“How shall I know this?” asks the old priest Zechariah (Lk. 1:18). “How shall this be?” asks Mary, chosen to be Virgin Mother of God (Lk. 1:34). “How does this happen to me?” asks Elizabeth, awestruck at Mary’s arrival on her doorstep (Lk. 1:43). Within the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel, three different people ask three similar questions. And yet, their very similarity reveals significant variation in attitude.

These questions correlate with what spiritual masters traditionally term the purgative, illuminative, and unitive “ways,” three stages in the Christian life. In the purgative way, God purifies or “purges” a soul of attachment to sin. The person struggles daily to overcome temptation and cultivate virtue. We can designate a soul traversing this stage a “beginner” or, likening spiritual life to biological life, a “child.

”The Zechariah of “How shall I know this?” aptly represents the purgative way. An archangel informs him that his elderly, barren wife will bear a son. “Prove it,” he responds with brazen skepticism. Someone who lacks familiarity with God’s goodness also lacks trust. After nine months of silent suffering, Zechariah welcomes his son’s birth with praise of God so jubilant it trumpets the transformation God has worked in him.

In the second “way,” termed “illuminative,” the soul is now “proficient”: since tumbles into sin — tumbles out of friendship with God — have become rare, God can begin to illumine it, speaking to it through the sweet touch of His inspiration. This is spiritual “adolescence.

”Although Mary was, clearly, more than a spiritual adolescent, we can nevertheless use her query of the Archangel Gabriel as a helpful guide to the second “way.

” “How shall this be?” is a practical question. Unlike Zechariah, Mary assumes that God’s designs will be accomplished and asks how to serve. Pragmatic dialogue characterizes the illuminative way: What is God’s will, and how can I carry it out?Finally, Elizabeth’s “How does this happen to me?” is less a question than an expression of humble and grateful wonder. In the unitive way, or spiritual “adulthood,” the soul attains an unceasing awareness of God’s presence and an intuitive understanding of His will. It lives attuned to God as an old couple live attuned to one another, with a love so effortless it flows between them invisible to an onlooker.

The point of this schema is not to encourage you to self-diagnose your level of spiritual maturity. Firstly, you are likely the person most ill-equipped to do so. Second, the stages are not cut-and-dried. A soul may experience some of the union with God typical of the illuminative way while still struggling with a specific vice in the manner of a beginner.

The study of the three ways should rather remind us that Christian life is a progression. Just as no one remains a child or an adolescent, so too, in the Christian life, we must ever seek a more mature relationship with our Father. We are called to intimate, blissful union with Him, not just in heaven but also in this life.

Sr. Maria Veritas Marks is a member of the Ann Arbor-based Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.