Christian Spiritual Maturity: Beyond the Basics
Let us define maturity as open-ended, eternal growth into all the fullness of God. And let us say that the Church provides us with tools we need to nurture and encourage that growth. Today, in the Lord’s providence, we are familiar with many such tools: Many of us can pray in church as St. Paul recommended, understanding the words of Scripture, hymns and sermons in our own language. (I Cor. 14:15) Many of us can attend Christian education classes, retreats and study groups. All of us, if we so choose, can avail ourselves of the many books, periodicals, tape recordings and videos available today through mail order sources even if they are not available in our local parishes.
Yet I would submit that necessary as these tools are for us, especially today, they bring us only to the very beginning of our journey into Christian spiritual maturity.
What else is needed? The answer is simple: The desire, the will and the effort to encounter the living God in prayer.
How do we gain this desire, will and effort? We cannot gain them on our own. They are God’s gift. Yet He gives His gifts to all who ask (Luke 11:10-13), and normally through the regular give and take of life. We need only to respond to the slightest stirrings in our hearts.
And how do we respond? First of all, our fallen human nature is forgetful and we will need to remind ourselves that we are always in the presence of the God Who is everywhere and fills all things. For this we will need times of personal prayer, apart from the worship we offer God in church. In addition to praying with heartfelt desire and honesty during our crucial first moments of waking and final moments before sleep, we will need to seek out other times of silence when we “lay aside all earthly cares;” all external stimulation and noise. This is how Christians from all walks of life have taken seriously Christ’s call to “enter your closet and shut the door” (Matthew 6:6) for at least two obvious and important reasons: To clear away distractions so that we can attend to the “one thing needful” (Luke 10:42) and to stop running away from our own selves.
For much if not all of our human lives can be spent paying attention to everything and everyone except the one person we can do something about: our self. First, however, we need to place ourselves in God’s presence, for only as He allows us to see more clearly in His light and with the eyes of His love, can we safely begin to look at ourselves without either false vanity or shame and despair. And only then can we hope to begin to look at the people and situations around us without annoyance, offence, anger or perhaps lust or desire for control, for only then can we see how much God loves every one of us in complete freedom in spite of who we are.
A normal outgrowth of such quiet times of prayer, however briefly free from noise and distraction, is the desire for even more silence. It is usually possible to be creative and find times, ways and places to work, relax and re-create away from the world’s noise. When it is not, we can ask God for the grace to create and enter into a quiet space within ourselves. Daily burdens, stress, physical, mental and emotional illness can make even this difficult or at times impossible. Still, our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ has told us that His Father will always give the Holy Spirit to those who ask (Luke 11:13). There will always be some times when we can experience the inner peace that is God’s gift.
As we grow in familiarity with silence and the inner peace that comes from God, we will find ourselves with the ability to walk a bit faster along the path of life. For one thing, we will gradually discover a growing ability to listen, which is the basis of obedience, a virtue for all Christians, not just monastics. (Cf. Rom. 1:5, 5:19, 6:16, 16:26, Heb. 5:8, I Pet. 1:22.) We will discover that even conversations and meetings need not be exercises in noise and frustration when we take moments of silence to digest and reflect on what we have heard.
Yet when we are alone, we may at first find silence much more difficult than cultivating moments of quiet in conversation with others. We may discover that inwardly we are a crowd of people shouting a chorus of worries, cares and woes, making up scenarios for our next social encounters, rehearsing lines to rebut or entertain possible or imaginary audiences and so on. How do we live with this and still find real silence?
Experienced ascetics tell us that we will never get away from being bombarded by such inner noise from our own thoughts or those of the devil and the fallen world. Today that is especially true, when subliminal background noise is constantly being programmed into us. Nevertheless, we can use brief words of prayer to “shoot down” thoughts so that we don’t totally identify with them.
The saints of the Church tell us further that it is necessary at times to “shoot down” even our seemingly good thoughts as an important regular exercise: When we practice giving up our own thoughts and words, even as on occasion we lay aside our own way of doing a task, we become more able to hear clearly when others have different ways of thinking and of doing things. This is also a form of sacrifice: In the Biblical, Christian tradition, to sacrifice means (literally) to make something holy — by giving it up. (We are also to give up things that are bad, not as sacrifice, but as common sense!) When we sacrifice and give up good things, God takes them and makes them holy, and in a mysterious way, returns them to us purified and stronger (Mat. 19:27-29). If He doesn’t send them back to us in that way, the wisdom and experience of the Church teaches us that they weren’t as good as we thought they were, and we are better off without them…. (Cf. 1 Cor. 3:13-15.)
Preachers, teachers, iconographers, writers, poets, musicians – indeed people from all walks of life – have told of preparing for their words or work with prayer and then discovering that their task “takes on a life of its own,” entirely different from their own original ideas. Some of this may be the simple mechanism that results from the deeper intuitions and thoughts of one’s subconscious surfacing as one puts aside one’s more conscious “bright ideas.” Yet the Lord has also told us that God’s Holy Spirit is able directly to inspire His creatures through this same process: “…do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matthew 10:19-20).
The next part of obedience that we will develop is the ability literally to be “response-able.” For in a sense, we all listen; we may just listen more to ourselves than to others and to the reality God sends our way. As we become better listeners to voices other than our own; as we become more aware of reality outside of our own selves, we can begin to respond to others and to our situation more appropriately.
As we find we are growing more comfortable with the ways of obedience, we may begin to want a spiritual guide, friend or mentor. And if God wants us to have such a person in our life, we can be sure he or she will appear. We must beware that we don’t miss the lessons we can learn from others, however, just because we don’t think they are as holy or advanced as we are. It has been pointed out that if God can speak through Balaam’s ass, He can speak through the most unlikely persons and situations, if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear. If God wants us to learn obedience in the normal ways, putting aside our self will by being appropriately obedient to those around us such as our spouse or other family members, our parish priest, other members of our parish, those at our work or school and by prayerful reading and study of the Lord’s example and guidance in the Gospels, then it will be safest for us to follow that route rather than looking vainly for a relationship God may know would bring us only to vanity and delusion.
And if we continue humbly, accepting the obvious guides or lack of guides God allows us in His providence, we will slowly become more aware of ourselves as others see us. This can be devastating, and we ought not to seek such awareness, or force it on others, before the right time. All of us will have many “moments of truth” when we are confronted with the opinions of others, whether or not we want to be aware of them. Here again, our growing sense of God’s presence and love for us is crucial. Only He can look at our worst sins and corruption, our biggest mistakes, errors and self-imposed limitations with complete and unconditional love. When others see us, and when we see others, we are still too blinded by our own sins and fallen nature to see beyond these things (Mat. 7:1-5). If we could see clearly as God sees, we would find it impossible to dislike, judge or hate anyone, including ourselves (1 John 4:20). As it is, we humans find the total acceptance we need only from God, even though He may choose to show it through others.
Nevertheless, we know from the Lord’s own example that there are times when we ought not to trust ourselves to the opinions and manipulations of others. (Cf. John 2:24-25 and Luke 4:29-30.) We should learn not to take seriously the counsel and criticism of others, however helpfully intended, when they themselves are not open to counsel or criticism, lest as St. John Climacus points out, we “mistake the sick man for the doctor, the sailor for the ship’s captain and so bring our ship to wreck in the harbor….” This is a matter for great prayer and discernment, however, for there is also a saying that he who is guided only by his own advice is guided by a fool. Especially when we are not being asked to compromise either our Orthodox Faith or our morals and ethics, it is critical for us to hear what others have to tell us, even about ourselves, and to have the freedom to follow their directions. We can know we are growing when we can begin to face the facts and truth that others tell us and can at times do things their way without anger, frustration or discouragement.
Laziness, compulsive behaviors, addictions, bad habits of word and deed – we slowly begin to become aware of these and other faults in ourselves where before we had noticed them only in others.
When we are willing to persevere through this, after the first layer of unpleasant garbage has been washed away by the clear water of the Holy Spirit entering the stagnant cesspool of our lives, we may find ourselves on a very pleasant stretch of life for awhile. Those who know us may see that we have changed and that we are nicer to be around. This is normal. It is a sort of “honeymoon” that God may give us to encourage us at the beginning of our walk with Him. In ignorance, we may be tempted to think that we have reached full maturity.
Soon, however, we will discover that we have many more layers of dirt that missed that first washing. We may feel that we are never going to be clean. Then, again bit-by-bit, we may start feeling a little better: Our families and friends can see that we aren’t leaving such a muddy trail behind us. They know and understand how far we have come, and tend to be appreciative and supportive.
So another stage of our journey may coincide with a physical move to another place, making new friends, getting a new job, entering a monastery, or having another similar life change. Here no one knows our past; our good deeds and progress are not interesting. We have to start all over again to rebuild our good reputation. If we have gradually come to think of ourselves as nice people, we may startle even ourselves by the anger we feel when others do not recognize our spiritual worth. We may be tempted to think that they are bad people who cause this anger within us. The truth of the matter is no one can make us angry or behave badly unless we choose to let him or her do so. Anger can be accompanied by feelings of loneliness and discouragement, but these are simply natural parts of growing up.
Along with this growth in obedience and the humility of self-knowledge, God will allow our progress to be tested with some real misfortunes, tragedies and setbacks. If we are relying only on our selves and our own strength, we will be thrown back again and again into our feelings of despair and discouragement. When we finally learn our own limits and weaknesses from these experiences, and let them prompt us to turn more fervently to God in prayer, we will begin to gain strength even from adversity and the devil will not be able to rejoice twice. We will fear neither adversity nor fortune, for we will know that any virtue we may have comes not from our own efforts but from God alone.
The true Dark Night of the Soul, or final purgation mentioned in ascetical literature, is reserved for those who persevere, gaining love, joy, strength and stamina from their journey. Probably most of us will never really get to this point in our lives here on earth. If we have allowed God to fill our lives to the brim with His love; allowed the fire of His cleansing Spirit to burn out all our dross and temper our gold; faced the worst pain, terror and loss the world has to offer, then possibly if God so wills, we may be called on to enter in some way into the darkness Jesus Himself faced on the Cross, when having fulfilled all righteousness He yet found Himself crying out, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” This was not a cry of despair. It was the voice of God’s human experience, HHe entering the lowest depths of the fallen human state cut off from the Father, so that even in His presence we sense only abandonment. The writer of Hebrews (4:15) wrote: “For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
In His infinite wisdom, God perfects some people who seem to have spent their lives in sin, degradation and hurtful violence, by placing them at the moment of death in the presence of a forgiving love that transforms their end. Or at the end He may put them through all of these stages of Christian maturity including the dark night of the soul during one brief episode of illness, persecution, torture or other great suffering. Others who have lived good lives may be perfected through a long and lingering illness suffering from something like Alzheimer’s disease that strips them of any responsibility or virtue they seemed to have gained. God leads us each in a unique way. And what seems to be the end here is merely the door opening onto an eternity of growth into love and life.
If we do nothing else then, let us turn to God in love and trust, saying to Him with all the heartfelt sincerity we can muster: “Let Your will, not mine, be done.” Let us throw ourselves, like little children, into the arms of His mercy, there to find the true maturity, which alone can lead us into the Kingdom of Heaven (Mark 10:15).