If a person is already Christian, traditionally Christian baptised from a very young age, and hears Jesus’ Call to follow Him closely, this turning point is called “second conversion”. It is called “second” because the person is already Christian. It is about having a living relationship with Jesus and growing in His love. The second conversion starts a new journey of growth until one achieves total union with Jesus. To reach that goal one goes through various levels of purification, transformation and liberation. For a variety of reasons the majority of Christians do not reach that goal. This is a pity.
Is it the only turning point in our life? No. There are others. Every junction between the different stages of purification is also a turning point. The purification of the senses – the inferior part of our being – senses, body, instincts, addictions is the first purification we face right after our second conversion. This can last for a while – a year or two, or sometimes an entire life. Here, our initial sensory attachments are purified and we start to taste the spiritual “milk” that the Lord gives us. So prayer has a taste, doing things for the Lord give us consolations. Our life changes, we start to have new habits, our daily schedule changes allowing us space for prayer and for serving the Lord and our brothers.
If the person is fervent and with good spiritual steady growth, he or she will reach a point of a first great liberation, where he or she will experience greater control from the superior part of our being (more rational/spiritual) over the inferior part. One can experience an exhilarating liberation from an addiction as well.
Sometime after that newly experienced freedom and possession of self, if the person remain fervent and if some external helps/means are available (books, spiritual directors who know about the coming phase) God might then consider that the person moves from the spiritual “milk” to the “solid food”. Instead of lowering himself to our level, the Lord wants now to lift us up to Him and to his ways of being and doing things. The New Man should develop drastically, and automatically drops the Old Man.
After firmly biting the bait, the fish is now about to be lifted outside of its waters in order to be put on the fire, grilled, and eaten by the Lord (Union with Him).
Before entering in this deeper stage (see area 3 in the drawing), the Lord makes us go through an intermediate phase (area 2). This phase has at least three types of trials, described by St John of the Cross in chapter 14 of The Dark Night, Book 1. It is the turn of the imagination and the inner senses. The Lord allows the person to be put under a trial, in order for him or her to strengthen the new “muscles” of the New Man: the act of faith (learning to focus beyond what is felt, seen, experienced, on Jesus himself). The person learns not to surrender to indecent images, or immoral feelings or blasphemies or some form of scruple.
Any trial or temptation is like a test, a training that God provides for us. They might come from some types of bad spirits (the devil), but all is happening under the command and governance of God. “Everything contributes to the good of the persons who love God” (Romans 8:28). If somebody loves God this means that he or she is totally committed to Jesus and faithful to him on a daily basis. This means that anything that happens in his or her life, including what interests us here: his or her life of prayer, happens either because God wants it or because God allows it for our own good.
These trials are not negative. They just offer some strong medicine to give us resistance so we start to train the muscles of the New Man in order to counter the negative impulses and therefore grow and draw closer to Jesus.
St John of the Cross, in that same chapter 14 of The Dark Night Book 1, mentions three different spirits who tempt the person and put him or her under a trial: a spirit of fornication (with all the filthy and unbearable imagery that comes with it), the spirit of blasphemy (with all the sufferings that one can feel because of the desire not to offend God) and the spirit of vertigo… a sort of hesitation, spiritual unsettlement which I would call a form of scruple.
In the drawings below we have the following:
In dark red (a dot): God himself at the centre of our being.
In clear red (area 4): the area of the Union with Jesus, what St Teresa of Avila calls as well the Seven Mansions.
In grey (area 3): the rational part of our Soul: conscious mind, will and memory.
In clear orange (area 2): the imagination and the inner senses, and as well somehow our emotions.
In clear green (area 1): the sense (lower part of our being/body).
The first drawing illustrates (with the white path marked in area 1) the first phase of purification.
When the time is right, the person is introduced to the second phase: circles in red. The white trace of the journey of the person grows into area 2 (see the following diagram).
When the three horrible temptations happen, one has to stay still…in Faith, focusing on Jesus, beyond what is felt and experienced. It is very important not to be shaken by any of these three temptations. They are like watching a horrible movie in the cinema. The movie is projected on a wide white screen, just some light hitting a piece of white fabric. So if anything happens in the movie, even if it seems to impress us, it is not coming from us, so, there is no sin. We need to remain still, knowing that God is here… and sees that we are not part of that, that we don’t want it. We focus on Jesus, and not on what we feel or sense.
These trials says Saint John of the Cross prepare us for the next phase, humbling us.
Of course good spiritual direction is much needed here, but hopefully the Spiritual Director knows about the spirit, has discernment and know about the development that follows so he can explain and reassure the person. The Catechism of the Catholic Church warns us about the choice of a Spiritual Director, quoting St John of the Cross:
“According to St. John of the Cross, the person wishing to advance toward perfection should “take care into whose hands he entrusts himself, for as the master is, so will the disciple be, and as the father is so will be the son.” And further: “In addition to being learned and discreet a director should be experienced. . . . If the spiritual director has no experience of the spiritual life, he will be incapable of leading into it the souls whom God is calling to it, and he will not even understand them.” (C.C.C.2690)
So, when a spiritual person experiences such things he or she will need to be reassured and helped. Otherwise the sufferings are unbearable because of the clearly evil character of what is happening inside of the person.
God want us to stay still, remain stable and rooted in him, and above all to allow our faith to grow stronger, by renewing the acts of faith, focusing not on what we feel or experience internally, but on Jesus who is beyond our inner senses and imagination.
Here is the text of St John of the Cross:
Expounds this last line of the first stanza.
1. WHEN this house of sensuality was now at rest—that is, was mortified—its passions being quenched and its desires put to rest and lulled to sleep by means of this blessed night of the purgation of sense, the soul went forth, to set out upon the road and way of the spirit, which is that of progressives and proficients, and which, by another name, is called the way of illumination or of infused contemplation, wherein God Himself feeds and refreshes the soul, without meditation, or the soul’s active help. Such, as we have said, is the night and purgation of sense in the soul. In those who have afterwards to enter the other and more formidable night of the spirit, in order to pass to the Divine union of love of God (for not all pass habitually thereto, but only the smallest number), it is wont to be accompanied by formidable trials and temptations of sense, which last for a long time, albeit longer in some than in others. For to some the angel of Satan presents himself—namely, the spirit of fornication—that he may buffet their senses with abominable and violent temptations, and trouble their spirits with vile considerations and representations which are most visible to the imagination, which things at times are a greater affliction to them than death.
2. At other times in this night there is added to these things the spirit of blasphemy, which roams abroad, setting in the path of all the conceptions and thoughts of the soul intolerable blasphemies. These it sometimes suggests to the imagination with such violence that the soul almost utters them, which is a grave torment to it.
3. At other times another abominable spirit, which Isaias calls Spiritus vertiginis [The ‘spirit of giddiness’ of D.V., and ‘perverse spirit’ of A.V., Isaias 19:14.], is allowed to molest them, not in order that they may fall, but that it may try them. This spirit darkens their senses in such a way that it fills them with numerous scruples and perplexities, so confusing that, as they judge, they can never, by any means, be satisfied concerning them, neither can they find any help for their judgment in counsel or thought. This is one of the severest goads and horrors of this night, very closely akin to that which passes in the night of the spirit.
4. As a rule these storms and trials are sent by God in this night and purgation of sense to those whom afterwards He purposes to lead into the other night (though not all reach it), to the end that, when they have been chastened and buffeted, they may in this way continually exercise and prepare themselves, and continually accustom their senses and faculties to the union of wisdom which is to be bestowed upon them in that other night. For, if the soul be not tempted, exercised and proved with trials and temptations, it cannot quicken its sense of Wisdom. For this reason it is said in Ecclesiasticus: ‘He that has not been tempted, what does he know? And he that has not been proved, what are the things that he recognizes?’ [Ecclesiasticus 34:9-10] To this truth Jeremiah bears good witness, saying: ‘Thou didst chastise me, Lord, and I was instructed.’ [Jeremiah 31:18.] And the most proper form of this chastisement, for one who will enter into Wisdom, is that of the interior trials which we are here describing, inasmuch as it is these which most effectively purge sense of all favours and consolations to which it was affected, with natural weakness, and by which the soul is truly humiliated in preparation for the exaltation which it is to experience.
5. For how long a time the soul will be held in this fasting and penance of sense, cannot be said with any certainty; for all do not experience it after one manner, neither do all encounter the same temptations. For this is meted out by the will of God, in conformity with the greater or the smaller degree of imperfection which each soul has to purge away. In conformity, likewise, with the degree of love of union to which God is pleased to raise it, He will humble it with greater or less intensity or in greater or less time. Those who have the disposition and greater strength to suffer, He purges with greater intensity and more quickly. But those who are very weak are kept for a long time in this night, and these He purges very gently and with slight temptations. Habitually, too, He gives them refreshments of sense so that they may not fall away, and only after a long time do they attain to purity of perfection in this life, some of them never attaining to it at all. Such are neither properly in the night nor properly out of it; for, although they make no progress, yet, in order that they may continue in humility and self-knowledge, God exercises them for certain periods and at certain times [Lit., ‘for certain days.’] in those temptations and aridities; and at other times and seasons He assists them with consolations, lest they should grow faint and return to seek the consolations of the world. Other souls, which are weaker, God Himself accompanies, now appearing to them, now moving farther away, that He may exercise them in His love; for without such turnings away they would not learn to reach God.
6. But the souls which are to pass on to that happy and high estate, the union of love, are wont as a rule to remain for a long time in these aridities and temptations, however quickly God may lead them, as has been seen by experience. It is time, then, to begin to treat of the second night.” (Dark Night, Book I, chapter 14)