By Sean Mulcare
In the third stage of the spiritual life, the soul has come as far as it can “on its own.” The soul has progressed to the point that all further growth needs to be done by God, since the soul can’t put forth any more effort since it is already giving its all to God. It’s amazing that even when we think we’ve reached the destination (not seriously sinning), we aren’t even half way there. God wants to give us so much in this life, and the spiritual life is one crazy adventure. God is offering us the heights of happiness, but we have to desire it enough to sacrifice for it if we are to obtain it. When we overcome our slavery to the word, we will become slaves of Christ, and it is in this that we find freedom.
A soul in the third stage has defeated slavery to mortal (serious) sins by the great grace of God and now is dealing with venial (smaller) sins, actively working to avoid them. St. Teresa says this about people in the third stage: “They avoid committing even venial sins, they love doing penance, they spend hours in recollection [prayer], they use their time well, and they practice works of charity towards their neighbors,” (Interior Castle – 3rd mansions). I don’t know about you, but this seems like an incredibly difficult thing to live out in reality. We may find ourselves wondering after reading this, “Is it worth it?” or “How is it possible to do that?”
It is important to understand that this isn’t some checklist to be accomplished by brute force, but it is simply a response to falling in love. To fall in love with God is something that happens (super)naturally and can not be forced. Imagine if someone decided they were going to fall in love with someone in a month… It would be unrealistic. Love comes about naturally. Even with married people, they don’t stop falling in love when they get married — or at least hopefully. Love is something that develops throughout life, and it’s the same with God. As you begin to pray, you will start to desire it more. You will spend more time in prayer, just as someone falling in love will want to spend more time with the other person. This growth in love between you and God will cause the other things listed to come about — naturally and without force, yet a healthy desire and ambition to grow is needed.
Prayer in this stage is growing, although it is still inconsistent. Some days it feels very close to God, and other days it does not. God sometimes removes the pleasant feelings in prayer to test our faithfulness and to see if we will still pray. If we don’t keep praying, it is a sign we love the feelings more than God. We must understand this error and persevere. The good feelings will come back, and if the person perseveres patiently in the third stage, their prayer life will begin to transform like a butterfly coming forth from its cocoon in the fourth stage.
P.S.: Keep in mind that it typically took many of the saints a considerable portion of their lives to be led to this point, but others were led to this point at a young age. St. Thérèse of Lisieux was 9 by the time she reached this stage. Don’t be discouraged if you are not anywhere near this point, but be encouraged to see where the road will lead if you continue down the path of holiness. God is at work, and your holiness is primarily under his control, but it’s up to you to respond!