The Three Ways or States of the Spiritual Life

Stages of Spiritual Development

Our process of conversion to Christ is a journey that takes place over the course of a lifetime. You can probably look back to times in your life where you can remember making great progress on your spiritual journey, and other times when you have felt like you were moving backwards. The Fathers, theologians, and saints of the Church discuss three stages, or states, of perfection in the spiritual life: the purgative way, the illuminative way, and the unitive way. Each “way” or state represents an advancement toward sanctity—perfection—and total union with God.

Here is a quick synopsis of the ways:

Purgative Way:

this is the state of beginners. In this stage it is often difficult to overcome daily temptations, and practicing the virtues can require an inner battle because of attachment to venial sin. Though the desire for perfection and progress is there, the beginner falls frequently. If a beginner concerns himself seriously with repenting of his sins and has an actionable desire to stop offending God, he may eventually move to the Illuminative Way.

Illuminative Way:

this is the intermediary stage between purification and total union with God. In this stage, there is enlightenment in the ways of God and a clear understanding of his will in one’s life. There are now only occasional “slips” into sin.

Unitive Way:

this is the final stage of Christian perfection. A soul in the unitive state has a constant awareness of God’s presence and habitually conforms to God’s will. In this stage, the soul loves God and others without limit.


These three levels are not necessarily static or chronological. During our lives, we may experience tastes of each of the stages in greater or lesser degree as we grow in holiness or experience setbacks.

Now, what’s the point of all this? CONVERSION. 

Conversion is a process. Everyone is called to ongoing conversion. St. Bernard once said that no matter how sinful one might have been in the past, he is stilled called to the heights of prayer—to the depths of the riches of the spiritual life.

Conversion isn’t just about avoiding sins. It is also about making improvements—growing in the virtues of humility, temperance, zeal, love, and so on. This site is meant to help you in the process of conversion. For you to grow in holiness and be a saint, you don’t need to do extraordinary things. You need only to focus on continuous conversion, the nitty-gritty practice of daily avoiding sins, growing in virtue, being fervent in prayer, and growing in intimacy with the God who loves you.