doctrine of God’s nature, but rather a life into which we enter and, in unbreakable union with Christ, breathe the very Spirit of God. (93)