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The Three Stages of Awakening


The clearest illustration of the nature of the spiritual journey to God is found in the development of relations between Jesus and his followers.

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The Three Stages of Awakening

  Questions about the journey of salvation

  Christ's admonition

  Protestant and Catholic views of the journey

  In this life we see only reflections of God

  A study of Christ shows three mirrors of God in this life

  The journey of the disciples illuminates our journey


We have seen thus far that the journey of salvation is not a journey in space. It is rather a journey of internal change. Change is effected in us when we become, through Christ, awakened to God's presence and love for us. Our conclusions raise a number of questions that must be addressed:

  • Can the awakening to God's presence be instantaneous?

  • Can the journey be concluded in this life?

  • Does the journey come to an end at death?

  • Are there different stages in the awakening process?

  • Why must one die to see God face to face?

  • What is the face to face encounter with God like?

Let us turn to Saint Paul for further insight into the soul's journey to God. Saint Paul has some good news for us about this journey, and some news that is seemingly not so good. Regarding the latter he tells us that in this life no one sees God face to face.[1]

He means that the end of the journey of salvation is not arrived at until after death. Further, Saint Paul teaches that the journey involves a lifetime of struggle, continuing up to and including death itself. With "fear and trembling"[2] we must work out our salvation. The runner in the race who perseveres to the end of the race will win the imperishable crown.[3]

When a young man approached Jesus with the question, "How can I achieve union with God?"[4] Jesus could have answered him as he did the good thief on the cross. He could have promised "today you will be with me in Paradise."[5] Jesus' response, however, was quite different. He said to the young man, "You lack one thing; go sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me."[6]

The young man was seeking instantaneous union with God. This is a natural desire. Nothing is more natural than our desire for quick and easy solutions, answers right here and now. But Jesus' response is, as it was to the young man, to embark on a long struggle. A struggle that must continue to the end of life itself.

Catholic faith is decidedly different from the understanding of the born-again Christian who here and now experiences the certitude of his salvation. According to one Protestant view, the experience of a certitude of salvation is the surest sign that one has completely surrendered his life to God. The absence of such certitude of salvation is the sure sign that one has not yet experienced the saving embrace of Christ's love. This view answers an intense natural desire. Therefore, it exercises a powerful attraction on everyone who hears it.

The Catholic's faith expresses no doubts about Christ's triumph over sin and death, and no doubt that his victory makes salvation available to all who turn to him. The effectiveness of Christ's triumph is not in question. At the same time, we must be conscious of the reality of our freedom and the very real possibility that we can say "no" to Christ. Think of what Saint Paul tells us: "For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do."[7] The doubts experienced by Catholics do not relate to Christ, but to human vacillation and weakness of will. Like Saint Paul, we must turn to Christ with supreme confidence in him, but always aware of our weaknesses as we live out our life in "fear and trembling."

The desire for assurance of instant salvation is natural and understandable. But there is a danger in such assurance. It can be an excuse to avoid taking up the cross, the lifelong struggle, that Christ invites us to carry.

It is the sin of presumption to affirm that salvation will be ours irrespective of the way we exercise God's gift of freedom. Christ comes not to render this freedom irrelevant, but to transform it by gradually taking possession of our hearts. We keep returning to the admonition of Jesus that the kingdom of heaven is like a woman giving birth to a baby, with the travail and struggle inherent in the process.[8] Jesus does not offer a quick and easy end to the struggle.

The good news from Saint Paul is that, although no one sees God face to face in this life, we are able to see him obscurely, as "in a mirror dimly."[9] In this life, we cannot see God's face, but we can see reflections of his presence.

The journey of spiritual awakening to God's loving presence in this life entails a daily contemplation of his reflections. The mirrors that reflect his presence exercise a profound purification and remaking of our inner being. Our growing consciousness of the reality of these mirrors and our submission daily to their transforming power is the essential condition for our progressive awakening to the divine presence.

The clearest illustration of the nature of the spiritual journey to God is found in the development of relations between Jesus and his followers. We find an outline of the journey in the Gospels' description of Jesus' mission and the changes he effected in the lives of his disciples. We discover the different stages his followers must pass through. We are also given the clearest hints of what the face to face encounter with God will entail.

Let us use the spiritual journey of the disciples of Jesus to illuminate our journey to God. This journey Christ invites us all to undertake, with him as our guide. When we study the words and actions of Jesus in the four Gospels, we can identify, in his teaching and example, three mirrors through which he radically remolds the inner lives of his disciples.

The first mirror reflecting God's otherwise invisible presence is the mirror of nature. The lilies of the field, the birds of the air, the miracle of children reflect and make known the divine wisdom, love, beauty, and power. Jesus begins the journey by awakening his disciples to the Father's loving presence all around them. He teaches them to see the whole of creation through his eyes and to come alive to the radiance of God's presence.

The Journey to God
by Father Antoninus Wall, O.P.

After awakening in his followers a consciousness of the divine presence shining forth from the works of creation, Jesus then offers his followers a second mirror. The second mirror, in an immeasurably more wonderful way, reflects the otherwise hidden presence of the Father. The second mirror is the Christ that the disciples see and hear outside themselves.

Christ's human nature is the mirror of the divine. Jesus tells his disciples, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me."[10] Gradually, slowly the disciples awaken to the extraordinary revelation of divine wisdom, love, power, mercy, forgiveness, and joy that they are encountering in the words, actions, and being of the man they know as The Nazarene.

At this second stage of awareness, the disciples are still experiencing reflections of God's presence through mirrors outside them. As yet, they do not encounter reflections of the divine coming from within them through the maturity of Christ's presence within.

The third stage, the mirroring of the divine presence from within, we know as the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Pentecost event. Only then can the disciples say, as Saint Paul later says, "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me."[11] This insight represents the third mirror of the divine, and the third stage of the journey of coming alive to God's presence.

The three stages of awakening normally should not be understood to follow in a rigid, logical order. One stage flows into another, but all three can develop simultaneously. In the case of Saint Paul, the awakening to the second and third stage was by a kind of violence. On the way to Damascus, he was knocked to the ground: "And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank."[12] The awakening can indeed be a sudden and shattering one. Paul speaks of himself as being born to Christ "as to one untimely born" and, one might say, in an unnatural way.[13]

Still, the normal pattern of God's providential plan for our journey of salvation through Christ may be seen in the Gospels. The experiences of Jesus' disciples reflect the reality of what is involved in coming alive to God's presence.

Even with the coming of the Holy Spirit in the third stage, the followers of Christ do not yet see God face to face. They have not yet come to the end of the journey.

What must happen to remove the final barrier that shuts them off from this face-to-face encounter with the infinite love of the Father? Jesus' teaching is unequivocal. They must die. In God's plan, only death removes the final barrier.

Death, as Christ witnesses on the cross, is the doorway to heaven. Death is the doorway to salvation, the face-to-face encounter with the infinite, pure love of God. We will later examine the mysterious role that death plays in this journey, and why each of us must undergo this experience to reach our goal. We will also consider why a final purification must follow physical death to prepare most persons for their encounter with God.

Finally, we will ask what will it be like to see God face to face. What kind of experience will it be? What will be the accompaniments of this experience? Presupposing we get through that door and arrive where God, our Father, intends us to be, how will we spend our eternity?


[1]  "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face." 1 Cor 13:12.

[2] Cf. Phil 2:12.

[3] Cf. 1 Cor 9:24.

[4] Cf. Mark 10:17.

[5] Luke 23:43.

[6] Mark 10:21.

[7] Rom 7:19.

[8] Cf. John 16: 21.

[9] Cf. 1 Cor 13:12.

[10] John 14:6.

[11] Gal 2:20.

[12] Acts 9:9.

[13] Cf. 1 Cor 15:6.



Father Antoninus Wall, O.P. "The Three Stages of Awakening." Chapter 5 in The Journey to God (Antioch, CA: Solas Press, 1999): 36-42.

Reprinted by permission of Father Antoninus Wall and Solas Press.

The Author

wallrdlosmwallFather Antoninus Wall, O.P., a native of San Francisco, is the son of Irish-born parents, and the brother of the late Fr. Kevin Wall, O.P. Fr. Wall attended St. Ignatius prep in the Bay City and St. Mary's College of California. Entering the Dominican Order, he pursued his sacred studies at St. Albert's College in Oakland and the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. He was ordained in Rome in 1950.

Fr. Wall has had a career rich in pastoral and academic experiences. He has served as associate pastor in Seattle and as Professor of Theology at Immaculate Heart and Dominican College. He negotiated the entry of the Dominicans into the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and served two terms there as President of the Dominican School. He currently resides at St. Albert's Priory in Oakland, California. Father Wall is the author of The Journey to God. Father Wall may be reached by phone at 510-596-1800 or by email at

Copyright © 2010 Solas Press
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