Studies on the necessity, kinds, nature, and characteristics of purification are based generally on the doctrine of St. john of the cross. Theologians commonly turn to him in their discussion of these matters, since he provides the best analysis and synthesis within the Catholic tradition of the soul's purification.
Disorientation by Sin. The complex of virtues emanating from the grace with which the first man was adorned subjected perfectly the sensory or lower part of his soul to the directives of the spiritual or higher part, and the higher part to God. Once this order was lost through sin, the lower part tended toward its own satisfaction, heedless of the limits prescribed by reason, and the higher part tended to its own good also, without attention to the order God established. The reacquisition of grace did not free man from this inclination toward his own satisfaction. With great difficulty does he seek God's will only and allow himself to be guided always by the Holy Spirit.
Moreover, every personal sin, small or large, leaves embedded in the faculties, in its own measure, the very disorder produced by original sin and increases the strength of the inordinate tendencies, rooting them more deeply in their subject. The more embedded these tendencies are, the greater is the pain of their extirpation. The restoration of order consequently involves suffering.
The traditional analysis of this suffering and of the process by which order is restored is based on the essential principles of grace and the virtues, and the conditions these demand for their full evolution. Sin is a turning away from God and a conversion toward creatures; the remedy of grace in its full development involves a conversion toward God and a turning away from creatures. Grace, then, is a supernatural force destined to destroy the work of sin and restore to man an image of that first righteousness he possessed in the garden of Paradise.
Restoration through Purification. Purification makes one pure, cleanses one of all the disorder introduced by sin. By means of spiritual purification wrought through grace and the virtues, the forces of the soul, which ought to be employed in seeking God and His will as the last end in every action but which rebel against this supreme order, are redirected toward God and employed in what is for His greater glory alone.
The purifications of the two parts of the soul are also referred to as "nights": the "night of the senses" and the "night of the spirit." They are effected in two ways: through the soul's active efforts (active nights) and through God's special intervention (passive nights).
In the active nights, a man, assisted by grace, strives through his own diligence to uproot all his sinful and imperfect habits. This he does by an earnest endeavor to use his sense faculties (the active night of the senses) and also his spiritual faculties (the active night of the spirit) only as God desires them to be used. Obviously, this involves much privation, and just as night entails the privation of light, so the purifications are like nights for the soul.
The passive purifications or nights are wrought mainly through a purgative contemplation that is God's gift and by which the soul is deprived passively, weaned from dependence upon spiritual sweetness, and strengthened in virtue. Purgative contemplation is an infused, obscure, mystical, or general, loving knowledge of God, which has also as its partial object the soul's own miseries and nothingness. The purgative contemplation of the night of the spirit does not differ essentially from that of the night of the senses, but comprises a more abundant knowledge. Nor are the senses fully purged until the spirit is purified, since all the imperfections and all the disorders of the sensory part are rooted in the spirit.
Purgative contemplation purifies by enlightening a man concerning his own misery and nothingness. The pain of this experience is increased by the illumination received on the infinite purity and holiness of God. Such immersion in the consciousness of his own misery will deprive the person undergoing this purgation of the joy and satisfaction formerly experienced in the operations of the faculties. This impedes the actuation of these faculties and makes every other operation outside this deep awareness, in a certain manner, impossible. Thus, even though the individual will continue, in his intense charity, to tend to and serve God with every effort, he feels frustrated in his effort and abandoned by God. The feeling of being forsaken by God, considering the person's charity, is the most painful part of the sufferings of the passive nights. Moreover, because of this deep awareness of his own misery, he will not find any comfort in spiritual books, or in the counsels given by his spiritual director, or in any other creature. The soul, deprived through this contemplation of all connatural satisfaction in its operations and impeded in these operations, will gradually lose its imperfect habits, since the satisfaction found in the operation of the faculties is what sustains the imperfect habits.
The passive purification of the senses, by which they are, in a certain fashion, reformed and accommodated to the spirit, is common; the passive purification of the spirit, by which the soul is united perfectly with God through love, is rare. The time a person must spend in the passive purifications depends on the amount of imperfection and the degree of love to which God wishes to raise him. Not all theologians agree, however, that the passive purifications occasioned by purgative contemplation are necessary in order to reach perfect union with God through charity.
Signs of Purgative Contemplation. Three signs manifest whether or not a person is receiving this purgative contemplation: (1) He finds that in spite of his efforts he is unable to meditate and make use of the imagination.(2) Deprived of satisfaction and consolation in the things of God, he derives none from creatures either. (3) He ordinarily turns solicitously and with painful care toward God, thinking that he is not serving Him but falling back.
A soul undergoes passive purification not only through this purgative contemplation but also through other sufferings. Thus, for the purification of souls God may allow war, persecution, calumny, imprisonment, injustice, abuse of authority, sickness, accident, poverty, failure, scandal, ingratitude, the loss of loved ones, conflict and misunderstanding arising from differences of opinion and temperament, and even the suffering of death. The constant daily fulfillment of the duties of one's state in life demands heroic virtue, and the burden of these duties may well serve as an instrument of purification. Severe temptations, too, will often form a part of passive purification.
These passive privations demand an active, intense life of supernatural virtue. Without this life of virtue, which withdraws man from what is not God and unites him with God alone, thus subjecting the lower part of his soul to the higher, and the higher to the divine Spirit, there is no purification.
Bibliography: a. royo, The Theology of Christian Perfection, tr. j. aumann (Dubuque 1962). j. de guibert, The Theology of the Spiritual Life, tr. p. barrett (New York 1953). gabriele di santa maria maddalena, St. John of the Cross, Doctor of Divine Love, tr. by a Benedictine of Stanbrook Abbey (Westminster, Md.1946). u. barrientos, Purificación y purgatorio (Madrid 1960). philippe de la trinitÉ, Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique. Doctrine et histoire, ed. m. viller et al. (Paris 1932–) 4.1: 911–925.