His Mystical Way
spiritual life divides itself somewhat artificially into three periods of development
although no neat demarcation separates one from the other. St. Bonaventure's spiritual
classic - On the Threefold Way - describes these three stages of the soul from the
purgative through the illuminative way to the unitive way, culminating in the state of
ecstasy. All three periods are found in the spiritual development of Padre Pio. In the
experience of the mystic these purgative states are unbelievably intensified and words are
inadequate vehicles to describe the fires of purification into which he is plunged.
purgative period of Padre Pio's life may tentatively be assigned to the outset of his
religious life when he received the novice's habit in 1903. Externally, of course, this is
a testing time during which the religious community determines the fitness and aptitude of
the novice who, in his turn, makes serious trial of the life to which be believes himself
called. On another level the purgative way calls forth to the utmost the generosity of the
novice and in the case of the saints it is not uncommon during this time for such
generosity to exceed the bounds of moderation. It is the time of detachment from all sin,
a breaking with creatures to live for God alone.
know that such practices as fasting, vigils, solitude and various other mortifications
played an important part in Padre Pio's spiritual development at this time, strengthening
him in virtue and liberating his spirit from all selfishness. The Franciscan ideal makes
severe demands upon a man who would attain to union with God: natural desires, even their
first movements must be suppressed.
incident highlights the generosity of Padre Pio at this time showing the spirit of abandon
with which he entered upon his new life. Never very robust at any time it appears that the
young novice's health was undermined from the severe mortifications to which he subjected
himself. So much so that his parents on visiting him at the end of this same novitiate
year were visibly shocked by his emaciated appearance and thinking him to be very ill
wished to take him home. Another incident a few years later at Venafro gives some
indication of the sort of progress he was making. Here it is recorded that he once lived
for 21 days with no nourishment save that of the Eucharist. It is highly interesting to
observe that in later years Padre Pio was never to depart from the severe ascesis of these
early days. If anything, he greatly increased his austerities for it was regarded as
miraculous that a man could live as he lived on so little nourishment and sleep.
after the purgation of sense and with his soul strengthened by grace, fresh trials of a
more passive nature further tested the young Fra' Pio. Well known here are those strange
illnesses, the mysterious hyperthermiae (high temperatures) which came and went with
alarming suddenness; often, too, the fragile state of his health with the ever present
danger of tuberculosis meant frequent returns to his home in Pietrelcina for periods of
rest. It was on one such return that Padre Pio after his ordination first received the
illness and physical sufferings other trials of far greater torment must be undergone by
the mystic. St. John of the Cross has vividly described these under the image of
"night". After the senses have been purified in the "Night of Sense"
the mystic after some time now enters upon the most difficult of all trials - the Night of
the Spirit. There is no telling how long this lasts but spiritual authors agree that the
greater the mission of the person concerned and the higher the degree of union and
contemplation to which he is invited then so much longer are the trials and sufferings.
With Padre Pio this painful period appears to have lasted several years after his
the Night of the Spirit it is God Himself who assails the soul in order to renew it in the
image and likeness of His Son; He permits all manner of evils to befall the mystic so that
the man feels himself completely abandoned, cast off from God, victim of the devil, and
subject to every kind of temptation and bitterness. This should not be surprising, says
St. John of the Cross, considering the high station of contemplation to which the mystic
is being called.
can gather some faint idea of what God was working in the depths of Padre Pio's soul from
the letters of this period. Speaking of his own sinfulness and wretchedness he says:
"How difficult, Father, is the way of Christian perfection for a soul so ill-disposed
as mine. My badness makes me fearful at every step I take" (4.7.1915). In this state
of soul God often withdraws his presence for long periods and the sufferer can even
believe himself lost: "Peace has been completely banished from my heart. I have
become absolutely blind. I find myself enveloped in a profound night and no matter how I
turn and toss I cannot find the light. How then can I walk before the Lord ? ... He has
rightly thrown me among the everlasting dead whom He no longer remembers" (8.3.1916).
permits, for the good of His servant, horrible temptations against faith when the soul
seems no longer even to believe: "My Father, how difficult it is to believe";
and against hope: "It sees itself wholly rejected by the Lord." (8.3.1916). To
these are added other trials of aridity and desolation through which the mystic enters
more deeply into the knowledge of his own wretchedness before God and in the end feels
himself forsaken by all. The devil too is let loose to plague the soul by all manner of
diabolical temptations and illusions, in fact the mystic comes to feel himself so
abandoned by God that he wonders whether all is not simply the work of Satan.
Pio writes to his director: ". - -if you find that I have been the victim of that
horrid thing (the devil), I beg you, Father, for the love you bear Jesus, be good enough
to illuminate me" (7.4.1915). But even though the sufferings are so painful that
death itself would be a relief: "I ask for death as a relief for my afflictions...
for I can no longer carry on". Nevertheless every so often the Lord lets His light
shine into the soul, clasping it in an embrace of infinite tenderness and letting it know
that all is not lost: "His goodness alone has filled my soul with so many blessings.
He hardly ever lets me out of His sight. He follows me everywhere: revives my soul so
poisoned by sin, destroys in me the dense clouds in which it was enveloped"
so the work goes on. The Lord in His infinite love wishes to give Himself, but first the
tabernacle where he would dwell in so sublime a manner must be made holy. Origen has well
described this state as the 41 soul's winter", the time of aridity, desolation and
apparent incapacity to love God. But this light which has appeared to the soul as
"night" is, in fact, the intensity of God's incandescent fire, illuminating and
bedazzling the soul with the majesty of His divine splendour. Nature must first be
stripped of everything earthly and then re-clothed in the celestial garments of
over, the mystic now realizes how necessary was this preparation, for no one would dare to
live in the divine Presence without first passing through the crucible of tribulation. The
Lord Himself, in His eager desire to further enrich the soul, is the sculptor who carves
and chisels, refining his masterpiece from the crude block of human nature. And when the
mystic finally emerges into the clear light once more he knows for certain that all was
the work of God; he knows, too, that even as God had seemed to reject him He was in fact
present all the time in the depths of the soul preparing it for yet higher gifts
With the cessation of these trials
would it, I wonder, be too fanciful to believe that the highest state of the mystic in
this life, the spousal union or mystical marriage as it is commonly called, was
consummated between the Lord and Padre Pio on that day in 1918 when the wounds of Christ
became incarnate in the flesh of the first priest ever chosen for this privilege?
[From: The Spirituality of Padre Pio, Augustine Mc
Gregor, O.C.S.O., edited by Fr. Alessio Parente, OFM Cap. (San Giovanni Rotondo: Edizioni
"Padre Pio of Pietrelcina" of Our Lady of Grace Monastery, 71013 San Giovanni
Rotondo, FG, Italy, 1974). Used with permission of:
The National Center for Padre Pio, 2213 Old Route 100, Barto, PA 19504.]