Spiritual Reflection: The Three Ways of Illumination, Purgation and Mysticism

I don’t think there are only three ways in spirituality.  But sometimes it’s helpful to think thematically, and so the theme of this post is “The Three Ways”, and these ways are:

  1. Illumination
  2. Purgation
  3. Mysticism

I don’t think we go through these stages necessarily in this order.  Sometimes we might experience more than one simultaneously.  And we might enter the cycle at any starting point.

But I do think these three ways help to shed some light on the spiritual journey


This is about realisations and understandings.  Some people have a major “epiphany” or revelation.  For others, it is a more gradual process of dawning realisations.

Kataphatic theology, which accompanies this way, is about positive statements about the divine.  So you might have a deepened sense that “God is love” or “God is light”.  That would be a kind of illumination, a growth in revelation and an understanding of kataphatic theology.


This is about turning away from something damaging, or giving something up.  Another term is “ascesis”, or “asceticism” – the use of specific practices to develop spiritual self-discipline.  Some people give up over-eating, or over-dependence on technology, or lack of physical activity, for example.

Apophatic theology, which seems to complement this way, is about negative statements about God, because God always defies definition.  God is never “love” only in the way we understand human love – he must be more than this.  God is never “light” only in the literal and metaphorical way we understand light – his light  must be more.  Apophatic theology avoids simplistic thinking which can lead us into erroneous chains of thinking.


Mysticism can be understood as a kind of combination of both illumination and purgation.  God both is what we think, and is not what we think – and this leads us into receiving truth more by contemplation than by mere reason.  Meditation both illuminates and reminds us that our concepts fall far short of the divine reality.

Silence, or the use of a short prayer or word, repetitively, can be a way into mysticism, as defined here.  So can the ancient practice of lectio divina.


Illumination, purgation and mysticism can all help us in our spiritual way. Each offers something distinctive. In my experience, I have found one tends to predominate more at different times, and perhaps a mature spirituality uses all three in some kind of balance or tension.

I hope you may have found something in this post to help you in your own spiritual way.

2 thoughts on “Spiritual Reflection: The Three Ways of Illumination, Purgation and Mysticism

  1. Very fine, especially your thoughts on Illumination and Purgation. Mysticism is the most difficult to write about, even though more people talk about mysticism than about illumination or purgation. I’m glad you resisted the temptation to define mysticism in more detail. I haven’t been reading your blog or any blog for several months and I’m glad to return to your wonderful ways of expressing truth and reality.


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