Why Do Mystics Talk About “Purgation” or “Purification”?


A reader of this blog wrote to me:

I recently attended your workshop on Christian mysticism. We talk about purification as part of the contemplative path. I am wondering — Why is this important to practicing contemplation and how do you do it? Is it a matter of right belief/thought — orthodoxy — or is it right practice — orthopraxis — or both. Why is this the first step on the map of the contemplative path, and how is it different from a “purity code” or what our culture thinks of as purity or is there a difference?

What a great, and important, question.

Traditionally, the mystical (or contemplative) life within Christian spirituality has been understood as involving three developmental stages: Purgation, Illumination, and Union. This three-step model of the mystical life goes all the way back to the earliest centuries of Christian history. In his wonderful book The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, Andrew Louth points out that the third century theologian/mystic, Origen of Alexandria, draws on three books of Jewish wisdom literature, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, to provide a metaphorical “map” of the spiritual life. Like Proverbs, with its emphasis on right living and moral conduct, Origen saw the first stage of the mystical life as involving purgation or purification of all that impedes our search for God. The second stage, corresponding to Ecclesiastes, marks the illumination the comes as we learn to access the wisdom of the Holy Spirit within. Finally, the joyful eroticism of the Song of Songs represents the union with God that is the promise of the contemplative life.

There are plenty of problems with this model, not the least of which is that it suggests that mysticism is a journey with a goal or objective, subtly implying that we somehow lack union with God, or even God’s presence, when we are at the “lower” stages of mere purification or illumination. But despite its flaws, it has proven remarkably resilient over the centuries: in the twentieth century, Evelyn Underhill’s masterpiece Mysticism: The Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness charts the course of the mystical life using (and expanding on) this three-fold model; more recently, theologian Robert Hughes’ wonderful book of contemporary mystical theology, Beloved Dust: Tides of the Spirit in the Christian Life, retains this model, although by weaving it together with a metaphor of “tides” he suggests that we should see purification, illumination and union in a circular rather than linear way.

I think this model of spiritual growth and development has survived, despite its limitations, for a very simple reason: it works. A few years back I was giving a retreat at a Trappist monastery and one of the retreatants suggested that she saw this model in terms of Law, Wisdom and Love. How succinct, I thought. And how human. Whenever we learn something new, we have to learn the rules of the road, we have to understand where the boundaries and limitations are. But once we become conversant with that structure, we can begin to work within the system in creative and innovative ways. Eventually, as we have become proficient with the skill, we don’t even have to think twice about what does and doesn’t work: it’s as if the skill has become knit into our very DNA.

As an example, think about learning to play a musical instrument: at first you learn basic chords, and the rules of music: you practice your scales, you learn how to read sheet music, and so forth. Important skills, but you’re not making music at this point. Eventually, you begin to play, starting with simple melodies and gradually mastering more challenging works. Eventually you are even able to improvise — to create beautiful, pleasing music on the fly. As  you continue to grow as a musician, you will reach the point where you even can take risks, “breaking the rules” sometimes in the service of the music you are now playing — and composing — from your heart.

So with all this as a background, back to the heart of my reader’s question: Why is purification important, and how do you do it?

Why Purification Matters

To answer the question about why purification is important, let’s look at the Greek words that get translated into English as “purgation, illumination, union.” They are katharsis, theoria, and theosis. Maybe if we thought of this first stage as a spiritual catharsis, it would be easier to understand its ongoing relevance.

We tend to associate catharsis with art: the idea of a work of art facilitating the release of powerful emotions. To use a rather down-to-earth example, think of horror movies. We watch the scary movie to flush out our own capacity for fear. It gives us a safe way to feel afraid, to let go of that fear, and to rehearse its resolution (by the way the movie ends). In doing this, we are “purged” of our fear, even if only momentarily. We’ve experienced a catharsis.

Contemplative catharsis works in a similar way, although not as dramatically (or as quickly) as watching a frightening movie. Giving ourselves to the ongoing process of prayer, meditation and contemplation typically leads to a process of releasing all sorts of interior thoughts, feelings, wounded memories, prejudices, biasses… slowly and gently, contemplation invites us into “meeting” all the emotional/cognitive baggage within us in a spirit of non-judgment and loving acceptance. By doing so, these tends tend to lose their power over us. We become more free — not only psychologically, but spiritually as well — more free to fully give ourselves to Divine Love, unencumbered (or at least, less encumbered) by the fear, rage, jealousy, bitterness, or other distracting emotions and passions that typically can keep us in a kind of self-enforced bondage.

This sounds therapeutic, and indeed, Thomas Keating calls this process the “divine therapy.” I think it’s important to acknowledge that spiritual growth and psychological well-being do not necessarily go hand-in-hand, and anyone struggling with depression, addiction, or any other powerful manifestations of mental distress or mental illness should certainly consult with a mental health practitioner. That being said, I am confident that contemplative practices (like Centering Prayer) can support most people in their mental health journey. But I am writing now specifically for the spiritual benefits of contemplative purification. In addition to helping us move towards greater mental health, it is a pathway toward greater freedom in God, and therefore makes greater intimacy with God possible as well. In fact, I would suggest that “freedom in God” is the essence of Illumination, and “intimacy with God” is the essence of Union.

Purification, orthodoxy, orthopraxy

My reader asks what is the relationship between contemplative purification, orthodoxy (correct beliefs) and orthopraxy (correct practices). We can get lost in the weeds just trying to figure out what makes a belief or practice “right” or “correct”! Living as we do in the postmodern age, many of us are rightfully suspicious of top-down pronouncements (whether from religious leaders or any other kinds of authority) concerning what makes a belief or a practice “right” or wrong. Trying to unravel that knot is frankly beyond the limitations of a simple blog post. So let me say this: I recognize that Christianity, like all the great religious and wisdom traditions, has its own boundaries about what is “right” or “wrong” in terms of beliefs and practices. Christians believe God is a Holy Trinity, for example, and we typically would suggest that someone who rejects the Trinity would probably be happier as a Jew or a Muslim (or a Unitarian!). This can come across as judgmental, but at its best it’s simply an acknowledgment that every community has boundaries: beliefs and practices that are accepted, while others are rejected. On the practice side, take baptism for example: orthodox Christians see baptism as an important practice of initiation into the faith, but there are limits separating right from wrong: you don’t baptize an adult against their will, for example (and this is why some Christians refuse to baptize children who are too young to make up their own mind).

So the purification process within contemplation is less about “purging incorrect beliefs or practices” and more about purging whatever inside us is constricting our capacity for freedom and intimacy with God. Maybe for some people, that process would include some sort of growth or transformation in what they believe or practice. But I don’t think that’s the heart of katharsis. In fact, given that we know mysticism is a universal/worldwide phenomena, it’s important to acknowledge that not all mystics — even within Christianity — are going to agree on what is “right” beliefs or practices! Fortunately, it seems that God wants intimacy with us now, not at some future date when we get all our beliefs and behaviors lined up like ducks in a row.

Purification versus purity

The reader asks how contemplative purification is “different from a ‘purity code’ or what our culture thinks of as purity or is there a difference?

Yes, there is a difference. And let’s begin with the simple distinction between purification (a process) and purity (a state). I suspect that most contemplatives throughout history would have suggested that the state of purity is pretty much unattainable. Human beings are gloriously messy creatures. We make mistakes all the time. We mess up. We hurt one another, both unintentionally and (ouch) intentionally. We hurt ourselves. Our spiritual lives are marked by both desire for God and resistance to God. So the contemplative or mystical process of purification is just that: a process. It’s a journey, not a destination. It’s an ongoing, developmental gesture of setting aside those aspects of our lives that constrict our spiritual freedom or thwart intimacy with God. And part of the journey is learning to accept, with humility, that it is an unending journey, especially on this side of eternity.

By contrast, a “purity code” (like what we find in the Old Testament books of Leviticus or Deuteronomy) represents an abstract ideal, a political structure for determining who is right and who is wrong. Such systems can easily devolve into oppressive systems that privilege some people at the expense of others. I think we can say with certainty that Jesus himself tended to be impatient with purity codes and saw spirituality in terms of relationship and relatedness, rather than as an expression of conformity (or the lack thereof) to some sort of external structure. Of course, Christians have not always gotten the message from Jesus and we keep creating “purity codes” of our own, to our detriment.

A recent example of this is the “purity culture” of American evangelicalism, seeking to dissuade young people from sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage. Over the years it has become evident that this purity culture has led to widespread shaming, hypocrisy, and the erosion of confidence in Christianity especially among young people who had to shoulder the burden of its frankly rather patriarchal and body-hostile demands. I think we can safely say that the inner-motivated spiritual katharsis of contemplation has nothing to do with the power-based control mechanisms of purity culture or purity codes. Thanks be to God!

How to Walk the Path of Purgation

Finally, my reader asks, “How do you do it?” How do we walk the path of contemplative katharsis?

I think the best way is to engage in contemplative practices such as lectio divina and Centering Prayer. The spirituality of purification needs to be directed by the Holy Spirit, not our conscious egos. When the ego is in charge, we are more at risk of getting caught up in chasing after purity, since the ego wants to know it is “right” even if that means other people have to be “wrong.” So, paradoxically, the way to walk the path of purgation is to not worry about it! Rather, place our efforts into seeking God through silence, stillness, reflection, unknowing, trust, compassion, and even darkness. Let’s let God be God, and we can be simply human. By the gesture of opening our hearts to the Holy Spirit, we allow the Spirit to direct our journey, which includes the process of gradual, gentle letting-go of all that does not serve our freedom and intimacy with Love. It’s a long, slow process, probably lifelong. But that’s okay, since we know that God is not demanding that we be flawless or sinless before God loves us. God loves us right here and right now. And out of that present moment immersed in love, we are invited to grow. That’s the path of purification.

Featured photo by Paige Cody on Unsplash.

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About the author

Carl McColman

Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Centering Prayer Presenter, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.

By Carl McColman



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