Three Stages to the Christian Life

By Matthew Chicoine

The spiritual life for the Christian is not a mere horizontal path, but rather vertical and likened to a ladder— consisting of different levels of progression. Thus, the spiritual journey for the Catholic-Christian is composed of three steps being the interior, religious, and spiritual.  In this post, I will focus on individuals from St. Luke’s Gospel who exhibit each stage.

The Ladder of the Divine Ascent

The Ladder of the Divine Ascent

Stage 1— The Interior Life

First, the “interior life” refers to the initial level of the spiritual path for Christians. At this stage, a person demonstrates the ability to be self-aware (self-autonomous) and shows the capacity to utilize their imagination. This stage is necessary for a Christian to increase and deepen their spirituality. However, it is possible to have a profound interior life without being spiritual.  A pragmatic instance of this is a secular artist painting a picture. They exercise their imagination without contemplating the mysteries of God. Nevertheless, normally the more powerful the imagination is, the greater potential a person must power their “spiritual engine”—the mind.

Example of the Rich Young Man

interior life Jesus

Hoffman; Christ and the Rich Young Ruler

Two instances of the “interior life” within the Gospel of Luke include the Rich Young Man 18:18-30 and the centurion at the Crucifixion 23:44-49. Regarding the former, the Revised Standard Edition refers to the Rich Young Man as a ruler who initiates contact with Jesus by posing a query: “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”(v. 18).  An analysis of this statement shows the ruler demonstrating the “interior life” on a twofold manner: he knew Jesus was a good, informative teacher (he probably heard about the previous work and preaching of Jesus from others) and the question asked was of metaphysical nature, which thus required imagination and intellect to ponder.

Jesus responds by telling the man to adhere to the Decalogue. The man then tells Christ that he diligently follows the commandments. But Jesus required more, he wanted the Rich Ruler to give away his material goods to the poor. But the man was unable to do so.  While he exhibited an “interior life” by asking the right question, the Rich Young Man was not spiritual due to failure to move past material wealth (v.23). Augmenting this point the narrator tells the reader that the man was sad to give up his possessions and thus shows why he cannot move past the interior level.

Example of the Roman Centurion

A second case of someone having the interior life in Luke comes at the close of the gospel. After hanging upon the cross for several hours, darkness came over the land and the veil of the temple split in two and Jesus uttered his final breath. During this a centurion proclaimed “Certainly this man was innocent!” (v.47). The centurion saw the curtain torn and perhaps remembered Jesus’ premonition that the Temple would be destroyed. Such recall shows intellect and imagination. In fact he had such a powerful imagination, that the centurion “praised God” in v.47. Because of this, he had a profound “interior life”.

Stage 2—The Religious Life

Defined as the level where one is focused on concepts of rituals and/or sacraments, the “religious life” is the next stage in Christian spirituality. To put it another way, this phase denotes an experience of contact with the Transcendent deity via religion.

Two prime examples of this are the Pharisees in Luke 6:1-5 and Peter in 9:28-36. With the former, the Pharisees badgered Jesus and his disciples for gathering grain on the Sabbath. Their query in v. 2 shows that they are primarily concerned with Jewish ritual practices, which exhibits a sign of being in the “religious life” phase. The narrator gives a further clue that this is a case of the “religious life” because Jesus corrected them by showing that David set a precedent in 1 Samuel 21:1-6. The Pharisees were thus being nit-picky about the Sabbath law.

Example of the Transfiguration

Transfiguration_Raphael

Transfiguration. Rafael

 

The second incident of a person existing in the “religious life” level of spirituality occurs a few chapters later at the Transfiguration. Upon witnessing Jesus’ conversation with Moses and Elijah, Peter utters a seemingly perplexing statement, “Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths…” (9:33). Knowledge of the main Jewish celebrations is needed to ascertain Cephas’ point. Peter is referring to the Feast of Booths which recalls Israel’s exodus from Egypt and their wandering in the desert for 40 years. Although Peter is being an astute Jew by wanting to follow that ritual custom of erecting a tent, his missed the true purpose of the Transfiguration and hence he is at the “religious” level of the spiritual life and not yet at the final stage.

Stage 3—The Spiritual Life

The final phase of the spiritual journey is at the level of the “spiritual life”. The phrase “the spiritual life” is delineated as the level where mankind’s spirit and the Holy Spirit connect— it also presupposes and fulfills the latter two stages in the spiritual excursion.

Example of Mary

cropped-blessed-virgin-mary

The Virgin in Prayer by Sassoferrato

At the outset of Luke’s Gospel, Mary’s fiat in 1:26-38 is the most perfect expression of obedience to God and a person having the fullness of the “spiritual life”.  First, when the angel Gabriel came to her, Mary although initially concerned did not flee. Rather she listened to the message. After hearing the news of her future pregnancy, Mary asked “How can this be since I have no husband?” (She pledged her life to remain a virgin). Gabriel responded by telling her that Jesus will be conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit. Mary’s reply in v. 38 displays her complete surrender to God’s will and shows why she exhibits the “spiritual life”.

Example of the Repentant Sinful Woman

wiping jesus feet

The next case of the “spiritual life” in Luke also is of a woman. In 7:36-50 a sinful woman wept at Jesus’ feet, because of her sins, and cleansed them with her tears and expensive ointment. Luke juxtaposes this woman with Simon, Jesus’ Pharisaic host. He scorned the woman due to her sin. Jesus quips back by saying that the woman washed his feet without him asking. Simon failed to welcome Jesus with the same hospitality (v.45-47). Verse 48 shows the climax of this passage, “Your sins are forgiven”.  She desired forgiveness and Christ is pleased to forgive. For this reason, she is an example of having the “spiritual life”.

Matthew Chicoine is a free-lance writer, a life-long Catholic, and an avid truth seeker. He is the father of four children and has a stellar wife.  Matthew earned an M.A. in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2014 and enjoys binge reading Tolkien, Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Fulton Sheen and comic books. Matthew’s personal heroes are Saints Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, and John Paul II to name a few along with the rest of the saints. Visit his blog at https://thesimplecatholic. blog/ to learn more about his pilgrim pursuit of a joyous life following the truth of the Gospel.

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