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These do not refer to the profession or state of life of a Christian, but a classification of the degrees or stages of Christian perfection, or the advancement of souls in the supernatural life of grace during their sojourn in the world.
The purgative way is the way, or state, of those who are beginners, that is, those who have obtained justification, but have not their passions and evil inclinations in such a state of subjugation that they can easily overcome temptations, and who, in order to preserve and exercise charity and the other virtues have to keep up a continual warfare within themselves. It is so called because the chief concern of the soul in this state is to resist and to overcome the passions by nourishing, strengthening, and cherishing the virtue of charity.
This state, although, in one sense, it is imperfect, in another sense may be called a state of perfection, because the soul remains united to God by grace and charity so long as it is free from the stain of mortal sin. Purity of soul may be said to be the proper end of the purgative way.
The illuminative way is that of those who are in the state of progress and have their passions better under control, so that they easily keep themselves from mortal sin, but who do not so easily avoid venial sins, because they still take pleasure in earthly things and allow their minds to be distracted by various imaginations and their hearts with numberless desires, though not in matters that are strictly unlawful. It is called the illuminative way, because in it the mind becomes more and more enlightened as to spiritual things and the practice of virtue.
The unitive way is the way of those who are in the state of the perfect, that is, those who have their minds so drawn away from all temporal things that they enjoy great peace, who are neither agitated by various desires nor moved by any great extent by passion, and who have their minds chiefly fixed on God and their attention turned, either always or very frequently, to Him. They have gone through and come out of the Dark Night. It is the union with God by love and the actual experience and exercise of that love
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