by Fr. Tommy Lane
We read in Gen 1:26 that God created mankind in his image. But then came the sin of Adam and Eve and we were all tainted with original sin. Transformation means transformation into the image of God, becoming whom we are called to be by God in Genesis. It is the vocation of all of us. It is a lifelong process which began at our baptism. Our transformation into the image of God we are called to be is the work of the Holy Spirit. We are all well on the road to transformation. We already have done much to allow ourselves to be whom we are meant to be but we still have room for more transformation.
The great spiritual writers describe
stages in transformation.
1 conversion also called purgation
2 purification also called illumination
3 transformation also called union
A very helpful book on this is Guidelines for Mystical Prayer by Ruth Burrows. She says there is a distinct difference between the stages, while others say they are a spiral i.e. when we finish stage 3 we start off again at stage 1 at a deeper level, and yet others say that there is some of all three stages in us always.
1 This stage is firstly characterized by our being in control before the conversion or purgation. We choose what pleases us, so when we don’t get what we want we grumble and complain. Things are judged by whether I like them or not. Bitterness may be an indication of this selfishness. The way we relate to God is our own way. In the other 2 stages we relate to God God’s way. Ruth Burrows describes this stage as a mist-bound island although it is not mist-bound to the inhabitant of this island who thinks it is beautiful and lovely. We are at peace in this stage and God is giving himself to us under the form of concepts and ideas we can cope with. There is a sense of well-being.
Conversion or purgation at this stage means that if God is to take possession of us we must be drawn out of this security, we must lose control or hand over the control of our life to God. Will we allow God to draw us away or will we persist in staying where we are? We have to learn to take our hands off the controls. This means intelligent obedience to people and events and acceptance of discipline. It is recognizing God’s hand in what happens to us. It is accepting our duties and refusing to evade. At this stage we experience the invitation to a change, the pull towards a new life, while also being aware of sinfulness and our resistance to change. St Augustine said ‘make me chaste but not yet’.
Is this similar to the prodigal son controlling his destiny and deciding to leave home for the land of promise?
2 After some time we begin to feel less sure, less steady on our feet. What was the path before has become narrow. There is no other path. We begin to feel bewildered, losing our taste for prayer and spiritual things. Our general state at prayer is one of confusion, darkness, boredom, helplessness. We will have a painful knowledge of self and see ourselves as we really are; hollowness of our goodness, truth, virtues etc. Our ambitions are unmasked and we are called to renounce them. We are beginning to see God where we never thought he was, in what upsets our preconceived ideas of God. The tendency to criticize others will disappear and our hearts will become kind and compassionate. Now we are feeling abandoned by God, repeatedly failing to live the new life, experiencing dryness in prayer, aching for God, experiencing desolation and depression, alternating anguish and joy. The cause of the discomfort is that God is flooding us. St John of the Cross said that when the light is not shining you don’t see the cobwebs (sinfulness) but when the light (God) is turned on you do. He also said that this stage is like a nurse (God) bringing us bitter medicine (our awareness of our sinfulness), we have to take the medicine to get better. We don’t see every aspect of our sinfulness until God gets more space in our lives. Painful things in our past surface again. If something you thought you had healed comes up again, the reason is because you are still in need of more healing. The level of distress caused varies. If the distress is great, seeing a therapist of some kind may be necessary. What is happening is that anything that is an obstacle to our union with God is popping up.
Many people undergo a great transformation sometime around mid-life. Things they placed their trust in no longer provide them with the security they had up to now. We become more passive, God becomes more active in our lives and we lose control. No one makes this transformation easily, everyone messes it up because we have conscious or unconscious resistance. It is like being back in school again. There are some things in our life that we will not be able to change. We will have to find a way to live with them.
Is this similar to the prodigal son coming to his senses with the pigs and deciding to return home?
3 Up to now we gave what we possessed, now our self is being taken away and we become heaven on earth. God’s union with us is total, God is indwelling in us. There is a continual sense of the presence of God, joy even in suffering. “You alone are the holy one” becomes our prayer then.
Is this similar to the prodigal son being back home with his father once more? The words of the father to the elder son, “all I have is yours” (Luke 15,31) surely are apt here. A most interesting and helpful book applying the parable of the father and prodigal son and elder son to the lives of all of us is “The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Henri J.M. Nouwen. I have found it most beneficial for myself spiritually.
The journey inward has been described as the longest journey. There is a sense in which we could say that Jesus underwent this journey. He was with the Father (stage 1 of sorts) but left him to become one of us while maintaining his divinity (stage 2 of sorts) and now is raised high (stage 3 of sorts). Read Phil 2:6-11. Jesus became lost to lead all of us lost ones to the Father.
Copyright © Fr. Tommy Lane 2013
More material on this theme
The proud cannot bring themselves to hold out empty hands to God excerpt from Guidelines for Mystical Prayer by Ruth Burrows