Level One: The Active Life

"The active life begins with love of neighbor, which is expressed in concrete acts of service. Whether you teach an illiterate person to read, feed the hungry or clothe the poor, every act of kindness is the beginning point of our life with God.

"The source of growth is the cultivation of virtue. The four cardinal virtues are prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude. Together these form the foundation of human character. Each virtue must be present for the other three to maintain their dynamic vitality — in other words, there is no possibility of possessing any of the virtues without possessing all of them. This interconnected nature allows us to increase in virtue gradually over time. It permits us to harness the powers of our mind in order to attend properly to God.

"Of the theological virtues (faith, hope, love), the virtue that develops in level one is faith. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen, as the writer of the Hebrews defines it (Heb 11:1). It is recognizing not the irrational dimension of life and faith but the fact that our Christian beliefs are based on the right use of reason and the integration of every dimension of our human nature.

"The focus of our life energy at this point is the external activity of the Body. The spiritual work that helps us make headway involves practicing the disciplines of self-reflection, self-awareness, Scripture reading, humility and the cultivation of discretion. Coming to understand who we are and how we operate in relationship to other people is critical for our long-term sustainable effectiveness.

"The active life is the life lived by people who are beginning their life with God. Over time our maturity expands and develops and we are able to rise above the active life, but we are never free of it, as we will see. Still, the cultivation of the virtues on this level allows us to discipline our mind and attention in order to rise above all exterior distractions.

Level Two: The Contemplative Life

"The second level is the contemplative life. Here we begin to turn inward in a reflective state. Having started with love of neighbor, we now focus on learning to love God as the source of all earthly loves with the Holy Spirit as our teacher. As we turn inward from the outside world, we begin to understand what motivates us, what leads us to God and what takes us away from our deepest longings. The theological virtue of hope develops on this level.

"Gregory defines contemplation as 'attentive regard for God alone.' This is when our spiritual senses reawaken and we begin to learn how to perceive God. The Holy Spirit prompts us to desire him.

"After the cultivation of the four cardinal virtues, the Holy Spirit provides us with seven gifts of grace: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord. These gifts of grace help overcome the impulses that destroy the virtuous life. They turn our gaze, inward and calm our sense perception. Here are the gifts of grace that help us combat distractions from our external life:

• "Wisdom combats foolishness.

• "Understanding combats indifference.

• "Counsel combats rashness.

• "Courage and fortitude combat fear.

• "Knowledge combats ignorance.

• "Piety combats hardness of heart.

• "Fear combats pride.

"Contemplation allows us to dwell in a state of mind and existence as long as we can, even as we recognize that the state of mind cannot last indefinitely. Gregory recognizes that contemplation is possible only with careful training; we cannot enter a contemplative state automatically. We must learn to quiet the senses and empty the mind of all mental images. 'Spurn and tread underfoot,' Gregory writes, 'whatever presents itself to its thought from sign, from hearing, from smell, from bodily touch or taste, so that it may seek itself interiorly as it is without these sensations.' "