What is the Threefold Way?
Uncovering the beginning, middle, and end of our spiritual transformation
One of the reasons I like the Threefold Way so much is because it’s one of the simplest ways to speak about how inner transformation unfolds.
There is a beginning, a middle, and end.
The Beginning: Purgation
Our journey begins with the Purgative Way, the introductory season of our transformation, when our journey is new and exciting, but also hard and challenging. It’s charged with conflict — “Why can’t we do what we want to do (Rom 7:15)!?”
Our Christian ancestors tell us that purgation is a period of purification and renewal, the stage where we begin our break from the prison of self-centeredness into the freedom of other-centeredness. Training with spiritual practices, learning to resist temptation, and endure affliction are the major contours of this way.
It’s often likened to the childhood stage of human development, where we’re working to learn trust, gain basic skills, and take initiative for our developing life.
Scripturally, it’s the stripping of the sins that so easily entangle us (Heb 12:1). It’s being purged with hyssop, and made whiter than snow (Ps 51:7). It’s being pruned to bear more fruit (Jn 15:2).
The Middle: Illumination
The Illuminative way is the middle stage, the springtime of our transformation, that vigorous period when branches broaden, sprigs shoot, and pansies push through the earth. It’s the season where death gives way to life, vitality, and growth. In other words, our transformation becomes visible, progress is pronounced, but more is needed.
Encounters with God’s beauty, truth, and goodness are the hallmarks of this stage, forming a kind of bridge that carries us from the Purgative to the Unitive way.
Like adolescence, the Illuminative stage puts us in a kind of in-between state, longing for a fuller freedom, aching for our Christ-self to mature within us.
Scripturally, illumination is about becoming light in the Lord (Eph 5:8). It’s about overcoming evil with good (Rom 12:21). It’s about developing the mind of Christ (Phil 2:5).
Entering the Illuminative way doesn’t mean we leave purgation behind, though. The Purgative and Illuminative ways are intimately linked:
- Emptying prepares us for filling
- Burning prepares us for shining
- Pruning prepares us for growing
Purgation and illumination go together. Truth be told, all the stages do.
We may find ourselves in the Purgative way, and experience profound moments of illumination and union. Or we may find ourselves in the Unitive way and feel experiences of purgation and illumination. In this way, all the stages can be active within us at any given time. There’s always a back and forth rhythm — and yet — over the long arc of our lives, each unfolds sequentially, like a baby becomes a boy, and then a boy becomes a man.
The End: Union
The Unitive way is our transformational destiny, the culmination of the twofold dynamic of purgation and illumination. Finally, we reach a transformational tipping point, a moment when all those small, incremental conversions become substantial enough to cause a thorough and more significant change. Here we experience the hope of the Christian vision, where all of the dividedness within ourselves and all the alienation we experience from others is drawn into a divine unity. Saints speak of:
- their will becoming united with God’s will
- their heart melting into God’s heart
- their consciousness becoming wonderfully other-centered instead of self-centered
Scripturally, union is about becoming one with God, just as the Father and the Son are one (Jn 17:20-21). It’s about seeing God, because we’ve become like him (1 Jn 3:2). And it’s about becoming perfect, just as our heavenly Father is perfect (Mt 5:48).
Now, It’s Our Turn
The Threefold journey has been made again-and-again by countless Christian pilgrims, known and unknown. They’ve formed it for us, with their own feet.
Now, it’s our turn.
They can’t make the journey for us, but we can benefit from their experience and wisdom, from their lives that shined with a light beyond themselves.
What follows in these Substack pages are the arc of that journey, a map of spiritual country, transformational terrain. My hope is that as you read what’s here, you will uncover a fresh understanding of the Christian path, discovering the major experiences we all face along the way.
Thanks for reading The Inward Odyssey from Jonathan R. Bailey. Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.