The four stages of loving

This is the second article in a two-part series on spiritual friendship and direction. The first article can be found in last week’s issue.

St. Francis de Sales offers guidance for assessing growth in our relationships with God and neighbor. To these relationships he assigns four stages of loving. Examining these stages and their progression can help us to stay focused on our call to serve God and to serve our neighbor as we traverse our busy world.

‘Little virtues’

The spirituality developed by St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal is found in the former’s religious classic, “The Introduction to the Devout Life” (1609). His teachings rest on living one’s vocation in the present moment. He encourages us to practice the “little virtues” of daily life: gentleness and patience with self and others; humility before God and in service to your neighbor; small daily acts of mercy and charity toward others; gratitude for our blessings, etc.

Salesian mysticism is rooted in the present moment. “In short, prayer and mystical theology are simply a conversation in which the soul lovingly speaks with God concerning his most loving goodness so as to be united and joined to that goodness.” Our love expresses itself in prayer and acts of mercy; it is grounded in practice.

Salesian mysticism is a way of life. In the “Treatise on the Love of God” (1616), St. Francis de Sales, drawing on the mystical tradition, his own experience and that of St. Jane de Chantal and the early Visitation sisters, offers reflections on the stages of spiritual life. To these he assigns four stages of loving.

St. Francis de Sales sometimes uses the classic image of Jacob’s ladder from the Book of Genesis in describing the stages, but I prefer to speak of the spiritual journey as a spiral staircase. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we grow in love almost imperceptibly. We are dealing with the same characteristic sins and virtues over and over but in different ways in the different phases of our lives. The Spirit guides us upward and aids us if we tumble backward.

First stage of loving

The first stage of loving is that of conversion to Christ. It is the stage of beginners, although in some ways it applies to us all. De Sales describes those in the first stage this way: “Among them are those who are newly delivered from their sins and firmly resolved to love God. ... They truly love God’s sweetness but with such a mingling of so many different affections that their sacred love is still in its infancy.”

In the first stage we begin to embrace a new way of thinking and of acting. We need to give up our habitual way of thinking and our interior conversation about life and embrace more constructive practices. We are called to do good daily and not just think about doing it.

We know from contemporary neurobiology that, on the physical level, it takes quite some time for old habits to fade and for new ones to take their place. However, our whole being — thoughts, actions, even neurons — eventually can be transformed through conversion.

St. Francis de Sales stresses the depth of this transformation. We are to give up our “affection for sin,” not just the sin itself. This can take time as our emotional life can be difficult to redirect.

I realized many years ago that following Christ involves giving everything to God, responding to the Holy Spirit in all matters. As a young person, I did not realize the full implications of this deeper conversion. It is a lifetime of growing in loving and turning things over to God. Some days, I still feel like a beginner.

Fortunately, we do not go alone. We are part of a community of Christians that, however slowly and inadequately, seeks to follow Christ. Our spiritual friends are helpful members of this community of believers that accompany us on our journey of lifelong conversion.

Pope St. John Paul II, in his 1995 ecumenical encyclical Ut Unum Sint (“That they may be one”), speaks of this essential ongoing conversion. He says in particular:

“Each one therefore ought to be more radically converted to the Gospel and ... change his or her way of looking at things. Thanks to ecumenism, our contemplation of ‘the mighty works of God’ (mirabilia Dei) has been enriched by new horizons. ... In a corresponding way, there is an increased sense of the need for repentance: an awareness of certain exclusions which seriously harm fraternal charity, of certain refusals to forgive ... of a disdain born of an unhealthy presumption” (No. 15).

Second stage of loving

As we move forward on the spiritual journey of prayer and repentance, we begin to realize that our loves are not in balance. St. Francis de Sales speaks of the second stage of loving. At this stage:

“[T]here are also souls who have progressed to some extent in the love of God and have cut away whatever love they have for dangerous things but still entertain dangerous and superfluous loves. This is because they cherish in an excessive way and with too tender and passionate a love something that God wishes them to love.”

We love some things too much and others not enough. We may be too concerned with possessions, success, power, reputation, health or other things. These are important but can be overemphasized. The point here is to begin to love all things in and for God.

Third stage of loving

In the third stage of loving, “There are other souls who love neither things superfluous nor with superfluity but love only that which God wills and as God wills. Blessed are such souls, for they love God, their friends in God and their enemies for God. They love many things together with God, but none of them unless in God and for God.”

Here the person becomes more aware of the divine presence in ordinary things and events. These could include the smile of a child or the good deed done by a neighbor. Likewise, a person becomes more aware of the inner inspirations of the Spirit and a strong commitment to discerning God’s will.

Fourth stage of loving

Finally, there is the soul “who not only loves God above all things and in all things, but loves only God in all things, so that she loves not many things but one thing alone which is God himself.”

This stage is rare, and St. Francis de Sales believed it was only attained fully by Mary, the mother of Jesus. When I first read this description years ago, I understood the words but not the deep meaning. I have discovered that, occasionally, we get glimpses of this fourth stage of loving God completely. Through the years, spiritual friends have shared their glimpses with me and I with them.

Together for Christ

Through the grace of the Spirit, we pass from one stage to the next. The stages are not discrete but blend one into the next. In specific moments, we can be falling back and at others receive a foretaste of deeper love. The journey is dynamic, with our faith always moving backward or forward.

The Spirit is at work in our daily lives. Sometimes we miss the signals; sometimes we perceive them clearly!

We are reminded that the spiritual journey was never meant to be one taken alone; we must accompany one another on the path toward Christian unity. We come to maturity in loving and thus in readiness for unity together. We are a community, not just individuals. Our friendships in the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of love, are key to spiritual growth.

Father John Crossin is an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales. He writes from Washington, D.C.