There is an ancient teaching in the Christian tradition which permeates the writings of the mystics throughout the centuries in both the eastern and western traditions. It is a way of understanding spiritual growth and formation within the human soul. It is often referred to as the triple way or the threefold path.
The language of the three stages can often feel archaic and be difficult to engage with because it is not the sort of language we would typically use in conversations today. We rarely talk about being purified, illuminated, or unified and that can make the terms difficult to relate to. In the chart below I try to flush out the meaning of each stage by giving other alternative names. I hope that it will make them more relatable to modern life.
|Loving yourself||Loving the world||Loving God|
|Spiritual healing||Nature spirituality||Silence|
|Asceticism||Imaginative prayer||Simply being|
|The enneagram||Affective meditation||Centering prayer|
Purification (sometimes called purgation) is the process by which we heal what is chaotic within our souls. Something is made pure when all the impurities within it have been washed away, revealing the true nature of that which has been cleansed. In the traditional Christian understanding we are cleansed of the destructive habits, bad attitudes, and harmful prejudices which exist within us. When we are cleansed of these things, our original goodness is able to shine once again.
Illumination is the process by which our mind is filled with the light of wisdom. It is about cultivating creativity, understanding, and a sense of connection. Traditionally this stage is about the contemplation of nature, whereby we encounter God in and through the beauty of the cosmos. We encounter God in nature by immersing ourselves in its beauty and also by gaining knowledge about this magnificent universe. The curiosity of a scientist as well as their desire for truth are perfect examples of this stage.
Union (sometimes called perfection) is the process by which the finite creature is united with the infinite creator. It is about mystery, silence, and the overcoming of opposites. This stage emphasises the unknowability of God and the way in which our spirit may encounter the radiant darkness of the Trinity. This stage is about forgetting everything other than God and having a mind free of thoughts and feelings. It is union with everything and (because it transcends opposites) it is also union with nothing. It is an emptiness in which we find the fullness of God.
In one sense the triple way describes a linear trajectory and each stage is dependent upon the stage before it. Purification prepares our consciousness to receive the light of wisdom. It clears away all the junk which is preventing us from seeing the light of Christ (which is always shining, even when our eyes are covered). Illumination is the light which pours in when our eyes are uncovered. This inner light allows us to see the fingerprints of the creator in the creation. The realisation of God within nature lifts our minds up into the third stage, which is union with Christ. In this way, the first two stages prepare us for the third stage, which is the final goal of the Christian life.
While this linear trajectory is important to understand, real life is never that simple. For that reason, the triple way has often been described as a circle or a spiral. We circle back to places we have already been even as we climb higher and higher. With each new revolution we are able to see more deeply than the one before. There is no point in this life when we can say we have completed any of the stages in their fullness. After having passed through the three stages, we may find that the experience of union with the eternal awakens within us a conviction to return to the work of purification and heal something which Christ has revealed to us.
The spiral can also help us to find places where the free flowing of our spirit has become stuck. If we are struggling to contemplate God in her radiant darkness then we should look to the stage before and contemplate the creation instead. If we find ourselves unable to contemplate the nature of things then we should return to the work of spiritual healing and seek to find the harmony within ourselves which will allow us to see clearly once again. If we find that we are struggling to settle into inner peace, then we should cycle back to the third stage and seek stillness and silence, returning to the place where we began.
The stages have another important pattern to them as well. They expand and contract our awareness, in a way not unlike breathing, by emptying us and then filling us again. Purification is like breathing out because it is an act of letting go of all the junk which we have been filled with over the courses of our lives. Illumination is like breathing in because it seeks to fill us with the light of wisdom. Union is another out-breath because we release all thoughts in order to be united with God in empty silence. The give and take of this dynamic focuses our attention inward and then outward and then inward once more.
In the nothingness of God we encounter the fullness of everything and so the final stage is both an in-breath and an out-breath as we are united with nothing and then everything in an infinite and reciprocal dance. Mystics will refer to the stage of union as a radiant darkness because it includes both an expansion and a contraction of our consciousness. Radiance refers to the light which fills us and darkness refers to the letting go which leaves us empty. The fullness of this give and take can be found in the unitive stage, which transcends and includes both these opposites.
I will be presenting a talk on the triple way at The Mystics Summit this year. It is a free online event taking place June 18-22, 2023. You can learn more about it and register by clicking HERE. There are a number of excellent people who will be presenting including my friends David Cole and Carmen Acevedo-Butcher. Both of the have written guest posts on New Eden in the past. You can find some of Carmen’ contributions HERE and HERE. You can find some of David’s HERE and HERE.
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