By Sean Mulcare
In the 4th stage of the spiritual life, there are numerous things that start to happen in and to the soul. After the 3rd stage, it can no longer advance any further on its own efforts in order to reach the 4th stage; God has to act on the soul, and this action is initially very painful. The seed that was planted so long ago at the soul’s conversion will start to come out of the ground. It starts to see what lies above if it perseveres in the growing pains. The things the soul will begin to experience here really are miraculous gifts from God.
The seed has been cared for by God, and he has gently led the soul to be ready to enter the 4th stage. The soul has responded very generously to God and has willingly received all that God has given to it. It has worked hard to rid itself of mortal sins and to carefully avoid even small venial sins. Those who reach this stage have devoted themselves to a substantial amount of daily prayer, and they are growing in love for their neighbor and for God. When the soul has successfully done these things, perhaps for a number of years, change starts to happen, and it will start to experience the richness of contemplative prayer.
Before it will be able to receive contemplative prayer (which we will talk about later), the soul will enter into a time of darkness where it no longer has positive emotions in prayer. It will find it very difficult to meditate on the Scriptures and to pray like it did before. It will greatly fear it is falling backwards, and it will not successfully find satisfaction in worldly things. This time of aridity can last 6 months to a year. God is testing the soul to see if it will remain faithful to him even without the emotions. He is testing the souls love for him. It is a tremendous time of potential growth, but unfortunately many who reach this point fall back and don’t persevere in prayer so they don’t reach the 4th stage. They don’t know this is a normal and required transition. The Church calls this transition time the Dark Night of the Senses since the senses no longer receive positive feelings from prayer or the world. It knows the things the world offers are simply toys that are not bad but can not even compare with God, so it is very distressed to have seemingly lost the one it loves so much.
There is much more to be said about the Dark Night of the Senses, but for the sake of time we have to move on… If the soul is patient, perseveres, and above all continues to pray the same amount it was before, it will be able to enter the 4th stage.
The 4th stage is a time of God showering down graces in a way the soul never experienced before. Prayer changes in this stage, and it is now able to enter into contemplation. The seed previously was climbing up and up and was working hard to reach the surface. During stages 1-3, the soul was actively engaging the mind and having it either say words (rosary) or imagine a scene (Lectio Divina). Now, however, the soul has reached the surface and now the mind no longer needs to put forth so much effort. The seed is able to simply soak in the sun. The soul can gaze interiorly at the Lord. This gaze inflames the heart with love. The mind is no longer doing anything, it is simply the heart loving its God loving it. It is like two people madly in love gazing upon each other. No words need to be said. This is contemplative prayer. We will talk more about this great gift God gives these souls next time.