The Unplanned Journey
Seeking holiness through interruptions, disruptions, and poop flies
Hi. I’m Emily. Welcome to my Substack, where I write about Jesus, the Catholic Church, and the life of faith. I’ve been writing about the faith as my job for 20 years now. In those 20 years, I’ve written dozens of books, textbooks, Bible studies, and Church document studies, along with hundreds of essays, articles, and blog posts. Now, while I’m raising my babies (ages 4, 2, and 2), I write here. What you’re about to read is normally behind a paywall, but this week, as I celebrate my 48th birthday, I’m unlocking some of my favorite essays to share with everyone. I would love it if you joined me here. For the cost of one fancy cup of coffee a month, you’ll be underwriting monthly essays like this one, as well as my weekly free newsletters, which are packed with reflections on Church documents and practical catechesis. If you love this essay, but $6 a month isn’t in your budget, then please join me as a free subscriber and consider sharing this post on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter (or just emailing it to some friends). And if nothing else, say a prayer for me—for sleep, for energy, for patience, and for my heart. God bless you for being here.
I bought a Monk Manual last week. One of our babysitters had bought the planning system a few weeks earlier, and after thumbing through hers, I decided to give it a try. Its promise of helping me plan my days, weeks, and life with greater purpose suckered me in, and for a grand total of 24 hours, visions of a more ordered, more productive life danced in my head.
Then, I went down to my basement to grab some meat from the deep freezer.
On my way back upstairs, I noticed a few gnat like bugs near where we’d had a massive flood of sewage just two months earlier. It seemed an odd time of year for gnats to appear, so I grabbed my phone and started Googling. I didn’t like the answers I found. Everything seemed to suggest that what we had were not gnats, but phorid flies, which breed in sewage and rotting organic material. They also breed rapidly and are nearly impossible to eradicate if they’re breeding in soil under concrete…which ours seemed to be.
Sure enough, by the weekend, a few dozen flies had multiplied to a few hundred. By this past Tuesday night, a few hundred flies had multiplied to a few thousand. And now, on Friday morning, as I prepare to send this newsletter off, their numbers are in the tens of thousands.
Accordingly, over the past few days, all other plans have been cancelled, changed, or forgotten, as Chris and have I tried to control the plague in our basement, find experts to deal with it, and wrap our heads around the exorbitant costs we’ll face if we have to remove and replace the dirt underneath our basement slab.
Somewhere in there, the Monk Manual arrived. It’s still sitting in a box, unopened, in our bedroom.
Stages on the Journey
Decades ago, when I began studying theology, I fell in love with the Church’s teachings on spiritual maturation. Fleshed out by giants such as Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross, these teachings divide man’s journey to God into three stages: the Purgative Way, the Illuminative Way, and the Unitive Way. Those three stages, in turn, have stages of their own.
In the Purgative Way, we come to belief in Christ, turn away from sin, and start living according to the moral law. Prayer and piety then start to become habits. And, at the end of this stage, we pass through the Dark Night of the Senses. In this first Dark Night, God purifies us of our attachments to the things of the world—physical comfort, physical pleasure, material success, and popular acclaim. Sorrows afflict us and things which used to comfort us—food, sex, shopping, compliments, even the Liturgy—no longer do.
It's this Dark Night of the Senses which prepares us to enter the Illuminative Way, where we continue to grow in prayer, virtue, and love of neighbor; surrender our life more fully to Christ; and even occasionally have mystical experiences in prayer.
The Illuminative Way then comes to an end with the Dark Night of the Soul. During this second type of Dark Night, God roots out our deepest attachments to sin and self. The desolation that accompanies that rooting is overwhelming and crushing. More than just a lack of consolation, this Dark Night plunges our soul into an abyss of darkness and nothingness, essentially revealing to us what we are without God and preparing us to not only carry our crosses, but to love our crosses and carry them joyfully in union with Christ.
Finally, the Dark Night of the Soul passes, and we enter the Unitive Way, where we’re first spiritually betrothed, then spiritually married to Christ. Described as a state of deep, habitual union with God, where His presence is always palpable, this last stage is characterized by abiding joy, freedom, humility, and love, along with intense mystical prayer.
On paper, when I first read about all this, it looked so neat and tidy, showing a clear linear progression from sinner to saint. And I loved it. It was like a roadmap for holiness, and I was eager to start following that road map with purpose, intention, and discipline, certain I could make quick progress.
Oh, silly Emily. Silly, young, prideful Emily. How could I get it so wrong?