Spiritual Growth – Baron von Hugel
Posted by: Bishop David Walker
Bishop David Walker
Over a number of years, I have been thinking a lot about spiritual growth. My work with the spiritual classics has made me aware that our spiritual tradition does see patterns of growth within the spiritual journey and does point to particular indicators as signs of growth. There exists within the spiritual tradition various outlines of how a person grows in the spiritual journey. However, I do not wish to present any of these here. Rather. I want to group together important insights into growth within a framework which I create myself. I want to describe three phases that people can pass through in their journey to God. I do not wish to suggest that they are three steps which all people must ascend, or three categories into which all believers have to fit_ They are simply a means, a framework which allows me to talk about important issues that are relevant to Christian growth. It is the realities described that are important, rather than the grouping they are given. I will describe three ways of living the Christian faith, which I believe give an indication of the way growth takes place, and shows some of the important indications of growth in the spiritual journey. As I do this I want to apply to each stage some insights of Baron von Hugel. I do not want to take over his three key insights into the spiritual journey but I do think they are applicable to the phases of growth that I am describing. For this reason, I will not apply the names he gives to his three insights (Institutionalism, Intellectualism, Mysticism) to my own phases, but will simply use them to indicate his insights. Each of the phases that I describe are legitimate developments within the journey to God. However, if a person chooses to stay in one, and is closed to journeying on, then that phase, good as a transitional one, may well become a distortion of the journey. In the description of these three ways of being a Christian, I believe you can, from your own experience recognize the issues that are being raised. Within each phase, I want to consider ten points, which will reflect on how how a person at that stage of growth embodies a particular issue. of the spiritual journey. The choice of the eleven points will give an indication of important issues that need to be considered in estimating growth. They are meant to capture directions of growth; from the external to the internal, from external behaviour to interior conviction, from selfishness to selflessness, from an active to a more passive form of prayer, from little awareness of one’s personal faults and little effort to overcome them to a deep insight into them, and a constant effort to work with them.
Behaviour is the focus of their attention. Their emphasis is on doing, on activity, and they are often unaware of interior activities, and unsympathetic to, even condemnatory of, those caught up with the interior life. They prefer to serve through a diversity of outward works rather than through inner love, believing that outward works done with the right motivation are more profitable than inward works. This is probably due to their inability cope with interior activity in their life. Religion for this group can become identified with morality, and come to focus round keeping the commandments as the essence of Christian living. Obedience to law is for them the principal virtue. Their preoccupation is avoiding mortal sin. This can carry with it an emphasis on the understanding of God as judge, the moral law-giver, who keeps account of transgressions and will call people to account on the last day. Their approach can also lead them to an emphasis on the sacraments, which sees them more as objective actions to be performed, rather than within the context of the personal and communal life of believers. Their lives are good, but this can often be attributed to the religious context in which they live, and the religious education they have been given. It can be a socialisation that they may not have personally appropriated. Note that this type of approach can be present even when the emphasis on traditional commandments of the Church give way to new, seemingly more relevant behaviour, which can take the place of the other, but still be lived in the way described here.
2. Interior life.
In this first way of living the Christian life, believers are dominated by external activities. Their interior life is governed by their external activity to the extent that their reflection tends to be about the things with which they are involved In this phase their life is governed largely from without, rarely inspired from within. Their interior thoughts and reflections rarely stem from faith, but are the consequence of their external activities. They tend to absorb the values and principles of the world in which they live. There is no special focus on religion; it is just one among many things in the person’s life. They would acknowledge themselves to be Christian, but it is just one designation among many in their life. An example may help. It can happen that a business man who states that his family is more important than his work, finds that he spends more time and energy on his work than he does with his family. The external demands on him lead him to neglect the convictions he professes. His life is not governed by his principles, but by the demands that come from without. When St. Teresa describes her First Mansion, she speaks about the reptiles of the world which still enter the Mansion. She is saying that, even though the person is moving within, there is still a great influence that comes from without. In this phase, the interior, personal dimension is still very much dominated by things which come from without.
There is an outward, exterior orientation in these people. They are drawn outward to where their interests and activities are. “Where your treasure is, there also is your heart.” They seek the approval, honours and pleasures that come from without: their treasure lies in external things, so that their hearts gives little attention to interior things, to reflection, or prayer. ‘What is missing is a life that wells up from within, an ability to be at home within, to have an interior life that is not simply the expression of one’s external activity. This lack of reflective life means that they do not often reflect on their own personal relationship with God.
The motivation of this group is not deeply spiritual, and they tend to act more out of necessity, obligation, compulsion, or fear. It is law not love that is their motivation at this stage of growth. They are concerned about their own salvation, and limit their preoccupations to things which might threaten their salvation. The priority of God in their life is not high. Their desire for God is sincere, but without much fervour. It is weak, lacking intensity and unstable. This group of people find the going difficult when things get tough. They would “like” to be holy, but, at this stage, do not yet have the strong desire for God which is needed to motivate and sustain the holiness to which they aspire. Part of their problem is that their desires can be unrealistic. There is a tendency to want to do things which they cannot carry through. They are frail, easily overcome, easily diverted from God, with the result that unless things are chosen that are within their capacity they will not succeed.
Their piety is intermittent: genuine, but inconsistent. There is often the appearance of piety, but without real devotion. It is depth that is lacking. They can be easily involved in ceremonies and solemnities of the Church, but are more caught up with the official things of the community than with personal pious practices. As mentioned above they do try to avoid violating the commandments, to avoid mortal sin, but they do little more. This group can get caught up with particular moral issues,e.g. abortion, and campaign for them in a very radical way, but this does not necessarily point to a deep religious faith Their convictions on these issues may be far stronger than their personal spiritual motivation. It can often stem from that pride which can come with believing that one possesses the truth.
- Awareness of God
There is little real awareness of God in the lives of these people. It is limited normally to the times of formal prayer, or formal Church activities. As mentioned above, they are more often caught up with the work for God than with God, and the work can easily come to be done for its own sake. They have not yet come to be aware of living in the presence of God, and of drawing from that presence the strength and courage that is needed to progress further on their journey. This will be a major emphasis of the next phase of the journey.
Prayer does not play a big role in their life. They are involved in obligatory practices, like the Sunday Mass, but there is little personal prayer. They pray rarely, and only infrequently have recourse of God in their lives. Their prayer is often motivated or occasioned by personal need, and they do pray then with fervour. St Teresa, when she task about those who are in the first of her seven mansions, suggests they pray once or twice a month. I don’t wish to identify this group solely with the members of Teresa’s first mansion, but the point in common is that they pray only rarely.
- Personal transformation
There is little effort in this group to apply themselves to spiritual advancement. It is enough to keep the commandments. They do not take pains to attack their defects of character, and, while they may regret the lapses, they have not yet begun to try seriously to improve. One of the reason for their lack of concern is that they often are unaware of their faults, and do not consider it important to come to be aware of them, unless they are related to mortal sin. They have not yet begun the on-going transformation of their nature which is at the heart of the journey to God. This process will have to begin if they are to move on in their journey. The freedom to move on is the outcome of what John of the Cross calls the active night of the senses, a deliberate, constant effort to break out of the confines of a religion that is linked almost solely to external, sensual things. The battle to be fought is for the freedom to move within, to be liberated from the bonds which tie us exclusively to exterior things, to be able to set the agenda of our own personal interior life. They are as yet unaware of the importance of these things, and therefore are not strongly motivated to become involved in the pursuit of them.
One way of describing the spiritual journey could be as a journey from selfishness to selfless ness. The Flemish mystic Ruysbroeck sees the journey in this way. This group is motivated to a great extent by self-interest. They find it difficult to rise above the natural self-seeking of the human person. They can be preoccupied with their own interests in the religious things they do, to the extent that they only give or take part when it is to their own gain. This group may give generously for a church for their own community, but see little reason to contribute to a church for another community. Like children, they have not yet gone beyond acting out of self interest, out of their own need. They seek spiritual things for their own benefit. They enjoy religion, though their enjoyment is often on a sensual level. Their interest and involvement in the world, and their anxiety for approval, honours and pleasures prevent them from taking their religion more seriously, and they bring the same self-interest to it. There is not yet any Christian abnegation in their lives, and they have not yet embarked on the road to self-knowledge which comes about through reflection and is expressed in humility.
This group can get caught up with service activities, but can find that in them they think more of the activity itself than the God for whom it is performed. While their intention to serve God is sincere, service for them is just another act to perform, another obligation to live up to. It is the act itself that is important, and it may not he informed with any interior spirit. For example, being involved in charitable work can be fulfilling and pleasing in itself, but can lose contact with the Christian motivation which is meant to be its origin. A person could give up the Christian faith, and go on doing the particular work.
- Self – assessment
In their assessment of themselves, this group judges on external behaviour. Because these are the standards they adopt, they judge themselves to be very religious because they are faithful to the morality and behaviour they emphasise. They show little concern over their faults and the evil motions for their heart, because these are not of importance to them at this stage. They are mostly unaware of their unchristian inclinations, their love of pleasure and riches, and have little detachment from the things they possess. They are somewhat naive in their understanding of goodness, and the consider themselves to be sinless, because they only think of external sin. If it is not articulated then it is not wrong This group can be like the Pharisees in the Gospel, good people whose goodness has come to rest too much on external behaviour and not sufficiently on the interior motivation which motivates such behaviour. In the past, we have often judged people by whether or not they observed the six commandments of the Church; Mass on Sunday, no meat on Friday, Easter duty, Confession once a year, the support of one’s pastor, and being married according to church law. Those who proved to be faithful in their observation of these things were not always acting out of a deep faith. Because this group considers itself to be doing well according to their own terms of reference, they can be hard on others who, in their mind, are not living up to the requirements of the faith.
This group responds to an authoritarian leadership. They are attuned to authority, and it is represents a great source of power in their life. They will respond without question, simply on the command of the authority figure. If these people are in leadership positions, they will lead by authoritative decree, expecting people to respond in an unthinking way.
- Institutionalism (Von Hugel)
Baron Von Hugel has some considerations that are relevant to this group. He suggests that people like this belong to a phase of religious growth that he calls Institutionalism. It is characterised by direction from without, from the institution, and centres round doing as one is told by the institution. The structure here is more important than the person. Such an approach emphasises authority, and demands a quasi automatic response to the demands of authority. It focuses on the external, authoritative aspects of religion. It is also taken up with the historical and traditional aspects, which can provide directives for Christian living. These people tend to believe what they see and what they are told. They are like children who have not yet come to let their personal experience and that of their peers challenge what is being given to them by the authorities in their life. At this time, religion is something that is fixed in itself, not to be changed, and defended against any change or interpretation. The sensual aspects of religion will often attract this group. For them religion is a fact, a thing in their lives, rather than a deeper relationship with God. The intellectual and emotional elements of the later stages may not be given much priority here. There are positive elements of religion that are to be learned in this phase, which must be carried over into the other phases of growth. It is here that one comes into contact with the spiritual tradition to which one belongs, and within which one is to grow. At this stage it is “out there”, but without this initial exposure, and the carrying of it over into the other phases, one’s religion can lose touch with the religious tradition to which it belongs. These people are exposed to the revelation that has come to them in their community. If growth is healthy, they will become ever more committed to that basic revelation that they have come to know at this stage. It is here that one comes to learn of Jesus, who is to be central to the rest of the journey. It is important in this stage that what is learned be a positive and true presentation of Christianity. If it is not, the person may not be firmly grounded, reject it as they grow, with the result that they live a religion without any commitment to their basic tradition and community.
Whereas those in phase one were concerned with behaviour in terms of observance of the law, this group have come to recognize the importance of focussing on the motivation for behaviour, and are interested in extending the scope of their focus. They strive for a deeper motivation for their actions. The convictions and attitudes expressed in their actions is now the focus They are also interested in going beyond the law to the counsels, to the practice of the Christian virtues. It is now no longer just a question of avoiding mortal sin and those things which lead to it, but of recognizing that other behaviour may be contrary to what a sound Christian ethic demands, and striving to live the Christian virtues.. Both the extent and depths of their actions go beyond those in the first group. There is still here a recognition of the importance of morality, but a greater emphasis on the motivation from which it proceeds than on the external actions which embody it.
- Interior life
The principal characteristic of this group is their interior orientation. They have moved beyond a sensual experience of religion to be able to draw within with some ease rather than have their interior life governed from without. This breaking through the senses is what John of the Cross refers to as the Night of the Senses. It enables the person to come to a new interiority, which leads to experiencing religion in a new way. This interiority is more than just the ability to draw within for prayer: it means living from a deeper level, being reflective on life, and being able to live from personal convictions. They may perform the same outward works, but these works are now much more part of a deeper relationship with God, and a far more personal embodiment of their faith. Having an interior life means more than simply being proficient at prayer. It involves the ability to reflect on one’s actions, to dialogue effectively with one’s life. A danger here is that the person clings to the newly found interior life, and rejects external and material things. This is an overreaction that need to be rejected. In terms of morality, so important for the first group, conscience is now able to process all the elements involved in a situation before coming to a conclusion. The first group would be more likely just to respond to what the Law says, without any real internal dialogue with it. This group is more able to come to personal decision rather than just conform to an external situation. The person here is of more importance than the structure.
This is an important focus at this stage: the reason for what is being done. There is a movement away from acting out off compulsion, fear or at the command of authority to the desire to act out of one’s love for God. Individual actions are being seen within the context of one’s relationship with God. The desire to deepen that relationship is becoming a greater motivation for action. There is an honest effort to remove self-interest from their motivation, and to try to act more in the interests of others. In this phase the person is actively working at doing this. The person here is beginning to go beyond simply striving for salvation to the recognition that the mission of being a Christian extends to sharing the Gospel with others. There are consolations in religion at this stage, and these consolations can also be a motive for their action. Prayer can become easy, and they are happy to spend considerable time in it. They enjoy the sacramental life of the Church, and generally find great joy in their Christian living. While this is a good motive in itself, sometimes this can create a problem, because they find it hard to leave consolations behind when it comes to moving on to more difficult stages of growth. It is good to enjoy consolations while they are there, and to let them act as a motive for action. However, it is more important to have a deeper underlying motivation, and unless that is present this group can remain in this second phase.
- Awareness of God
This group is beginning to act deliberately to become more aware of the presence of God in their life. They adopt definite means to draw attention to that presence, and set out to create a situation, which will be achieved in the third phase, to quite naturally become aware of God in each situation in which they find themselves. They are endeavouring to sanctify the ordinary actions of life. Pierre de Caussade, whose spirituality reflects in a special way the importance of the awareness of God, makes a distinction between those who live in God and those in whom God lives. The former relates to this stage, and the latter to the third phase. To come to the former, one needs to practise bringing oneself into the presence of God. It is a much more active stage than the one which will follow in the next phase.
This need to become more aware of the presence of God is well expressed in Evelyn Underhill’s use of the image of the fish.
Nothing in all nature is so lovely and so vigorous, so perfectly at home in its environment , as a fish in the sea. Its surroundings give it a beauty, quality, and power which is not its own. We take it out, and at once a poor, limp dull thing, fit for nothing, is gasping away its life. So the soul sunk in God, living the life of prayer, is supported, filled, transformed in beauty, by a vitality and a power which are not its own. The souls of the saints are so powerful because they are thus utterly immersed in the Spirit: their whole life is a prayer. The life in which they live and move and have their being gives them something of its own quality. So long as they maintain themselves within it, they are adequate to its demands, because fed by its gifts. This re-entrance into our Origin and acceptance of our true inheritance is the supernatural life of prayer, as it may be experienced by the human soul. Far better to be a shrimp within that ocean than a full-sized theological whale cast upon the shore.
This second group is characterised by an interest in prayer. They have begun to turn their heart to God with some regularity by a consistent practice of interior prayer. It is important for them that they begin to mediate on the foundations of their faith, to deepen their appreciation of the framework within which their religious commitment takes place. Their personal relationship with the Lord is of growing importance in this phase, and it needs to be nourished by reflections on the fundamental beliefs of the Christian faith, particularly in their Scriptural expression. While we have often overstressed activity in meditation, there is a place at this stage for active reflection on basic Christian truths. This group is learning to control the heart, improving their attention, and fostering the ability to focus their interior thoughts and feelings on God. They are also nourishing their interior life with reading or other material which will help them in their interior reflection.
- Personal Transformation
This group is beginning to practice the Christian virtues and develop positive Christian values in their life. They have begun to do the things which will transform their personal life, and are willing to re-order their lifestyle to foster the things that are important to their faith. Religion now has a priority in their life which is expressed in their willingness to give time, energy and resources to religious issues. These persons are now more aware of the things in their life that are not Christian, due principally to the reflective dimension of the journey at this stage. Their vision is becoming sharper so that they recognize things within themselves that are at the root of evil. John Cassian uses the example of an ill-lit room. When a person enters, they can only see the large objects in the room, because their vision is impaired by the lack of light. However, as the light increases, they are able to see other objects, even the little ones. For people in this phase of growth, the light is increasing, and they are beginning to see things in their life that they had not noticed before. They are also beginning to work with them. They are now addressing the movements of their heart, recognizing that it is within that the principal religious focus should be, rather than without. This is the interior struggle spoke of by spiritual writers, the effort to transform the heart in the light of the gospel.
There is a saying from the East: “The mountain lords it over the molehill, but both are dwarfed by the stars. ” The point of the saying is that if you take the mountain as the point of reference, it seems so much greater than the molehill. However, if you take the stars as the point of reference, the mountain and the molehill don’t seem to be very different The issue is where you put your point of reference. Those in phase one tended to take the mountain, themselves, as the point of reference. That often meant that they looked down, or were harsh to, the “molehills” around them, i.e. those who did not live up to the standards they had set. The group in the second phase has come to move their vision from themselves, as the mountain, to the stars, as God. They are beginning to be able to go beyond their own self-interest. However these people still may not have the determination to go on. They lack the freedom to travel further, and it is only by working to achieve that freedom that they will be able to progress.
These people are attracted to the service of God. The deepening of their relationship with God is moving them more into the service of God and the community, as the Christian life is being seen more as directed to others. Their growing selflessness enables them to transcend self interest so that they are able to work for the interests of others. This is a solid foundation for Christian service. Their personal spiritual growth is able to shine through the work that they do, so that their Christian apc.stolate is not just the performance of some service, but a meaningful proclamation of the Gospel, the presence of Christ to those whom they serve.
- Self assessment
Still they may not always be able to discern clearly their own motives. The fact that they are doing well, opening up new areas in their life, and wanting to go on can disguise the fact that there may still be things unnoticed that can be holding them back from God. The example of the rich young man in the Gospel illustrates the point. He was clearly a good young man, but despite his judgment that he was ready for better things, he was not able to overcome his attachment to his riches. This group may judge themselves to be doing well, but they still have many issues to work with before they will move further along in their journey.
The reflective dimension of this phase means that those within it will be more discerning of the leadership offered to them. It will mull over what is asked of them, bring their own experience to it, and begin to make deliberate conscience decisions in relationship to it. In their growth they will be more capable of recognizing the things that relate to their spiritual journey, and will expect a leadership that can offer the appropriate insights into their journey. Trustful questioning needs to be met with enlightened solutions or at least serious insights which can help the person work to a solution. Those in this phase will not be helped by the authoritarian style more in keeping with an early phase of spiritual growth. When in leadership positions, this group will recognize the need to face up honestly to the questioning that takes place in this phase, and will lead in a way that fosters reflection on basic Christian attitudes and beliefs, and responds to the questioning that stems from it.
- Intellectualism (Von Hugel)
Von Hugel again has a contribution to make. He talks of an intellectual state, where the person see religion in a new light. The experience of the senses, previously so important, can be seen to be untrustworthy and inconsistent at times. It is now being reflected on and challenged. There is a curiosity that is aroused in external religion, which leads to a trustful questioning of oneself and others. Believers now begin to select more consciously from their former impressions. The facts, accepted unquestioningly before, now need to be justified. Reasons need to be given for them. To affirm one thing now is to negate another, and the believer is conscious of the selectivity that is entering in, and the reasoning that is, or needs to be, involved in it. The reasoning, argumentative, abstractive side of human nature is now coming into play. There is a desire, and a need to relate various facts, align them with personal experience, and penetrate them to come to the ideas that they represent. Religion here is becoming thought, a philosophical system, and needs the response of clear and systematic argumentation. This is a spiritual adolescence, where previous experience is being questioned, but foundations are being laid for the future. The big danger here can be intellectual pride, which can result if the intellectual side of the person alone is applied to religion. To those who work from the first phase, this questioning can seem to be contrary to the quasi automatic response that they consider to be the essence of religion. This can create tension in the community between believers of different phases of growth, and especially if community leadership is working out of the first phase.
The behaviour of these people is not something that is deliberately practised, but rather something that flows easily and freely from their interior convictions. Augustine’s maxim comes to mind: “Love and do what you will”. The depths of love characteristic of these people means that whatever they do is stemming from that deep love which motivates their life. They embody the faith so naturally, that they effectively proclaim it to others. Whatever they are doing, in whatever circumstance, their faith in Jesus is transparent within it. The people who have come to this phase are people people, their way of living enables them to relate easily to others. The Cloud of Unknowing makes this point. The one who comes to this state “finds that he suddenly (and again by grace) is different, and that every good man he sees is glad and happy to have his friendship, and is spiritually refreshed, and helped nearer God by his company.” Behaviour is not something with which this groups is preoccupied, because Christian actions flow so easily from them. There is a notable simplification in the lives of these people. This is the other extreme to the external over involvement of the first phase. The experience of God has created a situation whereby these people are detached and have removed from their life things that might previously have preoccupied them. As their preoccupation with God grows, they are less interested in those things in life which are less necessary to it. The unreal elements of human existence and the unnecessary ones can be perceived more clearly, and can more easily be put aside. As a result there is a greater freedom in their behaviour. Often through age we can look back and see more clearly how our pursuit of past things has really been unnecessary, and we can easily give up the pursuit of them. The perception of that in this case is not so much a learning from the past, but the result of an experience of God, in which God is seen to be the precious pearl and the real treasure for the sake of which one is able to give up one’s other riches. St. Teresa says of these people that they get everything they want, because all they want is what they get.
- Interior life
Those who belong to this group have come to know God in a new way. There is a development of a new layer of consciousness, so that they experience God, not in the intellectual way of the previous phase, but through an awareness that is more intuitive. The spiritual writers speak of this way of experiencing God as an “unknowing”, to stress that it is different from the normal conceptual way of knowing. This is an awareness that is not limited to prayer, hut pervades one’s experience of God throughout life. It is this all pervading awareness of God that is important in this stage of growth. In prayer, this new dimension even makes it difficult for the person to meditate in the former way, where there was continuity of interior thoughts and imagery.
The deep love which motivates this group has already been mentioned. Their love is a determination to do what their relationship with God calls for. Their relationship with God has become so dominant in their life, that there is nothing in life that is foreign to to it. Everything they do is an expression of and a deepening of this relationship. This groups is not only aware of the importance of God in their own life, but wants to share their experience of God with others. This can become an important motivation, as their actions are not only expression of their love for God, but are quite deliberately meant to bring God to others. The importance of mission and proclamation is clear to them and motivates their actions.
- Awareness of God
The ability to be alone with God is an important aspect of this phase. The heart can easily be turned to God now, and the natural movement of the heart, which in the beginning was to external things, is now to interior things. This being alone does not necessarily require that the person go off to places of solitude, the mountains, or remote parts. It is a reality of ordinary everyday life, something that is able to be achieved even in the busiest of situations. It is an all pervading awareness, which enables the person not only to be aware of the universal presence of God, but also to draw from that presence the power that is necessary to meet the demands of the spiritual journey. De Caussade, in his book “Self-abandonment to Divine Providence” makes a distinct between those who live in God and those in whom God lives. The people in this group are the ones in whom God lives, whom God leads in a special way, and who have abandoned themselves totally to God. The framework of his thought is the sacrament of the present moment, in which the person experiences God in the present situation. However, by this distinction he illustrates how the awareness of God can grow, and he describes the situation we are speaking of here as being us in Christ. The example of the fish in the sea mentioned above is relevant here.
This inability to meditate can be a sign that the person is emerging to a new awareness, and it is only if the person is willing to go on through this experience that the new awareness can be effective in life. Prayer can be simpler, and the use of sense and intellect will play a lesser role for this group. There is no need to see this phase as being characterized by extraordinary phenomenon. Such phenomena can occur but is by no means central to the phase, and it would be a mistake to try to define this phase in terms of it. As with all of the phases, it is difficult to describe pray in any one definitive way. Certainly in the first phase it was rare, and tended to be more external . In the second phase it was a deliberate activity, fostered by the person in an effort to develop an interior life and a deeper relationship with God. It tended to be more active and something that could be determined, to an extent, by the activity of the person. In this final stage, it is more passive, and the activity of God becomes more apparent. However, having said this, it is also clear from our tradition that there can be in this phase, periods in which it is hard to pray, and the activity of God is by no means apparent. The group can experience the feelings of the absence of God. They may need at times to meditate in an active way, though there will still be more simplicity in the way they do it.
- Personal transformation
The way here is not easy, though the experience of God has led to a freedom to be able to continue with the transformation of life. We tend to think of Christian perfection as being like going up a mountain where the view is getting clearer and clearer, and we can see further and further. However our tradition suggests that in fact the higher we go the thicker the fog becomes. Visibility is often not enhanced but limited, and instead of going on by vision, we have to struggle on by faith. Our condition is basically one of faith, and the further we travel the more we are obliged to live by faith. At this stage, whatever is not of God comes into question and great sacrifices may need to be made. John of the Cross speaks of the fact that hitherto one has cut of the branches of one’s fault, but now the roots must be torn out. This is a radical assault on the selfishness of the person. It requires great courage, a virtue that is necessary for the whole journey, and which is particularly needed for this stage of the journey. Sometimes these people feel that they have lost the presence of God. John of the Cross speaks of the fact that God shapes people by the feelings of his presence and the feelings of his absence. In the second phase, the feelings of God’s presence can help people to journey further. Here the feeling that God is absent can become a test of faith which the brings the person to a new level of faith.
There is a selflessness at this stage which enables this group to reach out to God and others in a way not possible before. In terms of the maxim given earlier, the mountain, the molehill and the stars, this person’s point of reference is the stars. Their heart is set on God. Their experience of God has illumined the heart, and enables them to become acutely aware of their own sinfulness before God; their creatureliness before the Creator. This awareness of who they are before God helps them to relate to others, so that there is an understanding and empathy with others that enables these people to be close to them, and effective in serving them.
There is a totality of self-giving here, and they are able to give themselves in whatever situation arises because their anchor is God who keeps them stable and safe in the situation. The giving of this stage is the climax of the giving that Teresa commends to those who begin the Spiritual journey. Her message was the importance of learning to give rather than just expecting to receive. The limitations and fetters of self-giving are removed by the experience of God found here.
What has been said about selflessness shows how these people can reach out selflessly to others. They have a great concern for other people and want to share their experience of God with them. They are great evangelizers, wanting to share the knowledge of Jesus that they themselves had come to know. The person who is the living flame of Christian love is more likely to warm the hearts of others than those who may possess other gifts.
Their love now is a real determination to be involved in the work of the Lord. This is a phase of service. St Teresa could not understand as she grew in faith why Martha would not go away as she took on more the role of Mary. St. Francis Borgia needed to explain to here that the roles of Martha and Mary are not end on, in the sense that one goes when the other comes. They are rather two aspects of the whole journey, so that the more you become a Mary the more you become a Martha. The final reality for Christian love is service, and Teresa sums it up well when she says that we do not go to prayer for our own enjoyment, but to gain the strength to serve. When Pope Paul the VI speaks of the process of evangelization, he points out that the final goal of preaching the gospel is to bring people to apostolic initiative. The final goal is reaching out to others, mission and service.
- Self assessment.
Their self-assessment is linked to the selflessness that they have achieved. There is little danger that they will overestimate their relationship to God and others. The acute awareness of their creatureliness before the Creator gives them a sense of being a sinner, which has the effect of them seeing themselves as the least of the brethren. They are often concerned about things that others would not see as important, but they have come to see even the small things as obstacles to their love for God. The illumination of their heart by God has had the effect of deepening their humility, their understanding of who they are in relation to God. As a result, they are not people who will exalt themselves over others, even though they recognize what has been achieved in their own spiritual journey.
The leadership that this groups requires is one which inspires them in their journey to God. They are acutely aware of the things of God and can recognize when leadership is not working out of a concern for these things. As leaders themselves, their style of leadership is to proclaim the Gospel, and to draw people on in their journey. Their leadership is not directed to supporting the institution but rather to the spiritual welfare of the individual believer. Their selflessness means that they lead in the interest of others, and not just according to their own.
- Mysticism (Von Hugel)
Von Hugel speaks of this phase in terms of mysticism. The person has moved from the external and the sensual in the first phase, to the interiority and intellectualism of the second state, and is now in a situation where religion is felt rather than seen, loved and lived rather than analyzed, and is action and power rather than external fact or intellectual verification. Intuition, feeling and experience are important in this phase. To those in the intellectual stage, this new stage appears to be subjective and sentimental. It can of course become this if it loses the intellectual aspect gained in the second phase. This is the mature stage of spiritual journey, the adult phase.
As one grows, there can be conflict between the characteristic elements of each. In the Institutional stage, there is often little prominence given to the Intellectual and Emotional elements which are important to the later stages. This is why those in the first stage can be in tension with those in the other stages. Those in the Institutional phase will find difficulty with the critical analysis which is brought to bear by those in the Intellectual stage. And the opposite is true: those in the Intellectual phase will find difficulty with the unchanging and unreflective attitudes of those in the Institutional phase. This final emotional stage will create some tensions in relation to the Intellectual phase. Those in this final stage can be hostile to critical analysis, and dismiss the Intellectual phase as mere philosophy. There is a definite playing down of the intellectual at this stage, since it is not by intellect that God is embraced, but by the more emotional reality of love.
In conclusion, I would like to say again, that the various stages described here are a means of presentation rather than a description of fact. The important thing is not to fit people into them, but to try to understand what is involved in spiritual growth. The heart of pastoral care is to help people to grow in their faith, and it is important to appreciate what our traditional wisdom has to say about what is involved in growing spiritually.