The Courtship of Princess Lucilda


The Courtship of Princess Lucilda

By Father Bernard J. Ezaki



Tell All the Truth

Tell all the truth but tell it slant,
Success in circuit lies,
Too bright for our infirm delight
The truth’s superb surprise;

As lightning to the children eased
With explanation kind,
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.

Emily Dickinson




Post tenebras, spero lucem.

Tomb inscription in the Church of

Santa Maria del Populo,

Piazza del Populo, Rome






To all those who walk in spiritual darkness:

May they know that their journey through gloom

is but the shortest and safest way home.

Oh Mary, Guiding Star, pray for all of us who travel by night.





          I am no expert on spirituality.  These pages are but my childish attempt to make sense of a subject of which I have very little practical knowledge.  If they contain errors or misinterpretations, I myself am to blame, “for there is a strange difference between that which we learn by reading, and that which we learn by experience.”[1]


          What follows is, in part, an unabashed borrowing from two tales by George MacDonald:  The Day Boy and the Night Girl, relates the experiences of a maiden imprisoned by a witch and raised away from the light of the sun.  I’ve even preserved the name of MacDonald’s witch.   Little Daylight, on the other hand, is the story of a princess who fell under the curse of a wicked old fairy.  Alas!  The enchanted girl’s beauty and mirth must wax and wane with the moon.

I am also grateful to Ralph Martin for his insightful interpretation of The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena.  His conferences entitled, St. Catherine of Siena: Growing in Love, originally published on audiocassettes, proved very helpful to me.

Above all, I am indebted to Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange.  His little treatise The Three Ways of the Spiritual Life forms the real basis of Lucilda’s adventures.





I’ve…read your manuscript and found it to convey very creatively some really subtle truths about the spiritual journey.  I think it definitely succeeds in conveying important truths with images that are truly memorable. Congratulations.

Ralph Martin

9 September 2007




How delighted I am with your wonderful story!!  It beautifully captures the mystery of the spiritual life!  Also, your explanation of the allegory is as illuminating as the story itself.  It reminds me somewhat of Hind’s Feet on High Places, only Catholic.  Surely you provide your story to your tenth grade.  How I wish now that I had been introduced to the spiritual life in high school–or even in college or graduate school, for that matter!  Your story captures the movements in the spiritual life so simply and makes an understanding of them accessible to anyone.

Dr. Janet Haggerty

Professor of Systematic Theology

Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary

Overbrook, Pennsylvania
4 December 2007





Congratulations on your splendid literary labors.  The night of the senses “up and down winding staircases,” is masterfully described….  Then, the “new labyrinthine corridors” is a great expression for the night of the soul and its special anguish….  “When in the dark, it is always best to keep moving.”  Is this sound advice with an autobiographical flavor?

                                                            Very Rev. Luke Anderson, O. Cist., Prior

                                                            Saint Mary’s Priory

                                                            New Ringgold, Pennsylvania

                                                            19 February 2008




The Courtship of Princess Lucilda

Take me to you, imprison me, for I

Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,

Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

                                                 -John Donne, Sonnet 14

He rescued us from the power of

 darkness and brought us into the

kingdom of his beloved Son.

          -Colossians 1:13, NAB



Once upon a time–long, long ago, in a far-distant land–there lived a wise and benevolent king and his beautiful and prudent queen.  Beloved by their subjects and favored by Heaven, these two sovereigns were exceedingly good, and they had all that anyone could possibly want–all except children.  They were childless, and the profound sadness this caused them was the one gray cloud in their otherwise cloudless sky.  After many years of marriage, however, and after very many prayers, the queen was blessed.  She conceived and bore a daughter.  The new parents rejoiced at the birth of their child.  They called her Lucilda, for she was the very light of their lives.  A lovelier child one could never imagine.  Her eyes twinkled like the flames of candles.  Her face was as bright as the full moon.  Her hair shone with the iridescence of stained glass, and her smile was sunlight itself.




Alas!  This happy picture of king, queen and princess did not last.  When Princess Lucilda was only three months old, she was stolen–abducted, as it were–by a witch named Watho.  Watho had an evil scheme in mind.  For reasons known only to herself, she hatched a wicked plan to raise Lucilda in an environment of total darkness.  She locked the infant away in a dank and dirty dungeon and would not allow even the slightest bit of light to reach her eyes.  While the king and queen grieved and poured their hearts out in sorrow, little Lucilda was confined in a never-ending night as black as pitch.  The years dragged on, one after another, until, at last, Lucilda was sixteen years old.  In all that time, she had known nothing but absolute darkness.


In any fairy tale worth its salt, the sixteenth year of a princess is always significant, and this story is no exception.  For on Lucilda’s sixteenth birthday, she was rescued from her dungeon prison by a magnificent champion named Prince Victor.  It is impossible to relate all the details of her dramatic rescue.   Suffice it to say that Prince Victor overcame the power of the evil Watho.  Why?   Naturally, he desired to make the princess his bride.

Any other hero would have burst into Lucilda’s dungeon cell in broad daylight, dragged the wretched girl out into the sunshine, and allowed the sunlight to fall directly upon her virgin eyes.  Prince Victor was much wiser.  He came gently to the princess in the dead of night.  He bound the trembling maiden’s eyes with layer upon layer of gauze.  He lifted her carefully onto his white charger, and he brought her to his most fortified castle.

Upon their arrival, the first order of business was a bath for Lucilda.  The prince entrusted her to the care of capable maidservants, who escorted her, blindfold and all, to the royal bathing chamber.  Princess Lucilda’s introduction to warm water and soap was marked by continual cries–first of consternation and then of sheer delight–as years of grime were lovingly washed away.  Except for her head and face, her entire body was cleansed of every stain.  After her bath, the attendants bundled her up in an over-sized, fire-warmed towel.  When she was completely dry, they dressed her in a modest, white linen robe.

At last, Lucilda was presented to Prince Victor.  She was clean from the neck down, but her eyes were still swathed in gauze, and her head and face remained covered with dirt.  It was the prince’s happy privilege to remove the blindfold, wash the princess’s face and hair, and anoint her with sweet-scented oil.


When Lucilda’s eyes were finally unveiled, and after Prince Victor had tenderly removed the filth with which they were caked, she was able to take in her surroundings.  She found herself in a strange room, and she experienced something that she had never remembered experiencing: light!  Ah, but there was no sunshine.  All that Lucilda could see were the flickering flames of what she later came to know as candles.  The chamber she occupied did, in fact, contain a great many candles.  It also contained several beautiful crystal sculptures, each a finely crafted portrayal of some living creature–bird, fish, reptile or mammal.  The light of the candles shone through the crystal, and its beauty was beyond Lucilda’s power for words.

The prince visited his new guest each day to bring her her meals.  He would wait on Lucilda while she ate, and after she had dined, he would become her teacher.  His first instruction had to do with the nature of candles and light.

“Princess,” he began, “for the past sixteen years, you have grown up in darkness.  If now you wish to live in the light, learn a lesson from the candles.  Observe them carefully and note how they grow smaller with the passing of time.  Each burning taper joyfully surrenders itself to being consumed by the flame it bears, and in this submission to littleness, it finds even greater joy.  In the same way, Lucilda, you too must be willing to become small in your own eyes.  Only then will you be a true child of light.  This is the first and most important step.”

“How can I make myself small?” inquired the princess with a puzzled expression.  “Will it hurt?  Must I become so little that you will no longer be able to see me?”

“Why am I not surprised that your first words to me take the form of questions?” laughed Prince Victor.  “It is in asking questions that you, unknowingly, provide the very answers you seek.  The smallness of which I speak is not a matter of physical size.  It is the willingness to be teachable—the humility that is eager in listening and in asking questions.  Being little in your own eyes is simply your consent to have me as your teacher.  It will not be too painful.  I promise you.  In time you will even grow in wisdom.  Will you take me for your professor?”

“I will indeed,” replied the princess.

So it was that the prince taught Lucilda about light and about candles.  He also taught her about crystal.  He revealed to her all the secrets of the animal world, as depicted in the sculptures.  He even taught her how to peel potatoes by candlelight!  Prince Victor loved Lucilda very much.

As for Lucilda, she could not help feeling a certain dread in the presence of the prince–not because he ever showed her any unkindness, but simply because of who he was and of what he was capable of doing.  Anyone who could overthrow the tyranny of Watho deserved to be feared.  Thus the princess meekly submitted to all Prince Victor asked of her and diligently learned all he taught her, afraid of the consequences of any disobedience on her part.  Yet in spite of all this, there was in her heart a spark of real affection for the prince, a spark he might one day fan into the flame of love.  For the moment, however, Lucilda was happy in the realization that Prince Victor was treating her infinitely better than the witch had done.  She was sure that, in all her sixteen years, she had never been happier.  Moreover, she could not imagine any greater future bliss.  She had, so she thought, reached the very summit of all her joys.

Yet about a fortnight after Lucilda’s rescue, Prince Victor noticed that she was unusually quiet and that she wore a perplexed expression on her face.

“What’s wrong?” he inquired.  “Cat got your tongue?”

“Not a cat, Sir, but a bear.  Of all the statues you have shown me, this one troubles me the most.  Why is this bear so dreadful-looking?  See how it rears up on its hindquarters.  What about those teeth and those sharp claws?  Please take this sculpture away.  I do not wish to look on it any longer.  It frightens me.  I much prefer the stately stag or the elegant peacock.”

“I see,” mused the prince thoughtfully.  “It may interest you to know that this is one of my favorite pieces.”

“Really?  I was afraid you’d say that.”

“You’ve mentioned nothing about the two small bear cubs.  What you see here is a she-bear fiercely defending her young.  No one in his right mind ever gets between a mother bear and her cubs.  That is as it should be.  Love that is not willing to defend its own is not worthy to be called love.”

“Is it love, then, that makes the bear so terrible?” asked Lucilda in astonishment.

“Why, of course,” answered Prince Victor.

Lucilda was silent for some time.  When at last she spoke, her voice was full of uneasiness.

“Aren’t the cubs afraid of their mother when she behaves like that?”

“Why should they be?  They know instinctively that, whenever their mother growls at them or sends them up a tree, it’s for their own good.  They have no reason to fear parental love.  Their mother would never think of doing them the slightest harm.  On the contrary, she hates only what would cause them harm.  Does that set your mind at ease?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Then be at peace, my little cub,” said the prince with a mock growl.  At once his countenance broke into a radiant smile that put all Lucilda’s fears to flight.

From that moment, the princess began to perceive the bear statue in an entirely new way.  While the sculpture lost none of its ferocity, its fierceness no longer seemed to be directed toward her.  Instead, Lucilda identified with the cubs, and the bear served as a reminder of Prince Victor’s protectiveness.  Thus the very thing that had caused the princess the greatest anxiety now brought her the deepest consolation.

Over the course of many weeks, life went on rather serenely for the prince professor and the potato-peeling princess.  During all this time, Prince Victor was very careful that no light other than that from candles came in contact with Lucilda’s eyes.  He knew that, as yet, her vision would not be able to tolerate any increase of light.

Then came the day when the prince brought Lucilda an astonishing revelation.

“Lucilda,” he said, “tomorrow I shall come to you, and I shall ask you to follow me out of this room.  You may choose to follow me, or you may choose to remain here.  If you follow me, I cannot guarantee that you will ever see this place again–this room with the candles and the crystal.  But if you choose to remain here, you will never begin to know how deeply I love you.  I shall give you only one day to make your decision.  Tomorrow I shall ask you to come with me.  It would please me greatly if you did follow me, but the choice is yours.”

Ah, the terrible dilemma with which Lucilda was faced!  How could she leave the candles and the crystal?  Yet how could she endure life knowing she would never gain full admittance to Prince Victor’s heart?  In the end, love (or curiosity) triumphed.  Lucilda was willing to set aside all that she had for the possibility that there might be more to know and love about the prince.  The next day, when he came to her and asked her to follow him, she immediately fell at his feet and cried, “Yes!”


Almost at once, Prince Victor put gauze over Lucilda’s eyes, layer upon layer, as he had done in the beginning.  He took her hand and led her forth from the home wherein she had known so much joy.  He directed her along several corridors with a number of very abrupt turns.  He next led her up and down winding staircases.  Often Lucilda stumbled and fell in the darkness, but the prince continued to pull her along, almost mercilessly.  She was bruised and battered, her knees and elbows skinned and bleeding.  Never was she allowed to rest.  She could not stop for even the briefest moment.  All the while, the hand of Prince Victor incessantly tugged at her.

At times, the princess became totally frustrated and even angry with her guide for allowing her to endure such pain.  What have I done to deserve this? she asked herself.  How could the prince have deceived me, promising me his love and giving me only suffering and confusion?  Come to think of it, why must I peel all those horrid potatoes?  Watho never dealt with me so cruelly.

Lucilda’s greatest suffering, however, sprang from a profound longing in her heart.  Now that she had come to know light, she yearned for it with the fiercest intensity.  Finally, just when she thought she had had enough, she felt herself dragged into a second room.  She heard a door close solidly behind her.  Before long, she felt the gauze removed from her eyes.


Gradually, Lucilda grew accustomed to a new light.  She was in a very different kind of chamber.  There were, to be sure, no candles and no crystal.  Instead, the princess saw a beautiful illuminated disk above her which seemed to hover in the middle of nowhere.  Prince Victor patiently explained that this room had a skylight and that what she was seeing was the face of the full moon.  By means of the skylight, the princess was able to observe the heavens by night.  It was wonderful!  The room also boasted a number of mirrors.  Thus, for the first time, Lucilda saw her own reflection and realized that she was beautiful.  She thought: How foolish I would have been had I remained in the room with the candles and the crystal!  I would never have known the splendor of this place.  I have pleased my prince because I followed him.  Might there not be further rewards in store for me if I continue to obey him?

Prince Victor was always vigilant.  He made sure that no light brighter than that of the moon found its way to Princess Lucilda.  Every morning, just before dawn, he would seal up the skylight.  Every evening, when the last hint of dusk was banished from the western sky, he would reopen the skylight and allow Lucilda to see the moon.  At least she could see it when there was a moon.   Prince Victor would come every night to give Lucilda her lessons.  He taught her about the moon.  He taught her about how it waxed and waned.  He taught her about new moons and full moons, about blue moons and harvest moons.  He taught her to recognize the face of the Man in the Moon.  He instructed her on how to read the night sky.  He told her about the stars and the constellations–about the Pleiades, Orion, and the Great Bear (which naturally became the princess’s favorite constellation).  He told her about months and years and seasons.  He also told Lucilda all about herself and the other men and women who lived on the face of the earth.  He told her about the rise and fall of peoples and nations.  He told her about war and peace, about culture and civilization.  In short, he informed her about all the affairs of mortal men.

As for Lucilda, she eagerly drank in the prince’s teaching, not at all bothered by the fact that he frequently assigned her mountains of potatoes to peel.  In time, she grew certain that she loved Prince Victor as much as was humanly possible–or so she imagined.

Because the moon was now the princess’ primary source of light, she could not help giving it her undivided attention.  Night after night, she followed its eastward journey through the heavens, and, oddly enough, her spirits rose and fell with its waxing and waning.  As the moon revealed more and more of its face—waxing crescent, first quarter, waxing gibbous—Lucilda grew ever more joyful.  Each full moon found her brimfull of happiness.  Yet as soon as the moonlight would begin to diminish—waning gibbous, last quarter, waning crescent—so too would the princess experience a corresponding lessening of mirth.  At the time of the new moon, she would be overwhelmed with sadness.

Prince Victor was not oblivious to Lucilda’s lunar fascination.  He could not bear the thought that her emotions were so utterly dependent on something as inconstant as moonlight.  One night, when there was no moon at all, he entered her chamber and saw, as he had expected, that she was in the depths of depression.

“Oh, good prince,” cried Lucilda, “my fair mistress the moon has once again been swallowed up by darkness!  I know the light will return to her.  Yet why each month must the blackness consume her?  Why can there not be a full moon every night?  I grieve for the poor moon, because her possession of the light is never final but always fleeting.”

Prince Victor lifted a hand to Lucilda’s cheek, and with his finger, he gently brushed away a tear that was barely visible in the starlight.

“Sweet princess,” he said tenderly, “appearances are deceiving.  I have a secret to tell you.  Whenever the moon wanes, it seems as though the light is leaving her; but that is not what is happening.  The sunlight indeed withdraws from her face, little by little, yet it does so, only to light up her back.  The opposite is also true.  When you see the moon waxing, it means that the sunlight is departing from her back, only to illumine her face.  Thus when the moon is full, her face is completely in the light.  When the moon is new, her back enjoys the full light of the sun.”

It took Lucilda a few moments to ponder everything she had just been told.  All the while, the prince waited patiently for the question he knew she would ask.  Finally, the silence was broken.

“Do you mean to say,” asked the princess, “that the moon is never in total darkness?”

“For the most part,” replied Prince Victor, “what you say is true. It sometimes happens, however, that the moon goes through what is called a lunar eclipse.  Here the earth comes between the moon and the sun, so that the moon is in earth’s shadow.  This happens, if at all, no more than three times a year.  Only during a lunar eclipse is the moon in complete darkness.”

“How long does the darkness last?” inquired Lucilda.

“The whole moon is in darkness for only about an hour and three quarters, at most,” answered the prince.  “Yet even when she is in darkness, the moon is always moving toward the light.  When in the dark, it is always best to keep moving.”

“Then I resolve,” declared the princess, “never to be sad just because the moon is waning.  I will console myself in the knowledge that another part of her is receiving light.”

“Well said!” affirmed Prince Victor.  He smiled, and his smile seemed to flood the room with light, even as his words had brought peace to Lucilda’s troubled soul.

Yet during the next two weeks, it was the prince himself who apparently underwent an eclipse of his own.  Lucilda saw nothing whatsoever of him.  He no longer served her her meals.  He no longer opened and closed the skylight for her.  These tasks were performed by Prince Victor’s maidservants.  The good women were very efficient in their duties, but also very silent.  To Lucilda’s amazement, they spoke not a single word to her, even when she addressed them directly.  She tried to persuade herself that the prince had left the castle to see to important matters in other parts of his realm.  Yet why had he not told her as much before his departure, and why this silent treatment on the part of his servants?

Again the princess asked herself if she might be to blame for this new state of affairs: Have I done something to anger Prince Victor?  Am I being punished for some offence I have committed against His Royal Majesty?  If so, I am sure I do not know what it is.  I have done everything the prince has asked of me.  I have followed wherever he has led me, and no one can peel potatoes better than I.  I am so very confused!

One night, Lucilda found herself sitting alone in her chamber in total darkness.  The maidservants had indeed opened the skylight, but a thick pall of cloud veiled the face of heaven so that the very sky seemed to mirror the princess’ black mood.  It was then that she heard the voice.  At first, it was only the faintest of whispers, but it gradually grew louder with each word.  It was not the voice of Prince Victor.  It was the voice of Watho!

Watho?  Had not the prince defeated her once and for all?  How dare she enter his castle!  Had she come to recapture her prize?  Or was it really Watho after all?  Perhaps the voice was nothing more than an echo of past abuse, awakened by Lucilda’s melancholy and conjured up by her memory.  In any event, whatever the voice’s origin, its message was unmistakable.  It was one of derision.

“Ah, little princess!” hissed the voice.  “How hast thou come to be so sad? Thou hast beguiled thyself into believing that thou hadst discovered light and love.  Now thy grief is far worse than it ever would have been hadst thou never left my dungeon.  Dost thou imagine that thy prince loveth thee?  He doth forsooth, but not in the way thou thinkest.  As thou lovest a good dinner, so doth he love thee!  Hath he never told thee that bears have been known to eat their own cubs?  Verily, thou art his tasty morsel.  Soon Prince Victor shall dine on parsley potatoes, …but not ere he hath whet his appetite on pâté de petite princesse!”

The voice then broke into high-pitched shrieks of maniacal laughter.  Lucilda covered her ears, but to no avail.  The derisive cackle only grew louder.

“No!  No!” screamed the princess.  “He loves me truly!”

All at once, there was a rend in the clouds, and the face of the full moon beamed forth in all its beauty.  The moonlight made an end of the darkness and abruptly stifled the hideous laughter.  Miraculously, it also scattered the gloom in Lucilda’s soul.

“Oh, blessed moon!” she exclaimed.  “How grateful I am for your silver rays, you whom the darkness can never conquer!”

Now another voice echoed within the princess’ heart.  This time, it was definitely the voice of Prince Victor: “Sweet princess, appearances are deceiving.  I have a secret to tell you.  Whenever the moon wanes, it seems as though the light is leaving her; but that is not what is happening.  The sunlight indeed withdraws from her face, little by little, yet it does so, only to light up her back.  When the moon is new, her back enjoys the full light of the sun.”

As Lucilda recalled these words of the prince, she seemed to understand them in an entirely new way.  With a flash of insight, she realized that they could apply to her.  If she was experiencing exterior darkness in the world of her senses, might it not be possible that she was also receiving interior light in the depths of her soul?  If so, what was this interior light showing her?

Upon reflection, Lucilda realized that her motives for obeying Prince Victor were nothing more than self-serving.  True, she no longer feared the prince as she had in the beginning.  Yet now her primary reason for wanting to please him was so that she could earn whatever rewards he might give her.  Thus her horror at the idea that his absence might be some sort of punishment.  She had done nothing to deserve such a punishment.  All her actions with regard to Prince Victor had been, so she thought, totally meritorious–and therein lay the difficulty.  Lucilda was no longer behaving as if she were the prince’s slave.  Yet she was not acting like his lover either.  All that she did would seem to indicate that she was nothing more than his hired servant.  She complied with Prince Victor’s requests, not out of fear, nor out of love, but merely for pay!

This insight made Lucilda shudder.  She reproached herself for her mercenary motivation.

“He has every right to ignore me,” she declared aloud to herself.  “If I am only his hired servant, then I have no right to complain if he treats me one way rather than another.  What sort of claim can a servant have on her master’s kindness and love?  None at all!  From now on, however, I shall resolve to love!  I shall do Prince Victor’s bidding whether or not I am rewarded.  If I should never behold his face again, so be it.  If, on the other hand, he should allow me the privilege of seeing him once more, I shall be grateful.  If, after that, he should again make himself absent, I shall not complain.  When in the dark, it is always best to keep moving.”

With this resolution firmly in her mind, Princess Lucilda fell into untroubled sleep, more peaceful than she had had in weeks.

The next evening, Prince Victor resumed his formal lessons with Lucilda as if he had never been absent.  His manner toward her was exactly the same as it had always been, except, perhaps, for a hint of extra tenderness in his voice.  The princess dared not ask him where he had been.  She knew she had no right to ask such a question.  She simply trusted that he had her best interests in mind.

All was as it had been before, but now Lucilda’s heart was open to love.  As her resolve to love the prince grew ever stronger, so too did her detestation of her own self-centeredness.  More and more she came to loathe that part of her being that was forever whining, “What about me?”

The weeks flew by with amazing rapidity.  Then, without warning, Prince Victor put before Lucilda another heart-rending choice.

“Lucilda,” said the prince, “tomorrow night I shall come to you, and I shall ask you to leave this room and follow me.  If you choose to follow me, there is no way I can guarantee that you will ever see this place again, this chamber with the moon and the mirrors.  You may, however, choose to remain here for the rest of your life.  Yet if you do so, you will never know the depths of my love.  Of course, it would be my great delight if you were to come with me, but the choice again is yours.”

Now one might think that this would be an easy decision for Lucilda to make.  After all, she had chosen to follow the prince once before and had been greatly rewarded for doing so.  She had gained access to the room with the moon and mirrors.  Alas!  This place was even more difficult to leave than was the room with the candles.  For one thing, Lucilda derived a definite satisfaction from gazing at herself in the chamber’s various mirrors.  Besides, what was candlelight when compared with the glory of the moon and the stars?  Lucilda felt herself strongly pulled in two directions:  To follow or to stay?  After much anguish, she resolved to follow.  When Prince Victor returned to her the next evening, her response was both prompt and eager.  She embraced the prince, reclined her head against his heart, and declared, “I will go wherever you lead.”

“Very well,” replied the prince.


For the third time, Prince Victor blindfolded Lucilda.  Taking her firmly by the hand, he guided her from the room.  As before, he led her on a winding journey.  The two proceeded through labyrinthine corridors and up and down spiral staircases.  This enforced blindness, however, was worse than the previous walk in the dark.  At times, the prince pulled Lucilda relentlessly.  She followed as best she could but stumbled frequently.  Whenever she tried to resist, she would come up abruptly against some sharp projection in a wall or overhanging arch.  There was nothing to do but surrender.  At other times, and this was even harder to bear, Lucilda failed altogether to feel Prince Victor’s presence, let alone his iron grip.  In such moments, she felt entirely alone in the darkness—totally abandoned.  She wept and cried for mercy, but because she lacked vision, she failed to realize that she was not alone and that hers were not the only tears that fell.  Eventually, she would always regain her assurance of the prince’s presence and feel once more her hand in his.

The ordeal lasted for hours!


Finally, with bruised shins and cuts all over her hands and arms, Princess Lucilda emerged sobbing into a third room.  Yet her grief quickly gave way to astonishment as, once again, the gauze was removed.  She found herself in a place with a very different kind of light, for now the prince had brought her into the royal chapel.  This was illuminated with the most exquisite stained glass.

For the first time in her life, Lucilda came to appreciate the true meaning of the word color.  Cobalt blue, amber, russet, rose, gold, green, violet, azure–all these the princess came to both know and love.  Over the next several weeks, she never tired contemplating the subtle, hour-by-hour changes in these hues as each successive morning unfolded into noon, afternoon and evening.  The chapel was, to be sure, a thing of beauty, undergoing gradual but constant transformation from one moment to the next.  In addition, the delicate fragrance of incense and the scent of beeswax candles hung heavily in the air.

“Where do all the lovely colors come from?” inquired Lucilda.  That particular afternoon, she had been pondering the chapel windows with more than usual curiosity.

“You may be surprised to learn,” answered the prince, “that stained glass is the result of some amazing conversions.  To begin, glass itself is derived from sand, one of earth’s most humble substances.  The sand is heated in fire until it becomes liquid.  When the liquid cools, you have clear glass, much like the glass you saw in the crystal sculptures in the room with the candles.”

“Yes, but what about the colors?” persisted the princess.

Prince Victor laughed gently to himself, delighted to see that his pupil was so eager.  “The colors,” he continued, “come from various minerals that are added to the molten glass.  When my craftsmen add cobalt, they can make the glass many different shades of blue.  Copper turns the glass green or even orange-red.  If silver is added, the glass becomes yellow or gold, depending on the amount of silver.”

“What happens when the craftsmen put in gold?” asked Lucilda.

“The result is pink or deep red.  It all has to do with how much gold is added.  Yet, as you can see, the greatest marvel is what takes place when sunlight passes through the stained glass.  The glass captures the light of the sun and glows with a mysterious intensity.  As each day progresses, the sun’s rays strike the glass at ever-changing angles, and this accounts for the gradual alterations you observe in the various colors.”

The prince paused briefly before bringing his lecture to a solemn conclusion:  “Remember, then, fair one, that stained glass is nothing else than sand thrice transformed–first by fire, then by metal, and finally by sunlight.  In this world, to be beautiful is to have changed often!”[2]

The nicest thing about the chapel was that Prince Victor seemed to take a special delight in it.  Here he spent hours with the princess, teaching her all about the Catholic Faith and its spiritual truths and about the saints whose images were luminously portrayed in the stained glass.  He would sit so close to Lucilda that she could both hear and feel his steady breathing.  Sometimes he would clasp her hands with such firmness that his jewel-encrusted signet ring would leave its painful impression.  (This, of course, made her potato peeling somewhat difficult!)  Any suffering Lucilda endured, however, was as nothing when swallowed up in the vast ocean of Prince Victor’s love.  His chaste kisses were fathomless joy.  The princess was definitely in over her head!

How foolish I would have been, Lucilda thought, had I stayed in the room with the moon and the mirrors!  How grateful I am that the prince has brought me here!

Prince and princess were almost inseparable.  Lucilda was unspeakably happy.  When, on rare occasions, she chanced to think back on her first sixteen years in Watho’s dungeon, it was with a shudder of utter revulsion.  With time, however, even these memories faded into oblivion.

Strange as it may seem, the princess sometimes found herself envying the chapel windows for their loveliness.  She wished to be beautiful, not for her own sake, but for that of Prince Victor.

“I, too, want to be thrice transformed,” she would say to herself.  “Would that the fire of love could melt my heart!  I should like to acquire the metal of true devotion, no matter what the cost, and I long to shine with the radiance of virtue.  All this for him whom I love!”


One day, as Prince Victor and Lucilda sat side by side in the chapel, the prince suddenly began to sing.  His rich baritone voice reverberated among the columns and in the vaulted ceiling.  His melody was both haunting and painfully beautiful.  As for what he sang, the princess was later unable to recall the exact words, but their meaning left her with the impression as of a strange sort of invitation:


My daughter blest,

Thou hast walked with me

At my behest.

Take thy rest.

Thou hast talked with me,

Who know thy best.

Take thy rest.

Earth’s day is night.

I am thy light.

O’er is the test.

Take thy rest.


Overcome with a mysterious sleep, Lucilda swooned in Prince Victor’s arms.


When the princess awoke from her slumber, she became aware of a tremendous light.  Prince Victor had, in fact, carried her to the palace garden. Here, at last, she experienced a direct vision of the sun in a sapphire sky.  She saw how the sunlight played on the water in the fountain in the center of the garden.  She felt the kiss of the sun on her forehead and the caress of a soft breeze on her cheek.  She beheld birds, flowers, trees and grass.  Her ears met with the joyful cacophony of birdsong.  Her sense of smell was overwhelmed by the fragrance of the blossoms.  She was speechless with wonder.

In the midst of all, there stood the prince in magnificent radiance, more handsome than Lucilda could have imagined.  With him was a great throng of royalty, all clad in splendid attire.  At the right of the prince, occupying a place of honor, sat the Queen Mother, arrayed in cloth of gold.[3]  There, too, were Lucilda’s parents, their longing at last appeased.

“We’ve been waiting and praying for you all this time!” exclaimed the happy pair.  “Did you think you were so entirely alone?  Do you not know that it was our hands that raised you up when you stumbled in the darkness?”

“Well, Beloved, it’s about time you woke up!” Prince Victor chided playfully.  There was laughter in his voice.  “I was afraid you would sleep the whole day away and I would have to wait until tomorrow for an opportunity to speak with you.  Since you have been so faithful in following me, even though it cost you great pain, and since you have been so attentive to all I have taught you, I give you my whole palace and realm as your own.  Share all I have with these good people.  We are but one family.  By the way, you would do me a very great kindness if you would consent to be my bride.  Will you marry me?”

It was then that Lucilda saw the bridal gown draped over the prince’s left arm.  How could she have failed to notice it before?  It was as white as snow and embroidered with thousands of tiny diamonds.  The diamonds caught the light of the sun and produced a dazzling array of rainbow colors.

“I–I–I will,” stammered Lucilda.  The whole assembly broke into thunderous applause.

Before long, Prince Victor and Lucilda were man and wife.  All were invited to the wedding banquet.  What a feast!  There was plenty of delicious vichyssoise de Victor.  What joyous dancing!  The celebration continued for eight whole days!

It goes without saying that bride and bridegroom lived happily ever after and had very many children.

There is more to the story.  Throughout her life, Lucilda never stopped learning.  She learned that the light of the candles, which she had first grown to love, was really the light of the sun stored chemically in wax.  She came to realize that the light of the moon, which she had later come to cherish, was also the light of the sun, but by way of reflection.  As for the light in the stained glass windows, it too was the light of the sun, although indirect and somewhat diffused.  It was sunlight that Lucilda had longed for all the while, and now she could behold the sun directly as she walked in Prince Victor’s garden.

Finally, the garden itself was a source of endless delight.  The birds and animals that dwelt in it were more beguiling than any of the prince’s crystal sculptures.  The images yielded by its still pools were lovelier than any reflections in a moonlit mirror.  The royal personages who strolled along its paths were more captivating than even the most exquisite depictions in stained glass.



Toward Elucidating Lucilda

However much we may admire and crave for light, it is apt to dazzle our eyes when they have been long accustomed to darkness.

-Saint Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, Part IV, Chapter 2


God is the strangest of all lovers; His ways are past explaining….

His jealousy is an infinite thing.  He stalks the soul with sorrow;

He tramples the bloom; He blots the sun that could make her vision dim.

-Jessica Powers

Jesus spoke to them once again: “I am the light of the world.  No follower of mine shall ever walk in darkness; no, he shall possess the light of life.”

-John 8:12, NAB




          Lucilda’s story, as the perceptive reader has probably guessed, is really an allegory which describes the ideal spiritual life, a human soul’s perfect quest for God.  Watho the witch is the devil.  Prince Victor is none other than Christ Himself.  Watho’s dungeon represents original sin.  The prince’s garden stands for Heaven.  Between the dungeon and the garden, between original sin and Heaven, there are various stages.


Original Sin & Baptism


Prince Victor’s dramatic rescue of Princess Lucilda is a representation of baptism.  The change wrought in the soul by baptism is quite dramatic indeed.  In baptism, the soul is set free from original sin and thus receives the light of grace for the first time.  In our story, the initial light of grace is depicted in terms of candles.

Yet the soul’s justification in baptism is only the beginning of its spiritual journey.  From now on, the soul must cooperate with grace to be made ready for its ultimate glorification in Heaven.  Thus Lucilda, before she is given access to Prince Victor’s garden, must advance through a series of rooms and corridors.  The soul’s cooperation with grace is what theologians call sanctification.  Without justification, there can be no sanctification.  Without sanctification, there can be no glorification.  This insistence on sanctification is, in fact, what distinguishes Catholic doctrine from the teaching of most Protestants.

The Purgative Way


Cooperating with grace implies humility and docility.  This is what Jesus means when He declares, “…whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.”[4]  Thus Saint John the Baptist says of the Savior, “He must increase; I must decrease.”[5]  In our story, Lucilda finds herself in a room full of candles.  She learns from these tapers that the most important lesson is to become small in one’s own eyes.  This “littleness” of spirit is in no way self-demeaning.  On the contrary, it is simply the prerequisite of true wisdom.  Brother Giles, one of the early disciples of Saint Francis, bluntly asserts, “No one can come to the knowledge of God except through humility.  The way to go up is to go down.”[6]  Archbishop Fulton Sheen further explains:


     [S]piritual littleness or humility is the condition of discovering Infinite Truth and Love.  No man discovers anything big unless he makes himself small.  If he magnifies his ego to infinity, he will learn nothing, for there is nothing bigger than the infinite.  If he reduces his ego to zero and is no longer proud and conceited, then he will discover everything big, even bigger than himself.  His world begins to be infinite.  In order to discover truth, goodness and justice, and God, one must be very humble.

If we are filled with our own importance, then we can never be filled with anything outside of ourselves.  If a man thinks he knows everything, then not even God can teach him anything.

….Humility is not servility, not a readiness to be walked on, not a hatred of self, not a psychological self-contempt, nor a desire to be placed at a disadvantage.  Humility is the virtue that tells us the truth about ourselves, that is, how we stand, not in the eyes of man, but before God.  It is not an overestimation nor an underestimation of our worth.[7]


“True humility,” says C.S. Lewis, “is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”[8]


Saint Vincent de Paul draws attention to a dimension of humility that cannot be underestimated:


The most powerful weapon to conquer the devil is humility.  For, as he does not know at all how to employ it, neither does he know how to defend himself from it.[9]


Without humility, progress in the spiritual life is impossible.  Only the humble soul can safely pass through the three rooms and two dark passages that lie ahead.

The first room, the room with the candles and crystal, represents what spiritual writers call the via purgativa, i.e. the purgative way.  This is the stage of beginners.  When the soul is in the purgative way, its task is to learn to reject mortal sin.  Recall that mortal sin is disobedience of the law of God in a serious matter, with full knowledge and with deliberate consent.  I believe that the soul’s rejection of mortal sin is often accompanied by a corresponding letting go of material possessions.  In the story, material possessions are symbolized by crystal statues.

Here let me say something about detachment.  Our Blessed Lord clearly warns that “it is easier for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”[10]  Yet detachment from possessions does not always translate itself into material poverty.  In his Introduction to the Devout Life, Saint Francis de Sales points out that royal groundskeepers take better care of a prince’s gardens than they do of their own.  In the same way, he argues, Christians who live in the world ought to be especially solicitous in maintaining and even in increasing their earthly goods, knowing that these things ultimately belong to the Prince of Peace.[11]  Letting go of possessions does not necessarily mean giving them up altogether.  It does mean acknowledging that ultimate ownership belongs to God and that we are His stewards.  This is true spiritual poverty.  The love of money, not money itself, is the root of all evil.[12]

At the same time, however, we cannot soften Christ’s admonition.  All of us are called to worship God rather than the things of this world.  Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, in a letter addressed to his brother, offers a succinct challenge: “Why not cease to love that which will soon cease to exist?”[13]  Ceasing to love the things and enticements of this world is the key to detachment.  This stifling of the lower appetites, says Saint John of the Cross, is absolutely necessary:


Appetites weaken a person’s virtue, because they are like shoots burgeoning about a tree, sapping its strength and causing it to be fruitless….  [T]he growth of the appetites, …if not cut off, will weaken the soul in virtue.  Their growth will be costly, like the growth of sprouts around a tree….  [The appetites] are indeed like leeches, always sucking blood from one’s veins.  This is what the wise man calls them.  The appetites are leeches, always calling: “Give!  Give!”[14]


Saint John goes on to warn of the danger of even slight attachments:


It is a matter for deep sorrow that, while God has bestowed on them the power to break strong cords of attachments to sins and vanities, some people fail to attain so much good, because they do not become detached from some childish thing that God has asked them to conquer out of love for Him, and that it amounts to no more than a thread or a hair.  What is worse, not only do they fail to advance, but they turn back because of their small attachments, losing what they gained on this journey at the cost of so much time and effort.[15]


If the soul is to advance in the way of perfection, it must allow nothing to come between it and its love for God.

While in the purgative way, the soul’s primary motivation is that of fear.  In her book, The Dialogue, Saint Catherine of Siena tells of a kind of “slavish fear” that clings to the Feet of Jesus.[16]  The soul indeed obeys the will of Christ, but it does so, either because it can no longer bear the misery of its own sins or else because it dreads the consequences of its sinfulness in the next life–the loss of Heaven and the pains of hell.  Here is God the Father’s description of the purgative way, as revealed to Saint Catherine:


There are some who climb imperfectly, … those who are moved by servile fear, and have climbed so far being imperfectly gathered together; that is to say, the soul, having seen the punishment which follows her sin, climbs; and gathers together her memory to recollect her vice, her intellect to see the punishment which she expects to receive for her fault, and her will to move her to hate that fault. And let us consider this to be the first step and the first gathering together of the powers of the soul…[17]


The soul, says Saint Bernard, loves itself selfishly first and foremost.[18]  Only with perseverance will it eventually come to learn that “perfect love casts out all fear.”[19]  “Perfect love” is not an attitude to which the soul aspires.  Rather, it is, as Frank Sheed observes, an apt description of the Trinity itself.[20]

The Night of Sense


If, with the help of God, the soul is successful in turning away from mortal sin and in detaching itself from material things, if it is ready to move beyond servile fear toward a real love for Christ, it enters into what the spiritual writers call the night of sense.  In our fairy tale, the night of sense is described as the initial series of stairs, corridors and passageways.  When the soul is in the night of sense, it experiences darkness.  In point of fact, this “darkness” is more the result of an influx of light rather than an absence of light.  Saint Pio of Pietrelcina writes:


[T]he darkness which surrounds the soul is light.  You say well that you see nothing and find yourself in a burning thorn bush.[21]


Just as the bodily eye is dazzled by light after emerging from relative darkness,[22] so the soul in the dark night of sense is temporarily blinded by an increase of light.  The soul feels this blindness as spiritual pain.

It is in the night of sense that the soul understands what it means to trust God.  Father Benedict Groeschel declares:


In darkness we learn to pray.  In darkness we learn that we have nothing but God.  In darkness we learn what is passing and what is real.  And in the darkness, then does God give us the first glimpses, not only of faith and of hope, but then come the first glimpses of charity, which is so different from anything that we ever knew.[23]

The Illuminative Way


When the soul emerges from the night of sense, it enters into what the spiritual writers call the via illuminativa, i.e. the illuminative way.  This is the stage of proficients.  In our story, the illuminative way is symbolized by the room with the skylight.  Here, says Father Groeschel, the soul experiences God in an entirely new way.  It perceives God spontaneously (even hauntingly) in material creation.  It is thus drawn to the sacramental life of the Church, especially to the Eucharist, and it feels a profound reverence for all things sacred.  At the same time, it is given a heightened understanding of Holy Scripture and of the mysteries of the Catholic Faith.  Prayer, once difficult and burdensome, now becomes easy as worldly distractions recede into insignificance.   Above all, the soul is at last capable of loving its enemies.[24]

While the soul is in the illuminative way, it may find that its labors on behalf of the Kingdom of God are particularly easy and fruitful.  It may even, in some instances, be granted certain special favors such as revelations, visions, and interior speech.[25]  (More will be said later on the subject of extraordinary graces.)

Yet much spiritual growth has yet to take place.  In the illuminative way, the soul must learn to reject deliberate (as opposed to inadvertent) venial sin.  Venial sin is committed when at least one of the conditions for personal sin (viz. matter, knowledge and consent), although present, is not fully so.  The soul’s rejection of willful venial sin, I believe, also involves the simultaneous letting go of ego.  Thus Lucilda’s second room was filled with mirrors.

When the soul is in the illuminative way, its actions are, in fact, motivated by ego, i.e. by a kind of enlightened self-interest.  Saint Catherine of Siena refers to this motivation as mercenary love–a love that no longer slavishly grasps the Feet of Christ but, instead, reclines upon the very Heart of the Savior.[26]  Now the soul obeys Jesus not from fear but from a desire for rewards and benefits.  It is a hired servant rather than a slave.  It loves virtue, not for virtue’s own sake, but for the blessings virtue brings.  This is how God the Father describes souls in the illuminative way:


Some there are who have become faithful servants, serving Me with fidelity without servile fear of punishment, but rather with love. This very love, however, if they serve Me with a view to their own profit, or the delight and pleasure which they find in Me, is imperfect. Do you know what proves the imperfection of this love? The withdrawal of the consolations which they found in Me, and the insufficiency and short duration of their love for their neighbor, which grows weak by degrees, and oftentimes disappears.[27]


Saint Bernard puts the matter quite succinctly: “So then, in the beginning, man loves God, not for God’s sake, but for his own.”[28]

In order to purify the soul of its self-seeking, Christ resorts to a kind of trick, what Saint Catherine calls a “lover’s game.”[29]  Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, a seventeenth-century unlearned lay Carmelite brother who spent more than fifty years in a Paris monastery, simply observes, “God has many ways of drawing us to Himself.  He sometimes hides Himself from us.”[30]  God the Father explains exactly why He conceals Himself from His children in this way:


[O]n occasion, in order to exercise them in virtue and raise them above their imperfection, I withdraw from their minds My consolation and allow them to fall into battles and perplexities. This I do so that, coming to perfect self-knowledge, they may know that of themselves they are nothing and have no grace, and accordingly in time of battle fly to Me, as their Benefactor, seeking Me alone, with true humility, for which purpose I treat them thus, withdrawing from them consolation indeed, but not grace. ..[31]


God, it would seem, briefly “goes into eclipse,” concealing Himself from the soul,[32] temporarily depriving it of all consolations.  The soul will hopefully then be in a position to renounce its sensual self-seeking and to realize its utter dependence on God.  The ego must die.

The mortification of the ego is never accomplished without at least some struggle.  The soul must ultimately come to say, “I care not what others, or even what I myself, think about me, as long as I can do the will of Christ.”  To repeat, the soul must literally die to itself.[33]

Yet the ego’s death is only a means to an end.  C.S. Lewis bluntly summarizes Our Lord’s ultimate aim:


Christ says: “Give me All.  I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You.  I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it.  No half measures are any good.  I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there.  I want to have the whole tree down.  I don’t want to drill the tooth or crown it or stop it, but to have it out.  Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked, the whole outfit.  I will give you a new self instead.  In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.”[34]


Ultimate surrender to Jesus, despite appearances to the contrary, is really a gift and a grace.  Saint Francis of Assisi tells us:


Above all the graces and gifts of the Holy Spirit which Christ gives to His friends is that of conquering oneself and willingly enduring sufferings, insults, humiliations, and hardships for the love of Christ.[35]


Father Groeschel likens the ego at this point to a frightened, spoiled child.  Accustomed to having its own way, it will kick and scream all the more even as it feels its dominion coming to an end.[36]  Its ultimate demise, if it occurs at all, will take place in the next phase of the spiritual journey.

The Dark Night of the Soul

          If the soul is ready to turn away from willful venial sin and relinquish its hold on ego, if its love for Christ is no longer wholly mercenary but, for the most part, devoid of self-interest, it then enters upon a second night, what the saints call the dark night of the soul.  In our allegory, the dark night of the soul is depicted by the second series of passages, stairs and corridors.  Spiritual writers tell us that the dark night of the soul is much more intense than the dark night of sense.  Here the soul experiences spiritual pain, because it appears as though the soul is abandoned by God, or at least it appears that God is allowing the soul to undergo separation from Him.  “But,” says Saint Francis de Sales, “it is the very essence of the perfection of that heavenly Love to require its lovers to endure and fight for love’s sake, without knowing even whether they possess the very love for which and in which they strive.”[37]  Peggy Noonan provides a very down-to-earth description of the dark night of the soul.  She writes:


It can perhaps be referred to as the struggle of the ardent Christian who seems to lose Christ, the struggle of one who has already found God and made his decision for God and adheres to God, and who has yet, at the same time, and sometimes for a long time, lost the consolation that that knowledge tends to bring, or lost even the interior knowledge that God exists.  Imagine that trial.  Imagine that you have given your life to God, your whole life to His service, as a minister, or in the convent, or as a monk in a monastery.  Imagine it as a mother who has built her entire family around faith, and then seems to lose her love and certitude.  Imagine beginning to lose the feeling of the knowledge that the life you gave was given to something real.  You have doubts.  You wonder if you were deluded.  Maybe you made a mistake.  Maybe, therefore, to some degree your whole life was a mistake.[38]


In the dark night of the soul, spiritual pain reaches its climax.  The soul recognizes its sins in a way it has never done before, and it may be driven to the brink of despair.  This is, says Saint Teresa of Ávila, the last extreme of endurance:


O My God, how many troubles both interior and exterior must one suffer before entering the seventh mansions!  Sometimes, while pondering over this I fear that, were they known beforehand, human infirmity could scarcely bear the thought nor resolve to encounter them, however great might appear the gain.[39]


Yet while experiencing this dark night, the soul fails to realize how very near God truly is.  In his poem, The Hound of Heaven, Francis Thompson rightly exclaims, “Is my gloom, after all, shade of His hand outstretched caressingly!”  Saint John of the Cross, says Father Groeschel, even goes so far as to describe the dark night of the soul as light itself: “O truly blessed night which is brighter than the day!”[40]

The prayers and good works of a soul in darkness are, in fact, particularly pleasing to God.  The great master of analogies, Saint Francis de Sales, explains:


Some people, especially women, fall into the great mistake of imagining that when we offer a dry, distasteful service to God, devoid of all sentiment and emotion, it is unacceptable to His divine majesty, whereas, on the contrary, our actions are like roses, which, though they may be more beautiful when fresh, have a sweeter and stronger scent when they are dried.  Good works done with pleasurable interest are pleasanter to us who think of nothing save our own satisfaction.  But when they are done amidst dryness and deadness, they are more precious in God’s sight.  Yes indeed, my daughter, for in seasons of dryness, our will forcibly carries us on in God’s service, and so it is stronger and more vigorous than at a softer time.  There is not much to boast of in serving our prince in the comfort of a time of peace, but to serve him amid the toils and hardness of war, amid trial and persecution, is a real proof of faithfulness and perseverance.  The Blessed Angela di Foligni said that the most acceptable prayer to God is what is made forcibly and in spite of ourselves, that is to say, prayer made not to please ourselves or our own taste but solely to please God, carried on, as it were, in spite of inclination, the will triumphing over all our dryness and repugnances.  And so, of all good works, the more contradictions, exterior or interior, against which we contend in their fulfillment, the more precious they are in God’s sight; the less of self-pleasing in striving after any virtue, the more divine love shines forth in all its purity.  A child is easily moved to fondle its mother when she gives it sweet things, but if he kisses her in return for wormwood or chamomile; it is a proof of very real affection on his part.[41]


Our Lord revealed to the English anchoress and mystic Julian of Norwich precisely the same truth:


Therefore He saith thus: Pray inwardly, 133 “inderly ” = inwardly — or from the heart: heartily, as in lxvi. though thee thinketh it savour thee not: for it is profitable, though thou feel not, though thou see nought; yea, though thou think thou canst not.  For in dryness and in barrenness, in sickness and in feebleness, then is thy prayer well-pleasant to me, though thee thinketh it savour thee nought but little.  And so is all thy believing prayer in my sight.  For the meed and the endless thanks that He will give us, therefore He is covetous to have us pray continually in His sight.  God accepteth the goodwill and the travail of His servant, howsoever we feel…[42]


When experiencing the dark night of the soul, what matters most is obedient faith.  In his book The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis attributes this remarkable statement to his fictional demon:


Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but sill intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.[43]


As Prince Victor says, “When in the dark, it is always best to keep moving.”

The Unitive Way

          If, at last, the soul can make it through the second dark night, it embarks upon the via unitiva, i.e. the unitive way.  This final phase belongs to those whom spiritual writers call the perfect.  In Lucilda’s story, the unitive way is represented by the chapel.  Now the soul lives in almost constant union with Jesus.  This union is not, to be sure, the Beatific Vision of Heaven.  It is, however, a very intimate living with God while still on earth.

The soul in the unitive way experiences God in deep, almost continuous contemplation.  No longer does it see God in all things.  Instead, asserts Father Groeschel, it sees all things in God:  “The field is reversed.”[44]  Thus Saint John of the Cross writes:


And here lies the remarkable delight of this awakening: The soul knows creatures through God and not God through creatures.  This amounts to knowing the effects through their cause and not the cause through its effects.  The latter is knowledge a posteriori, and the former is essential knowledge.[45]


Here it should be noted that intimacy with God in contemplation by no means excludes the possibility of suffering.  All Christians, in fact, are asked to share in the sufferings of Christ and to offer these sufferings for the salvation of souls.  This is the privilege and glory of every believer.  There is no part of the spiritual journey without its crosses.

The soul in the unitive way may, in fact, be called to participate more intensely in the Passion of Jesus.  By now, however, its mercenary love has been transformed into filial, or even spousal, love.  It has, as Saint Catherine informs us, ascended from the Heart of Christ to the Savior’s Mouth.  Here it receives Our Lord’s kiss of peace.[46]  The result is that the soul is indifferent to its own pain or consolation.  Its will is dead to all else but the will of God.  Thus it loves virtue, not for any rewards it may gain thereby, but solely for the love of God.  This filial love, as God the Father explains to Saint Catherine, is not an option for the soul seeking eternal life.  It is a sine qua non:


For those who desire Eternal Life, a pure love, prescinding from themselves, is necessary, for it is not enough for eternal life to fly sin from fear of punishment, or to embrace virtue from the motive of one’s own advantage.  Sin should be abandoned because it is displeasing to Me, and virtue should be loved for My sake. ..

Such souls should arise and become sons, and serve Me, irrespective of themselves, for I, who am the Rewarder of every labor, render to each man according to his state and his labor; wherefore, if these souls do not abandon the exercise of holy prayer and their other good works, but go on, with perseverance, to increase their virtues, they will arrive at the state of filial love, because I respond to them with the same love, with which they love Me, so that, if they love Me, as a servant does his master, I pay them their wages according to their deserts, but I do not reveal Myself to them, because secrets are revealed to a friend, who has become one thing with his friend, and not to a servant.  Yet it is true, that a servant may so advance by the virtuous love, which he bears to his master, as to become a very dear friend, and so do some of these of whom I have spoken, but while they remain in the state of mercenary love, I do not manifest Myself to them. If they, through displeasure at their imperfection, and love of virtue, dig up, with hatred, the root of spiritual self-love, and mount to the throne of conscience, reasoning with themselves, so as to quell the motions of servile fear in their heart, and to correct mercenary love by the light of the holy faith, they will be so pleasing to Me, that they will attain to the love of the friend.  And I will manifest Myself to them, as My Truth said in these words: ’He who loves Me shall be one thing with Me and I with him, and I will manifest Myself to him and we will dwell together.’  This is the state of two dear friends, for though they are two in body, yet they are one in soul through the affection of love, because love transforms the lover into the object loved, and where two friends have one soul, there can be no secret between them, wherefore My Truth said: ’I will come and we will dwell together,’ and this is the truth.”[47]


Saint Bernard explains that “Whosoever praises God for His essential goodness, and not merely because of the benefits He has bestowed, does really love God for God’s sake, and not selfishly.”[48]  Professor William R. Cook[49] reminds us that this insight is nothing new to Christianity, that it can be traced at least as far back as the fifth century.  In lecturing on Saint John Cassian (d. 435), Cook declares:


Cassian talks about the fact that we need to fix our motivations.  That is to say, very often what we do is say, I’m going to do something nice or I’m going to pray just because I’m afraid otherwise God’s going to punish me.  That may be the beginning of our Christian life—operating out of fear—but we must go far beyond operating out of fear.  We move on probably to hope for reward.  So if our initial approach to God is, I’m scared, our second approach to God may be, I hope that if I do well, I will receive some sort of reward.  But there’s a third stage, and a very important stage, and that is we want to come to God and we want to do good simply because those things are good in and of themselves.  We want ultimately to put aside fear, even the hope of reward, and do things that are good because they are good.[50]


While in the unitive way, the soul may even desire suffering for the sake of the salvation of others.  Hence Saint Thérèse of Lisieux writes:


     I had offered myself, for some time now, to the Child Jesus as His little plaything.  I told Him not to use me as a valuable toy children are content to look at but dare not touch, but to use me like a little ball of no value which He could throw on the ground, push with His foot, pierce, leave in a corner, or press to His heart if it pleased Him; in a word, I wanted to amuse little Jesus, to give Him pleasure; I wanted to give myself up to His childish whims.  He heard my prayer.[51]


Here we have ultimate confidence in God, a confidence which John Henry Cardinal Newman expressed thus:


Therefore I will trust Him.
Whatever, wherever I am,
I can never be thrown away.
If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him;
In perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him;
If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him.
My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow may be
necessary causes of some great end,
which is quite beyond us.
He does nothing in vain; He may prolong my life,
He may shorten it;
He knows what He is about.
He may take away my friends,
He may throw me among strangers,
He may make me feel desolate,
make my spirits sink, hide the future from me—
still He knows what He is about.…
Let me be Thy blind instrument. I ask not to see—
I ask not to know—I ask simply to be used.[52]


The soul in the unitive way excels in the virtues of patience, humility and courage.  In addition, it is characterized by a fervent devotion to the sacraments (especially the Holy Eucharist), by an eagerness to perform acts of charity, and by a great willingness to practice intercessory prayer on behalf of its neighbor.  It may also be endowed with special spiritual gifts.  These may include bi-location, levitation, ecstasies, locutions, the ability to heal, the ability to foresee future events, and perhaps other favors as well.[53]

A caveat concerning spiritual gifts: even when extraordinary spiritual favors are genuine (and there is always the possibility of human or demonic deception), they should never be sought for their own sake.  On the contrary, Saint John of the Cross advises us to ask God (at least initially) to take away any miraculous gifts we may have.[54]  Extraordinary favors bring with them the temptation of pride, the desire to draw attention to oneself, and the tendency to seek the gifts rather than the Divine Giver.  Furthermore, the higher one advances in the spiritual life, the greater is the risk of a fall through pride, and for those who have made great progress, a fall can have the gravest of consequences.  Hence the wisdom in the Latin dictum, Corruptio optimi pessimum, i.e. the corruption of the best is the worst.  The safest course is to shun all extraordinary gifts and to prefer, instead, a life of humble, obedient charity.[55]  Thus Saint Teresa of Ávila writes:


If you want to know whether you have made progress or not, sisters, you may be sure that you have if each of you thinks herself the worst of all and shows that she thinks this by acting for the profit and benefit of the rest.  Progress has nothing to do with enjoying the greatest number of consolations in prayer, or with raptures, visions or favours [often] given by the Lord, the value of which we cannot estimate until we reach the world to come.[56]


Here I am reminded of “The Theologian’s Tale; The Legend Beautiful,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

In his chamber all alone,
Kneeling on the floor of stone,
Prayed the Monk in deep contrition
For his sins of indecision,
Prayed for greater self-denial
In temptation and in trial;
It was noonday by the dial,
And the Monk was all alone.
Suddenly, as if it lightened,
An unwonted splendor brightened
All within him and without him
In that narrow cell of stone;
And he saw the Blessed Vision
Of our Lord, with light Elysian
Like a vesture wrapped about him,
Like a garment round him thrown.

Not as crucified and slain,
Not in agonies of pain,
Not with bleeding hands and feet,
Did the Monk his Master see;
But as in the village street,
In the house or harvest-field,
Halt and lame and blind he healed,
When he walked in Galilee.

In an attitude imploring,
Hands upon his bosom crossed,
Wondering, worshipping, adoring,
Knelt the Monk in rapture lost.
Lord, he thought, in heaven that reignest,
Who am I, that thus thou deignest
To reveal thyself to me?
Who am I, that from the centre
Of thy glory thou shouldst enter
This poor cell, my guest to be?

Then amid his exaltation,
Loud the convent bell appalling,
From its belfry calling, calling,
Rang through court and corridor
With persistent iteration
He had never heard before.
It was now the appointed hour
When alike in shine or shower,
Winter’s cold or summer’s heat,
To the convent portals came
All the blind and halt and lame,
All the beggars of the street,
For their daily dole of food
Dealt them by the brotherhood;
And their almoner was he
Who upon his bended knee,
Rapt in silent ecstasy
Of divinest self-surrender,
Saw the Vision and the Splendor.
Deep distress and hesitation
Mingled with his adoration;_
Should he go, or should he stay?
Should he leave the poor to wait
Hungry at the convent gate,
Till the Vision passed away?
Should he slight his radiant guest,
Slight this visitant celestial,
For a crowd of ragged, bestial
Beggars at the convent gate?
Would the Vision there remain?
Would the Vision come again?
Then a voice within his breast
Whispered, audible and clear
As if to the outward ear:
“Do thy duty; that is best;
Leave unto thy Lord the rest!”

Straightway to his feet he started,
And with longing look intent
On the Blessed Vision bent,
Slowly from his cell departed,
Slowly on his errand went.

At the gate the poor were waiting,
Looking through the iron grating,
With that terror in the eye
That is only seen in those
Who amid their wants and woes
Hear the sound of doors that close,
And of feet that pass them by;
Grown familiar with disfavor,
Grown familiar with the savor
Of the bread by which men die!
But to-day, they knew not why,
Like the gate of Paradise
Seemed the convent gate to rise,
Like a sacrament divine
Seemed to them the bread and wine.
In his heart the Monk was praying,
Thinking of the homeless poor,
What they suffer and endure;
What we see not, what we see;
And the inward voice was saying:
“Whatsoever thing thou doest
To the least of mine and lowest,
That thou doest unto me!”[57]

Unto me! but had the Vision
Come to him in beggar’s clothing,
Come a mendicant imploring,
Would he then have knelt adoring,
Or have listened with derision,
And have turned away with loathing.

Thus his conscience put the question,
Full of troublesome suggestion,
As at length, with hurried pace,
Towards his cell he turned his face,
And beheld the convent bright
With a supernatural light,
Like a luminous cloud expanding
Over floor and wall and ceiling.

But he paused with awe-struck feeling
At the threshold of his door,
For the Vision still was standing
As he left it there before,
When the convent bell appalling,
From its belfry calling, calling,
Summoned him to feed the poor.
Through the long hour intervening
It had waited his return,
And he felt his bosom burn,
Comprehending all the meaning,
When the Blessed Vision said,
“Hadst thou stayed, I must have fled!”[58]


Humility and charity always trump ecstasy.  Saint Francis de Sales concurs.  Permit me to quote him at some length:


And here I must say a few words concerning certain things which some reckon as virtues, although they are nothing of the sort.  I mean ecstasies, trances, rhapsodies, extraordinary transformations, and the like, which are dwelt on in some books and which promise to raise the soul to a purely intellectual contemplation, an altogether supernatural mental altitude, and a life of preeminent excellence.  But I would have you see, my child, that these perfections are not virtues.  They are, rather, rewards which God gives to virtues, or perhaps, more correctly speaking, tokens of the joys of everlasting life, occasionally granted to men in order to kindle in them a desire for the fullness of joy, which is only to be found in Paradise.

But we must not aspire to such graces, which are in no wise necessary to us in order to love and serve God, our only lawful ambition.  Indeed, for the most part, these graces are not to be acquired by labor or industry, and that because they are, rather, passions than actions, which we may receive but cannot create.  Moreover, our business only is to become good, devout people, pious men and women, and all our efforts must be to that end.  If it should please God further to endow us with angelic perfection, we should then be prepared to become good angels.  But meanwhile, let us practice in all simplicity, humility, and devotion those lowly virtues to the attainment of which Our Lord has bidden us labor.  I mean patience, cheerfulness, self-mortification, humility, obedience, poverty, chastity, kindness to our neighbor, forbearance towards his failings, diligence, and a holy fervor.  Let us willingly resign the higher eminences to lofty souls.  We are not worthy to take so high a rank in God’s service.  Let us be content to be His scullions, porters, insignificant attendants in His household, leaving it to Him if He should hereafter see fit to call us to His own council chamber.

Of a truth, my child, the King of Glory does not reward His servants according to the dignity of their office, but according to the humility and love with which they have exercised it.  While Saul was seeking his father’s asses, he found the Kingdom of Israel.  Rebecca, watering Abraham’s camels, became his son’s wife.  Ruth, gleaning after Boaz’s reapers, and lying down at his feet, was raised up to become his bride.

Those who pretend to such great and extraordinary graces are very liable to delusions and mistakes, so that sometimes it turns out that people who aspire to be angels, are not ordinarily good men, and that their goodness lies more in high-flown words than in heart and deed.

But we must beware of despising or presumptuously condemning anything.  Only, while thanking God for the preeminence of others, let us abide contentedly in our own lower but safer path, a path of less distinction but more suitable to our lowliness, resting satisfied that if we walk steadily and faithfully therein, God will lift us up to greater things.[59]


The same saint even goes so far as to assert that spiritual consolations may sometimes be the deceptions of the devil to keep a soul from advancing in holiness:


          I would say, then, that devotion does not consist in conscious sweetness and tender consolations which move one to sighs and tears and bring about a kind of agreeable, acceptable sense of self-satisfaction.  No, my child, this is not one and the same as devotion, for you will find many persons who do experience these consolations, yet who, nevertheless, are evil minded and consequently are devoid of all true love of God, still, more of all, true devotion….

Just so, there are many people who, while contemplating the goodness of God, or the Passion of His dear Son, feel an emotion which leads to sighs, tears, and very lively prayers and thanksgivings, so that it might fairly be supposed that their hearts were kindled by a true devotion.  But when put to the test, all this proves but as the passing showers of a hot summer, which splash down in large drops but do not penetrate the soil or make it to bring forth anything better than mushrooms.  In like manner, these tears and emotions do not really touch an evil heart but are altogether fruitless, inasmuch as, in spite of them all, those poor people would not renounce one farthing of ill-gotten gain or one unholy affection.  They would not suffer the slightest worldly inconvenience for the sake of the Savior over Whom they wept, so that their pious emotions may fairly be likened to spiritual fungi, as not merely falling short of real devotion, but often being so many snares of the Enemy, who beguiles souls with these trivial consolations so as to make them stop short and rest satisfied therewith instead of seeking after true, solid devotion, which consists in a firm, resolute, ready, active will prepared to do whatsoever is acceptable to God.[60]


When it comes to spiritual gifts, I recommend the concise book, A Still, Small Voice: A Practical Guide on Reported Revelations, by Father Benedict Groeschel.  This volume underscores the timeless insight of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux who said, “I know of no ecstasy to which I do not prefer sacrifice. There I find happiness, and there alone.”[61]  Brother Lawrence also recognized the essence of authentic spirituality.  He was, for fifteen years, perfectly happy performing the most menial kitchen tasks, (e.g. peeling potatoes) “since he was always pleasing himself in every condition by doing little things for the love of God,”[62] “who regards not the greatness of the work but the love with which it is performed.”[63]

Death & Heaven

          If the soul persists in the unitive way, it will, at death, ultimately be taken by Christ into the light of Paradise.  Allegorically, death is described in terms of Princess Lucilda’s swoon, and Paradise is represented by Prince Victor’s garden.  A flower garden is a wonderfully apt metaphor for Heaven.  Where else can one find so much beauty, so many vibrant forms of life?  In one of his sermons, Saint Augustine describes the all-embracing nature of Heaven thus:


     I tell you again and again, my brethren, that in the Lord’s garden are to be found not only the roses of his martyrs.  In it there are also the lilies of the virgins, the ivy of wedded couples, and the violets of widows.  On no account may any class of people despair, thinking that God has not called them.[64]

Saint Paul likens Heaven, not to a garden, but to a personal, face-to-face encounter with God:


At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror,[65] but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.[66]

Among human beings, what encounter is more personal than that between a loving husband and wife?  Hence Heaven may also be likened to a nuptial feast wherein we shall enjoy wedded bliss with Christ, who is the Bridegroom of the soul.[67]  Down through the centuries, Christians have always regarded Jesus as the Bridegroom of the Church.[68]  Yet the Catholic mystical tradition also affirms that Christ is the Spouse of every individual believer’s soul.  The famous Passio of Saint Agnes comes immediately to mind:

With His ring my Lord Jesus Christ has betrothed me,

and He has adorned me with the bridal crown.

My right hand and my neck He has encircled with precious stones,

and has given me earrings with priceless pearls;

He has decked me with lovely, glittering gems.

The Lord has clothed me with a robe of gold.

He has adorned me with priceless jewels.

Honey and milk have I received from His mouth,

and His blood has reddened my cheeks.

I love Christ, into whose chamber I shall enter,

whose Mother is a virgin,

whose Father knows not woman,

whose music and melody are sweet to my ears.

When I love Him, I remain chaste;

when I touch Him, I remain pure;

when I possess Him, I remain a virgin.

I am betrothed to Him whom the angels serve,

whose beauty the sun and moon admire.

For Him alone I keep my troth,

to Him I surrender with all my heart.

Even male saints have affirmed Christ as their Spouse.  Saint Bonaventure gives this advice to those who aspire to the heights of contemplative prayer: “…seek the bridegroom not the teacher; God and not man; [the] darkness [of the wedding night] not [the] daylight [of intellectual clarity]…”[69]  Then there is “The Spiritual Canticle,” the exquisite poem by Saint John of the Cross.  Here the saint describes his love for Jesus in nuptial terms:


There He made gently free,

Had honey of revelation to confide.

There I gave all of me,

Hid nothing, had no pride.

There I promised to become His bride.[70]


Being conjugal, literally “yoked together,” with Christ is the ultimate vocation of all Christians.[71]

At first, the notion of mystical marriage to Jesus may appear somewhat strange, especially when expressed by Christians who happen to be male.  It must be remembered, however, that we are using the language of analogy.  Marriage, after all, is the most intimate of purely earthly loves.  Hence, while the joys of Heaven will far transcend those of the marriage bed,[72] there is no richer image of Christ’s love for the soul than that of a bridegroom for his bride.  What the analogy attempts to convey is not sexual union but deep and lasting intimacy.  English mystic and poet Caryll Houselander writes explains:


We incline to think that the comparison of Christ’s oneness with His Church to human marriage is an attempt to find a symbol for Christ’s love, that the marriage is the greater reality.  But it is the other way about.  The marriage of man and woman is the dim showing of the reflected glory of Christ’s union through the giving of Himself in the flesh to humanity….[73]


Here Houselander is thinking especially of the believer’s reception of Holy Communion.  Recall the words of the old hymn, “O Lord, I Am Not Worthy”[74]:


And humbly I’ll receive Thee,
The Bridegroom of my soul,
No more by sin to grieve Thee,
Or fly Thy sweet control.[75]


Worthy reception of the Eucharist brings an intimacy with Christ which far excels that of the marital act.  It is a foretaste of heaven itself.

Put briefly, Heaven is ultimate fulfillment.  Francis Thompson aptly puts these beautiful words on the lips of Our Lord: “All…which thy child’s mistake fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home: Rise, clasp my hand, and come!”[76]

Finally, only in Paradise will the soul’s love reach ultimate perfection.  Note Saint Bernard’s concise summary of the four degrees of love, the last of which, he believes, will be attained only in heaven:


At first, man loves himself for his own sake.  That is the flesh, which can appreciate nothing beyond itself.  Next, he perceives that he cannot exist by himself, so he begins by faith to seek after God, and to love Him as something necessary to his own welfare.  That is the second degree: to love God, not for God’s sake, but selfishly.  But when he has learned to worship God and to seek Him aright—meditating on God, reading God’s word, praying, and obeying His commandments—he comes gradually to know what God is, and finds Him altogether lovely.  So having tasted and seen how gracious the Lord is (Psalm 34:8), he advances to the third degree, when he loves God, not merely as his benefactor, but as God.  Surely he must remain long in this state, and I know not whether it would be possible to make further progress in this life to that fourth degree and perfect condition wherein man loves himself solely for God’s sake.  Let any who have attained so far bear record.  I confess it seems beyond my powers.  Doubtless it will be reached when the good and faithful servant shall have entered into the joy of his Lord (Matthew 25:21) and been satisfied with the plenteousness of God’s house (Psalm 36:8).  For then, in wondrouswise, he will forget himself and, as if delivered from self, he will grow wholly God’s.  Joined unto the Lord, he will then be one spirit with Him (1 Corinthians 6:17).[77]



          Notice that, in our story, the princess moves from the witch’s dungeon to the room with the candles, and then to the room with the moonlight, thence to the chapel, and then, at last, to the garden.  At every stage, the light becomes more intense and more direct.  That is what the life of the soul ideally ought to be.  Unfortunately, most of us never seem to make it out of the room with the candles and the crystal–the purgative way.  Some fewer individuals proceed a little farther in their spiritual journey but make it only as far as the room with the moon and the mirrors–the illuminative way.  Still fewer souls are able to reach the chapel–the unitive way–before death overtakes them.  We are all not as fortunate as Lucilda.

Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange sees the five principal stages of the spiritual life mirrored in the phases of human development, and also exemplified in the lives of Our Lord’s Apostles.[78]  I myself, however, am apt to see a parallel with the Old Testament patriarch Joseph.  See below.




Original Sin




The Purgative Way

The Stage of Beginners

The soul loves self for self’s sake

Its task is to reject mortal sin.

  • Human development: Childhood
  • Old Testament: Joseph in the house of Jacob (Genesis 37:1-18a).
  • New Testament: The Apostles during Jesus’ public ministry


The Night of Sense

  • Human development: The crisis of puberty (about age fourteen).
  • Old Testament: Joseph’s betrayal and going down into Egypt (Genesis 37:18b-36).
  • New Testament: The Apostles at the time of Jesus’ Passion, death and burial.


The Illuminative Way

The stage of Proficients

The soul loves God for self’s sake

It must reject deliberate (as opposed to inadvertent) venial sin.

  • Human development: Youth
  • Old Testament: Joseph in the service of Potiphar (Genesis 339: 1-18).
  • New Testament: The Apostles from the time of Our Lord’s Resurrection to His Ascension.


The Dark Night of the Soul

  • Human development: The crisis of the first freedom (about age twenty).
  • Old Testament: Joseph in prison (Genesis 39: 19-41 :36).
  • New Testament: The Apostles after Jesus’ Ascension until Pentecost.


The Unitive Way

The Stage of the Perfect

The Soul loves God for God’s sake.

  • Human development: Adulthood
  • Old Testament: Joseph in service of Pharaoh (Genesis 41:37ff)).
  • New Testament: The Apostles from the Day of Pentecost.





The soul loves self for God’s sake


Three Questions

          Let us consider three questions.  First, what happens if, while in a state of grace, a person commits a mortal sin?  Is there such a thing as spiritual regress?  The answer, of course, is yes.  Whoever commits a mortal sin loses the light of God’s grace.  Using the language of our allegory, he goes back to Watho’s dungeon.  (“Go directly to jail.  Do not pass GO.  Do not collect $200.”)

Yet, if such a soul sincerely repents, goes to confession, and performs sufficient penance, that soul will be brought back to the very level of grace from which it fell in the first place.  Saint Thomas Aquinas declares:


Even after a grave sin, if the soul has a sorrow which is truly fervent and proportionate to the degree of grace which it has lost, it will recover this same degree of grace; grace may even revive in the soul in a higher degree, if the contrition is still more fervent.  Thus the soul has not to begin again completely from the beginning, but it continues from the point which it had reached at the moment of the fall.[79]


If, for example, a saint were to commit a mortal sin while in the unitive way (Prince Victor’s chapel), he would lose the light of grace and, as it were, be put back into the dungeon.  If, however, that person were sincerely contrite, went to confession, and did penance, he would once again be returned to the unitive way.

Here the importance of sacramental confession cannot be overemphasized.  It is through the priest’s “ego te absolvo,” spoken in the name of Jesus, that the sinner is given God’s gratuitous forgiveness.  Contrition predisposes the soul to receive this forgiveness.  Penance signifies the soul’s acceptance of it.

To repeat: the individual who commits a mortal sin does not have to start all over again.  Sincere repentance, sacramental confession, and true penance can bring him back to the level from which he originally lapsed.  “In the same way,” says Father Garrigou-Lagrange, “the climber who falls when he has reached half-way up the mountain-side, rises immediately and continues his ascent from the point at which he has fallen.”[80]

Second, what happens to a person who dies while still in the purgative way or the illuminative way?  Just as it would be cruel to bring someone from dim light into sudden brightness, so God would be cruel if, immediately upon death, He were to bring a soul from the purgative way or the illuminative way directly into the unmitigated brightness of Heaven.  Such a soul must undergo a gradual introduction to greater and greater intensities of light until it is ready for the glory of Paradise.  This gradual process of post-death preparation for the Beatific Vision is what Catholics call purgatory.   Yet the doctrine of purgatory is not as “Catholic” as one might suspect.  The explanation given above was borrowed from, of all places, the writings of the staunch Protestant biblical scholar, William Barclay.  In commenting on the “many abiding places” mentioned in John 14:2, Reverend Barclay, perhaps unwittingly, gives a most eloquent rationale for purgatory.  He asserts:


Speaking in purely human and inadequate terms, we sometimes feel that we would be dazzled with too much splendour, if, immediately [after death], we were ushered into the very presence of God, that even in heaven we would need to be cleansed and purified and helped until we can face the greater glory.[81]


Purgatory, then, is the antechamber of Heaven.  It is for those persons who die while still in the purgative or illuminative way.

It should be noted, however, that the more spiritual progress a soul makes in this life, the happier it will be in the next.  Active cooperation with grace while on earth is meritorious.  Passive purification in purgatory brings no merit.

Third, is it possible to accurately assess one’s own spiritual progress?  In other words, can a person, without the guidance of a spiritual director, know for certain whether he is in the purgative, illuminative or unitive way?  While the temptation for self-diagnosis in the spiritual life is great indeed, it should be resisted at all costs.  After all, how could the newly rescued Lucilda have judged if greater happiness lay beyond her room with the candles and crystal?  Only Prince Victor knew that.  Spiritual self-assessment is rendered especially difficult when we realize that, here on earth, no soul ever definitively leaves the purgative and illuminative ways.  All of us are continually having to turn away from mortal and venial sins.  In addition, the purgative, illuminative and unitive ways are experienced differently depending on whether a soul is contemplative or active.  When it comes to medicine, he who is his own doctor has a fool for a patient.  The same can be said of the spiritual life.  He who acts as his own director has a half-wit for a directee.  If taking one’s own spiritual temperature is a risky business, it is even more perilous to attempt to do so for others.  That kind of work belongs only to a skilled physician of the soul, i.e. a prudent spiritual director.  Ultimately, where one is on the spiritual journey is not as important as the direction in which one is headed.  The important thing is to keep moving toward the light.  In fact, the Fathers of the Church tell us that “in the way of God he who makes no progress loses ground.”[82]  Brother Lawrence likewise warns that “not to advance in the spiritual life is to go back.”[83]


A Major Flaw

          A word of caution: my fairy tale allegory has at least one major flaw!  It implies that Lucilda’s love for Prince Victor is totally divorced from contact with the other subjects of his realm.  Nothing could be more misleading.  The soul that moves through the purgative, illuminative, and unitive ways is indeed growing in spousal love for Christ.  However, this spiritual venture is never made in isolation from other human beings.  Saint Augustine offers the following counsel:


In loving your neighbor and caring for him, you are on a journey.  Where are you traveling if not to the Lord God, to him whom we should love with our whole heart, our whole soul, our whole mind?  We have not yet reached his presence, but we have our neighbor at our side.  Support, then, this companion of your pilgrimage if you want to come into the presence of the one with whom you desire to remain for ever.[84]


Saint Teresa of Ávila makes the same point far more forcefully:


Our Lord asks but two things of us: love, for Him and for our neighbour: these are what we must strive to obtain.  If we practise both these virtues perfectly we shall be doing His will and so shall be united to Him….  I think the most certain sign that we keep these two commandments is that we have a genuine love for others.  We cannot know whether we love God although there may be strong reasons for thinking so, but there can be no doubt about whether we love our neighbour or no.  Be sure that in proportion as you advance in fraternal charity, you are increasing in your love of God, for His Majesty bears so tender an affection for us that I cannot doubt He will repay our love for others by augmenting, in a thousand different ways, that which we bear for Him….  If you possess fraternal charity, I assure you that you will certainly obtain the union I have described.  If you are conscious that you are wanting in this charity, although you may feel devotion and sweetness and a short absorption in the prayer of quiet (which makes you think you have attained to union with God), believe me you have not yet reached it.  Beg our Lord to grant you perfect love for your neighbour, and leave the rest to Him.  He will give you more than you know how to desire if you constrain yourselves and strive with all your power to gain it, forcing your will as far as possible to comply in all things with your sisters’ wishes although you may sometimes forfeit your own rights by so doing.  Forget your self-interests for theirs, how ever much nature may rebel; when opportunity occurs take some burden upon yourself to ease your neighbour of it.  Do not fancy it will cost you nothing and that you will find it all done for you: think what the love He bore for us cost our Spouse, Who to free us from death, Himself suffered the most painful death of all–the death of the Cross.[85]


Even our choice of friends has a great deal to do with whether or not we progress along the way of perfection.  Saint Teresa, well aware of the danger of worldly friendships,[86] nevertheless shares this insight with the nuns in her Carmelite community:


When one of you is striving after perfection, she will at once be told that she has no need to know such people [i.e. spiritual friends]—that it is enough for her to have God.  But to get to know God’s friends is a very good way of “having” Him; as I have discovered by experience, it is most helpful.  For, under the Lord, I owe it to such persons that I am not in hell; I was always very fond of asking them to commend me to God, and so I prevailed upon them to do so.[87]


Saint Francis de Sales, also recognizing the value of God-centered friendships, especially for persons living in the world, writes as follows:


There are some who will tell you that you should avoid all special affection or friendship as likely to engross the heart, distract the mind, excite jealousy, and whatnot, but they are confusing things.  They have read in the works of saintly and devout writers that individual friendships and special intimacies are a great hindrance in the religious life, and therefore they suppose it to be the same with all the world, which is not at all the case.  Whereas in a well-regulated community everyone’s aim is true devotion, there is no need for individual intercourse which might exceed due limits.  In the world, those who aim at a devout life require to be united one with another by a holy friendship, which excites, stimulates, and encourages them in well-doing.  Just as men traversing a plain have no need to hold one another up, as they have who are amid slippery mountain paths, so religious do not need the stay of individual friendships, but those who are living in the world require such for strength and comfort amid the difficulties which beset them.  In the world, all have not one aim, one mind, and therefore we must take to us congenial friends….  What need to affirm so unquestionable a fact?  Saint Jerome, Saint Augustine, Saint Gregory, Saint Bernard, and all the most notable servants of God have had special friendships which in nowise hindered their perfection.[88]


“Faithful friends,” says Sacred Scripture, “are a sturdy shelter; whoever finds one finds a treasure.”[89]

Loving Jesus Christ is not solely about “me and my J.C.”  Authentic spirituality implies love of neighbor.  Our Lord teaches us to pray: “Our Father who art in heaven….”[90] rather than: “My Father who art in heaven….”  As a matter of fact, the more we reach out to our neighbor in charity, the easier it will be for us to make progress in the spiritual life.  Jesus declares, “Anyone among you who aspires to greatness must serve the rest, and whoever wants to rank first among you must serve the needs of all.”[91]  Likewise, the more advanced we become in spiritual growth, the more ardently we will strive to serve others.  Saint John says it quite simply: “The man who continues in the light is the one who loves his brother.”[92]

All this should come as no surprise.  If the soul’s quest for God has any purpose at all, it is nothing else but a preparation for the commonwealth of Heaven.  Heaven, in turn, is nothing less than a participation in the eternal society of the Blessed Trinity.  Note this tantalizing description of Heaven from the writings of C.S. Lewis:


Surely…each of the redeemed shall forever know and praise some one aspect of the divine beauty better than any other creature can.  Why else were individuals created, but that God, loving all infinitely, should love each differently?  And this difference, so far from impairing, floods with meaning the love of all blessed creatures for one another, the communion of the saints.  If all experienced God in the same way and returned Him an identical worship, the song of the Church Triumphant would have no symphony.  It would be like an orchestra in which all the instruments played the same note….  But the eternal distinctness of each soul–the secret which makes of the union between each soul and God a species in itself–will never abrogate the law that forbids ownership in heaven.  As to its fellow-creatures, each soul, we suppose, will be eternally engaged in giving away to all the rest that which it receives….  For in self-giving, if anywhere, we touch a rhythm not only of all creation but of all being.  For the Eternal Word also gives Himself in sacrifice, and that not only on Calvary….  From before the foundation of the world He surrenders begotten Deity back to begetting Deity in obedience.[93]


Love of one’s neighbor is certainly a prerequisite for entering Heaven.[94]  Yet it will also enable one to live in Heaven after one has passed through the Pearly Gates.  Charity towards others is not just the key to Heaven; it is the very atmosphere of Heaven itself.

Even on earth, the soul striving for God enjoys, as it were, a foretaste of the heavenly Jerusalem.  After all, the angels and saints in Heaven (the Church Triumphant) are always eager to help us here below (the Church Militant) by means of their prayers and other supernatural assistance.  In addition, we Christians on earth, together with the saints and angels, can help the souls in Purgatory (the Church Suffering) with our prayers.  There is, to be sure, no such thing as an individualist Christian.  There is, however, through baptism, incorporation into the Mystical Body of Christ.[95]



          Finally, what do Lucilda’s adventures have to teach us?  First, they underscore the fact that “darkness,” pain, and suffering are part of the spiritual journey.  Our Lord declares: “If a man wishes to come after me, he must deny his very self, take up his cross, and begin to follow in my footsteps.”[96]  Saint Teresa of Ávila explains:


          So I want you to realize with Whom (as they say) you are dealing and what the good Jesus offers on your behalf to the Father, and what you are giving Him when you pray that His will may be done in you: it is nothing else than this that you are praying for.  Do not fear that He will give you riches or pleasures or great honours or any such earthly things; His love for you is not so poor as that.  And He sets a very high value on what you give Him and desires to recompense you for it since He gives you His Kingdom while you are still alive.  Would you like to see how He treats those who make this prayer from their hearts?  Ask His glorious Son, Who made it thus in the Garden.  Think with what resolution and fullness of desire He prayed; and consider if the will of God was not perfectly fulfilled in Him through the trials, sufferings, insults and persecutions which He gave Him, until at last His life ended with death on a Cross.

So you see, daughters, what God gave to His best Beloved, and from that you can understand what His will is.  These, then, are His gifts in this world.  He gives them in proportion to the love which He bears us.  He gives more to those whom He loves most, and less to those He loves least; and He gives in accordance with the courage which He sees that each of us has and the love we bear to His Majesty.  When He sees a soul who loves Him greatly, He knows that soul can suffer much for Him, whereas one who loves Him little will suffer little.  For my own part, I believe that love is the measure of our ability to bear crosses, whether great or small.[97]


Suffering, then, is a gift God gives to those whom He loves most.  Apparently Saint Francis de Sales agrees.  Consider these words commonly attributed to him:


The everlasting God has in His wisdom foreseen from eternity the cross that He now presents to you as a gift from His inmost heart.  This cross He now sends you He has considered with His all-knowing eyes, understood with His divine mind, tested with His wise justice, warmed with loving arms and weighed with His own hands to see that it be not one inch too large and not one ounce too heavy for you.  He has blessed it with His holy Name, anointed it with His consolation, taken one last glance at you and your courage, and then sent it to you from heaven, a special greeting from God to you, an alms of the all-merciful love of God.


Yes, suffering is a sign of divine love.  The poem “To Christ Crucified” by Caryll Houselander drives home the point:


There He hangs—pale figure

pinned against the wood.

God grant that I could love Him

as I really know I should.

I draw a little closer

to share that Love Divine

And almost hear Him whisper,

“Ah, foolish child of Mine!

If I should now embrace you,

My hands would stain you red.

And if I leaned to whisper,

the Thorns would pierce your head.”

And then I knew in silence

that love demands a price.

‘Twas then I learned that suffering

is but the Kiss of Christ.


Suffering, however, is more than a token of God’s love.  It is actually an invitation to share in Christ’s work of redemption.  Pope Saint John Paul II declares:


For it is above all a call. It is a vocation.  Christ does not explain in the abstract the reasons for suffering, but before all else he says: “Follow me!”  Come!  Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world, a salvation achieved through my suffering!  Through my Cross.  Gradually, as the individual takes up his cross, spiritually uniting himself to the Cross of Christ, the salvific meaning of suffering is revealed before him.  He does not discover this meaning at his own human level, but at the level of the suffering of Christ.  At the same time, however, from this level of Christ the salvific meaning of suffering descends to man’s level and becomes, in a sense, the individual’s personal response.  It is then that man finds in his suffering interior peace and even spiritual joy.[98]


Most importantly, the story of Lucilda reminds us to make holiness a priority.  When it comes to reaching Heaven, it is not enough simply to want to “get by.”  Instead, we should yearn, with every fiber of our being, to become saints—for our own good and for the good of our neighbor.  Again, Saint Teresa tells us:


Discretion is necessary throughout.  We must have great confidence; because it is very necessary for us not to contract our desires, but put our trust in God; for, if we do violence to ourselves by little and little, we shall, though not at once, reach that height which many Saints by His grace have reached.  If they had never resolved to desire, and had never by little and little acted upon that resolve, they never could have ascended to so high a state.

His Majesty seeks and loves courageous souls; but they must be humble in their ways, and have no confidence in themselves.  I never saw one of those lag behind on the road; and never a cowardly soul, though aided by humility, make that progress in many years which the former makes in a few.  I am astonished at the great things done on this road by encouraging oneself to undertake great things, though we may not have the strength for them at once; the soul takes a flight upwards and ascends high, though, like a little bird whose wings are weak, it grows weary and rests.[99]


Pope Pius XII sums it all up quite nicely:


Not all of us are expected to die a martyr’s death, but we are all called to the pursuit of Christian virtue.  This demands strength of character….  [A] constant, persistent and relentless effort is asked of us right up to the moment of our death.  This may be conceived as a slow steady martyrdom which Christ urged upon us when he said: The kingdom of heaven is set upon and laid waste by violent forces.[100]


Our prayer ought to be that of Cardinal Merry del Val: “O Jesus, grant me the grace to wish…that others may be more holy than I, provided I am as holy as I can be.”[101]




[1] Life of Saint Teresa of Jesus, Chapter XIII, Section 18.

[2] This sentence was inspired by the famous dictum of John Henry Newman: “In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”  [From An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845), Chapter 1, Section 1, Part 7.)

[3] Cf. the Responsorial Psalm for the Mass of the Assumption (Mass during the Day).

[4] Luke 18:17, NAB.

[5] John 3:30, NAB.

[6] Brother Ugolino Brunforte, The Little Flowers of Saint Francis, the section entitled “The Sayings of Brother Giles,” Chapter 4.

[7] From an essay entitled The Infinity of Littleness.

[8] Allegedly from Mere Christianity.

[9] As Quoted in: A Year with the Saints (1891), anonymous.

[10] Matthew 19:24, NAB.

[11] Introduction to the Devout Life, Part III, Chapter 15.

[12] 1 Timothy 6:10.

[13] Quoted in: Abbe Theodore Ratisbonne’s book, St. Bernard of Clairvaux: Oracle of the Twelfth Century (Charlotte: TAN Books, an Imprint of Saint Benedict Press, 1991), p.24.

[14] Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book I, Chapter 10, Section ii.

[15] Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book I, Chapter 11, Section v.

[16] Ralph Martin, St. Catherine of Siena: Growing in Love, conferences originally published on audiocassettes.

[17] The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena, the section entitled: “How, by exercising oneself in servile fear, which is the state of imperfection, by which is meant the first step of the holy Bridge, one arrives at the second step, which is the state of perfection.”

[18] On Loving God, Chapter 8.

[19] 1 John 4:18, NAB.

[20] Theology for Beginners, Chapter VI.

[21] Vincent Falco, Counsels, Exhortations by Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, Italy, p. 16.  This is a 28-page booklet printed by Vincent Falco (4514 Sheridan Avenue, Miami Beach, Florida  33140; Tel. 305-673-8403).  The booklet is also available online in PDF format under the title Counsels and Exhortations by Saint Padre Pio.

[22] Cf. Saint Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, Part IV, Chapter 2 (quoted on p. 19 above).

[23] Understanding Spiritual Development, a series of conferences originally published on audiocassettes but now available as an audio download.

[24] Understanding Spiritual Development.

[25] Understanding Spiritual Development.

[26] Ralph Martin, St. Catherine of Siena: Growing in Love, conferences originally published on audiocassettes.

[27] Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena, the section entitled: “Of the imperfection of those who love God for their own profit, delight, and consolation.”

[28] On Loving God, Chapter 9.

[29] Ralph Martin, St. Catherine of Siena: Growing in Love, conferences originally published on audiocassettes.

[30] The Practice of the Presence of God, Twelfth Letter.

[31] Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena, the section entitled: “Of the imperfection of those who love God for their own profit, delight, and consolation.”

[32] See Isaiah 54:7-8.

[33] See Matthew 16:25 and John 12:24-25.

[34] Mere Christianity, Book IV, Chapter 8.

[35] Brother Ugolino Brunforte, The Little Flowers of Saint Francis, Chapter 8.

[36] Understanding Spiritual Development.

[37] Introduction to the Devout Life, Part IV, Chapter 4.

[38] John Paul the Great: Remembering a Spiritual Father, Chapter 9.

[39] Interior Castle, The Sixth Mansions, Chapter I, Section 3.

[40] Understanding Spiritual Development.

[41] Introduction to the Devout Life, Part IV, Chapter 14.

[42] Revelations of Divine Love, Chapter XLI.

[43] Letter VIII.

[44] Understanding Spiritual Development.

[45] Living Flame of Love, St. IV, 5.

[46] Ralph Martin, St. Catherine of Siena: Growing in Love, conferences originally published on audiocassettes.

[47] Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena, the section entitled: “Of the imperfection of those who love God for their own profit, delight, and consolation.”

[48] On Loving God, Chapter 9.

[49] Professor of History at the State University of New York at Geneseo.

[50] From “The Desert Fathers and Mothers,” the fifth lecture in a series of audio lectures entitled The Lives of Great Christians, published by the Teaching Company in 2007.

[51] Story of a Soul, Chapter VI.

[52] Meditations and Devotions, “Meditations on Christian Doctrine,” “Hope in God—Creator,” March 7, 1848.

[53] Understanding Spiritual Development.

[54] Father Benedict Groeschel, A Still, Small Voice: A Practical Guide on Reported Revelations.

[55] See 1 Corinthians 13.

[56] Way of Perfection, Chapter 18.

[57] Cf. Matthew 25:40.

[58] Tales of a Wayside Inn, 1863.

[59] Introduction to the Devout Life, Part III, Chapter 2.

[60] Introduction to the Devout Life, Part IV, Chapter 13.

[61] From a letter of Saint Thérèse written to her sister in 1889.

[62] The Practice of the Presence of God, Second Conversation.

[63] The Practice of the Presence of God, Fourth Conversation.

[64] From Sermon 304, 1-4: Patrologia Latina 38, 1395-1397.  Quoted in: The Liturgy of the Hours, Volume IV (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Corp., 1975), p. 1306.  This excerpt is part of the Office of Readings for August 10, the Feast of Saint Lawrence.

[65] In the ancient world, mirrors were made of polished metal and thus often yielded a distorted image.

[66] 1 Corinthians 13:12, NAB.

[67] Matthew 25:1-13.

[68] See Ephesians 5:21-23 and Revelation 19:6-9.

[69] Journey of the Mind to God, Chapter VII, 6.  Quoted in: The Liturgy of the Hours, Volume III (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Corp., 1975), p. 1536.  This passage is part of the Office of Readings for July 15, the Feast of Saint Bonaventure.

[70] “The Spiritual Canticle,” XXVII.

[71] See Matthew 11:28-30.

[72] Matthew 22:30.

[73] The Reed of God, Part II, the section entitled: “Wooden Bambino.”

[74] The author and composer of the original Victorian-era Communion hymn are unknown.

[75] Verse 2.

[76] “The Hound of Heaven.”

[77] On Loving God, Chapter 15.

[78] The Three Ways of the Spiritual Life.

[79] Summa Theologica, III, Q. ixxxix, art. 2, as quoted in: Father Garrigou-Lagrange, The Three Ways of the Spiritual Life, Chapter II.

[80] The Three Ways of the Spiritual Life, Chapter II.

[81] The Gospel of John, Volume 2 (Chapters 8 to 21).

[82] Father Garrigou-Lagrange, The Three Ways of the Spiritual Life, Chapter I.

[83] The Practice of the Presence of God, Fourth Letter.

[84] From a treatise on John (Tract. 17, 7-9: Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina 36, 174-175).  Quoted in: The Liturgy of the Hours, Volume I (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1975), p. 513.  This passage is part of the Office of Readings for Tuesday, from January 2 to Epiphany.

[85] Interior Castle, The Fifth Mansions, Chapter III, Sections 7, 8, + 12.

[86] “Now and then, I am amazed at the evil one bad companion can do,—nor could I believe it if I did not know it by experience,—especially when we are young: then is it that the evil must be greatest.  Oh, that parents would take warning by me, and look carefully to this!”  (Life of Saint Teresa of Jesus, Chapter II, Section 5.)

[87] Way of Perfection, Chapter VII.

[88] Introduction to the Devout Life, Part III, Chapter 19.

[89] Sirach 6:14.

[90] Matthew 6:9.

[91] Matthew 20:26-27, NAB.

[92] 1 John 2:10, NAB.

[93] The Problem of Pain, Chapter 10.

[94] See Matthew 25:31-46.

[95] Romans 12:4-5.

[96] Matthew 16:24, NAB.

[97] Way of Perfection, Chapter 32.

[98] Section 26 of the 1984 encyclical, On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering, known by its Latin title as Salvifici Doloris.

[99] Life of Saint Teresa of Jesus, Chapter XIII, Sections 2 + 3.

[100] From his homily at the canonization of Saint Maria Goretti in 1950.  Quoted in: The Liturgy of the Hours, Volume III (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Corp., 1975), p. 1526.  This excerpt is part of the Office of Readings for July 6, the Feast of Saint Maria Goretti.  As for the text in italics, see Matthew 11:12.

[101] “Litany of Humility.”