What Are The 3 Stages Of Spiritual Maturity?

Whether we speak of Dante’s Seven Storey Mountain, St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s “ Four Degrees of Love,” or Ken Wilber’s Spiral Dynamics, there are many different expressions of spiritual stages. Sometimes these are expressed in metaphor and sometimes they are directly described in different faith traditions, monastic orders, and religious practices.400px-Anthony_Albright-Night_Walker

The recent HBO documentary Going Clear about the Church of Scientology shows that this idea can be taken to a ridiculous extreme. In general, though, it can be helpful to think in terms of stages to provide context and language for our own spiritual path and to embrace the process others are undertaking. Our individual place on the spiritual continuum is not static.

In my writing and teaching, I refer to three stages of spiritual maturity, though these could easily be subdivided further. These roughly correspond to stages of human development – spiritual childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Each stage is not necessarily outwardly visible. It all depends on the extent to which a person has internalized a set of orientations, values, and practices that affect their relationship to themselves, others, and the divine.

People begin at different points on the spectrum given their natural temperament and gifts. Progression is by no means linear. My experience is within a Christian contemplative tradition, though these stages should translate to other traditions as well.

In stage one, people generally behave egocentrically out of their lower nature, with their behavior largely still dictated by their core desire (stability, affection, or status), which emerges out of their core fear and core wound (early life experiences). In stage one, they may exhibit destructive, oppressive, or addictive behaviors, or simply adhere to social norms. They tend to have low levels of personal awareness of the numinous or divine, and low levels of self-awareness (why they do what they do). If they invoke spirituality at all, it is usually for selfish gain or out of fear.

In stage two or spiritual adolescence, people achieve a broader awareness beyond their immature egocentrism and achieve some kind of transcendent moral awareness. Stage two is usually about developing an identity either within or in rejection of some kind of group. This might be centered around a faith community or ritual practice. The expression or set of values adopted is dependent on the person’s core desire or energy center (stability, affection, or status).

LawrenceOP_ApostleslookingWhatever the expression, whether “conservative” or “liberal,” whether centered around sin and guilt or justice and compassion, advancement in stage 2 is considered disciplined adherence to the set of adopted values and practices. It is the double edge of community: it gives belonging, identity, warmth, but also enforces conformity.

The downsides of stage two can be excluding outsiders, with sin considered a violation of the community rules. These rules can be either explicit orthodox doctrine or group cultural norms. Either way they organize the group’s status issues, determine what is punished, who is excluded, and who feels righteous. Stage two includes the dangers of leader worship and abuses of power.

Most expressions of faith eventually become self-perpetuating institutions and can wind up focusing their community life and teaching only up to advanced levels of stage two. Stage two can be highly effective in moving people out of immature or chaotic state, but it clearly also has limitations.

Stage three is characterized by the increasing ability to radically see oneself and others through the eyes of grace or what the Christian tradition calls Agape-love on a moment-to-moment basis. This state can exist even as we go about our daily tasks (before enlightenment/ after enlightenment/ chopping wood, carrying water). In this state, we genuinely dedicate our life to the Wholeness of all using our particular temperament and gifting.gratitude

This stage is usually entered into through some form of profound suffering, or what the mystics call the dark night of the soul. If a stage two water baptism brings one into a community, stage three baptism by fire brings us into direct contact with the divine. This happens through progressive letting go of the false self that still exists even in advanced levels of stage two spirituality.

In seeing more and more of one’s own capacity for evil, understanding one’s own patterns of negative emotion, thought, and action, one becomes more and more sensitized to the patterns in others. Letting go more and more of one’s own ego projects and the false self allows God, grace, andlove to manifest in that cleared space within.

Although there is commonality in the descriptions of this state of awareness across the mystical forms of all world religions, it is only arrived at through rigorous attentiveness, daily, and even moment-to-moment practice. Stage three spirituality is always attended by a growth in peace, joy, awareness, and love. Stage three practices are usually preserved and disseminated by monastic traditions of the various religions, or in the writings of individual mystics and contemplatives.

Most authentic faith communities will include people at all three stages of spiritual development, and so can neither be dismissed outright nor achieve complete effectiveness. Given its inclusivity and its deep internalization and manifestation of grace, the teachers, contemplatives, and mystics in stage three are often perceived as dangerous or threatening by leaders in stage two, who often have a deep need for stability, and who depend both in their own person and in their teaching on a rigidly defined moral order. Rather than focusing on the shortcomings of the previous stages, though, mature spiritual teachers like Fr. Richard Rohr encourage us to “transcend and include the positive elements” of previous stages.

In these three stages we move from the self to the community to the divine or mystical level of awareness. Again, this is not absolute nor do people progress in a linear path, and each stage contains further subdivision and progression, but articulating our spiritual maturity in stages can be extremely helpful in treating both ourselves and others with patience and grace.

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Can This Ancient Spiritual Path Increase Your Sense of Agency?

In 2005, after completing a Masters in Theology and the Arts, I took a job teaching High School in downtown Los Angeles. I learned a lot in teaching, growing and stretching in ways I never could have imagined. But I also floundered, knowing I was not fully living out my core purpose. But change is hard, and rolling over to the next year is easy. You don’t have to do anything to stay stuck, to give up your agency. You just let life happen to you.

In my final years in the classroom I became far more intentional about practicing an ancient spiritual practice of Centering Prayer, preserved for centuries in monastic communities. This practice led to profound internal changes that have allowed me to make healthy decisions for myself and my family, articulate my purpose, and pursue it far more intentionally.Labyrinth_at_Chartres_Cathedral

But there’s a hitch. I didn’t write down what I wanted to do and get after it right away. I had to bring some things to light first. Centering Prayer alone didn’t solve these issues. Instead, this practice allowed me to see them, process them, and let them go, freeing me up to pursue my purpose.

Ancient myths and spiritual texts teach us we have to go down into our inner self, and confront some of the things holding us back. We may have to become aware of the unconscious ways we handicap ourselves, to bring to light some of the fears that keep us boxed in.

As Thomas Keating writes: “One of the biggest impediments to spiritual growth is that we do not perceive our own hidden motivations. Our unconscious, pre-rational emotional programming from childhood and our overidentification with a specific group or groups are the sources from which our false gradually emerges.” – Invitation to Love.

The Ancient Journey

The metaphor for this process of discovery or descent into the self is the journey and we see versions of it all around us, in what Joseph Campbell called “The Hero’s Journey.” Yes, it’s almost become a cultural cliché for screenplays and story structure, but it can be a powerful tool for examining the internal path as well. The pattern shows up in Homer’s Odyssey, in the Divine Comedy of Dante, and so on.

Medieval scholars interpreted these texts and metaphors for the soul’s journey toward God.

pseudo dIt’s one thing to identify the pattern and put it to work for commercial use. It’s quite another to allow it to become a means of self-examination. It turns out the Christian tradition has incorporated this three-fold structure into a way of organizing spiritual formation. Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite taught the three-fold way of Purgation, Illumination, and Union as phases in the spiritual journey.

St. Thomas Aquinas later also picked up on this pattern. It echoes down to us today in the writings of spiritual teachers like Richard Rohr and Thomas Keating, who have made it their life’s work to make the monastic spiritual practices and language more readily available to the layperson.

It’s been reinvigorating for me to partake of that work in a small way and pass on whatever little bit of this path that I have understood and to help point others toward at least the possibility of wholeness. No spiritual teacher can walk your path for you. But hopefully, in the process of spiritual formation, we have guides who come along, and point the way. It’s up to us to walk it. In the writing process I’ve already experienced others come alongside, including spiritual directors, doctors, professors, and friends.

It feels like the old Basil King quote “Go at it boldly, and you’ll find unexpected forces closing round you and coming to your aid.” That’s what I’m calling agency. It takes a leap of faith to step forward and say “here’s my mustard seed.” It’s God that uses that to bring the greater family together to move the mountain.

In my writing, workshops, and materials, I want to continue to deepen and explore this ancient practice and the teaching of the spiritual masters, sharing what I find along the way, helping others, and building community. I hope you’ll come along.