I have known about this book for years, practically since my first conversion experiences. Only recently have I read it. I could have profited from this book at any time! It’s a great little book.
The Three Conversions in the Spiritual Life by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange OP (1877–1964) is a short book that summarizes and synthesizes the spiritual teaching of two Doctors of the Church: Saint Catherine of Siena and Saint John of the Cross. The focus is on the “conversions” between different stages of our spiritual life. What is meant by a “conversion”? Father Garrigou-Lagrange simply means that we pass from one very different stage of life to another. Our life “turns around” and “turns back to God” more and more with each conversion.
- Due to original sin, barring a miracle, one begins life “outside the fold” of grace, so to speak.
- Then (1) we are converted to God by grace (for example, Baptism or our first free act decision that chooses love). We are “beginners”; we walk on the “purgative way”. We make steps. We love God more than anything else, but we still love other things in such a way that they do actually get in the way. But, even so, we don’t fall into mortal sin. We love God, despite all our imperfections.
- Because we are made to love God fully, God does not want us to remain “beginners” in the spiritual life. He wants us to be cleaned up. Since we are made up of body and spirit, that means we need to be cleaned in both our senses and our spirit (especially, will). The next “conversion” is that of the senses. The (2) dark night of the senses dries up our reliance on images and sensations. Then we become “proficients” on the “illuminative way” that has glimpses of contemplative union.
- Again, that’s not enough for a jealous God. He is far too jealous of our mind! He’s jealous, but our spirit is still our own and not entirely God’s. So God sends the next dark night, that of the spirit (3). This conversion opens the door to the “unitive way” in which God is enjoyed nearly continuously (consciously or unconsciously).
That’s three conversions. It’s also three ways to live the Christian life. The exposition follows John of the Cross’s dark nights using examples that Catherine of Siena drew from the lives of the apostles:
- They converted to beginners as Jesus called and taught them.
- They were needing conversion because they were able to run away; this second conversion began for Peter when Jesus looked at him (Lk 22:61–62) and for “the disciple whom Jesus loved” when he lost Jesus’ physical presence at Calvary (Jn 19:25–27).
- They were needing another burst of energy to take their will in every respect; this came at Pentecost.
Two Doctors of the Church feature prominently in Father Garrigou-Lagrange’s simple book. Two Doctors! Yet the book is intended for “beginners” to read so that everyone has an idea of what the spiritual life looks like, in broad strokes, even if individual cases result in slower stories, stories with more action and less contemplation, and so on. The journey is always unique. Each life is unique. Each story is unique. However, the broad strokes remain the same because, as this book points out repeatedly, the structure of the “dark nights” or “conversions” is based on the nature of grace and the nature of human beings (body and soul). It’s just a matter of spiritual “logic”.
I recommend this book for anyone who wants an idea of what the spiritual life looked like for the Apostles and what it always looks like according to two Doctors of the Church (who, despite their great differences in temperament and charism, are in agreement with one another).