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Seeing Holy Mass with Carmelite Eyes

Above: depiction of Our Lady giving the brown scapular to the Carmelite Ss. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, and Therese of Lisieux from the church of Santa Maria della Victoria in Rome. Photo by Fr. Lawrence, OP.

Read part I of this series “Seeing Holy Mass with Benedictine Eyes

One of the most well-known aspects of Carmelite spirituality is its presentation of the spiritual life as a progression through three stages: purgation, illumination, and union. These stages are often referred to as the purgative way, the illuminative way, and the unitive way. Their names manifest the predominant activity of each.

In the first stage, we make many and repeated efforts to mortify our sinful habits so that we may develop a way of life that is truly given over to God.

In the second stage, the cleansing of our moral imperfections continues, but the predominant note is that of being enlightened by God’s grace as He takes an ever greater initiative in teaching us His sovereign goodness. In this stage we become more receptive; since the main impediments to His action have been purged away, God is more and more free to act within us. His reality becomes increasingly the point of departure of our thoughts, willings, and actions, and their point of arrival.

In the third stage, God draws us into contemplative union with Himself: it is entirely His doing, only He can elevate us to such a tasting and seeing of His goodness, and all that we can do is make ourselves available for the invasion of His tenderness. It is not so much a union we bring ourselves to, as a union He brings about in us, as it pleases His Majesty. We are assured by the great Carmelite Doctors Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Jesus that, in spite of the harsh way that leads up to this stage, and in spite of our helplessness to achieve it, one taste of the sweetness of the Lord is worth every suffering, every pain, every hardship; indeed, it is heaven breaking into our fallen world.

Which stage we happen to be in is not something to worry ourselves about (am I almost there? will it happen to me? when will it happen? am I regressing?). Worry like that could become mixed up with subtle forms of pride or despair, or scrupulosity.[1] It is our job, rather, to do that which falls more within our power: following the road of purgation and the seeking of illumination. God will do the rest, in His good time; He will make us rest in Him when we are fitted to do so, if not in this life, then in the life to come, provided we depart this one in the state of grace.

Now, how does this Carmelite spiritual doctrine apply to the very structure and experience of the Mass?

Every Mass consists of three basic parts: a penitential preparation; instruction from the Word of God; and the renewal of the sacrifice of Calvary, when the divine Victim is offered up to God and we, His members, are offered to God in union with Him as our Head.

Mass therefore deliberately begins with a purgative ritual. We recite Psalm 42 at the foot of the altar, as if emphasizing initially our distance from God, our unworthiness to approach Him, and our need for His mercy to dare to step forward and walk to the altar, which represents Christ the Lord. We confess our sins in the Confiteor; we beseech the Lord’s mercy in the ninefold Kyrie eleison. We seek to purify ourselves of whatever may hinder our progress to union with Christ.

As we transition to the Collect, we are begging for graces, and opening our minds and hearts to be formed by the Word of God: this begins the illuminative phase of the Mass, when we kneel or sit down to hear the lesson or lessons, and stand to receive the Gospel, in which the Word of God Himself teaches us. If we are alert and attentive, God’s Word will be able to penetrate our souls so that His Truth can give form and measure to our thoughts and our desires. God is shaping us to be ready for union with Himself. He alone can teach us how to put off the old man and put on the new man in righteousness. Without His instruction we are not likely to get very far. As Aquinas says, even the brightest pagan philosophers reached only some truths about God, after lengthy studies, and with a mixture of errors. By His revelation He not only stoops down to teach us, He puts words into our mouths with which to honor His truth and righteousness. The readings become a form of intellectual incense that we offer to Him, representing the ascent of our minds to His throne.

With the Offertory, we initiate a new action: a response, symbolized by the bread and wine made by men and carried to the altar, by which we tell the Lord that we ourselves are ready to be offered up to Him as a sacrifice, ready to be joined to His self-oblation on the Cross and surrendered to the fire of His love. We are entering on the unitive path, where our role is to present ourselves at the feast, ready to receive the Lord Jesus, who comes to us in the Sacrifice and gives Himself to us. Although we come forward to His altar, it is He who takes us up into communion with Himself. As Saint Augustine says, while ordinary food is transformed into the one who eats it, this heavenly food, being more real and more potent than we are, transforms us into Itself, and thus conjoins us with our Lord.

This, then, is well worth pondering, together with the Carmelite masters: the Mass is our miniature immersion in the whole of the spiritual life, if only we open ourselves to it! It will not, of course, take you entirely through the purgative, illuminative, and unitive ways—that would be quite a shortcut!—but it is like these ways in its very structure, and it accomplishes something of their work in our souls.

The true purifier, teacher, and lover of our souls, Jesus Christ, is present to us, ready to cleanse us who cry out to Him in humility, eager to illuminate us by His Word, and longing to unite us to Himself, to communicate His resurrected life into our bodies and souls. If we enter into this great prayer of Christ and His Church and make it our own, the axis around which the rest of our life revolves, we will become, as it were, apprenticed liturgically to Carmelite wisdom; we will taste and see how gracious the Lord is to those who fear Him and call on His name.


[1] Urban Hannon expresses a feeling of slight annoyance with leaning too heavily on this threefold division, and I’m sure many would sympathize with his sentiments here: “Now the angels have three functions in their hierarchy, for the sake of those below them in line: to purge or cleanse, to illumine or enlighten, and to perfect or unite to God. St. Thomas receives this threefold procedure from St. Denys the Areopagite—the ‘Pseudo-Dionysius,’ if you like, and I do not—from his great treatise on the angels The Celestial Hierarchy. (Fun fact: The word “hierarchy” seems to have been invented by St. Denys himself in this very work.) You might recognize this triad from more modern spirituality literature, which tries to divvy up people’s Christian progress into the purgative way, the illuminative way, and the unitive way. I’ll be honest with you: I usually find such attempts unhelpful, too narcissistic and too experientialist, trying to make a science of something that just isn’t scientific, wanting to discern—or impose—a set of universalizable phenomena upon the spiritual life, which doesn’t work, and isn’t the point. But I flag it here just to note that the origin of the purgative, illuminative, and unitive is precisely the angelic hierarchy—and then the ecclesiastical sacraments that are our human participation in it. The good angels are constantly communicating God’s goodness to those further down the hierarchy, drawing them further up and further into the happiness of God, by purifying, enlightening, and perfecting those entrusted to their care.” If we remember that the origin of this threefold classification is in the doctrine of Dionysius and Aquinas on what the higher angels do for the lower, we will remember that God is simultaneously purifying, illuminating, and uniting us to Himself, both directly and by the agency of created agents.

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