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Another Perspective

Spiritual Development or How to Understand the Hangtown Trilogy

It has been a while since I posted a blog because I didn't have anything to say worth recording. I awoke this morning with a dream that suggested I should.
Growing up, I developed an interest in why are some people are close to God, and others aren't? Striving to answer this question has shaped my life, most of the time unconsciously.
I went to seminary and became a priest seeking an answer. What I've learned over the years is a person's theological beliefs don't matter. It's faith or trust that makes the difference. Closeness to God comes from grace, not correct thoughts.
As a young priest, I explored the role values play in spiritual development. I found values emerge from spirituality; they don't lead to it.
My study of C.G. Jung showed me psychology's contribution to spiritual growth. Dr. Jung emphasized the role of the unconscious in the process of maturation, how we can access the unconscious and learn from it. This was a huge help but didn't tell me why some people are closer to God than others. One of Jung's students, the brilliant Jewish thinker, Erich Neumann, wrote Depth Psychology and a New Ethic.In it, I found a vision of how spiritual development unfolds. Neumann came as close to answering my question as anyone has.
Utilizing Neumann's thinking, I came up with a six-step process of spiritual growth and presented it at a conference. My paper was dry, and there was too much material for the time allotted. Not surprisingly, the response was boredom and indifference. This experience taught me describing the steps formally was not the best way to do it. I turned to storytelling.
Zach Johnson's spiritual evolution in my Hangtowntrilogy illustrates my discernment. Zach goes from being a young man interested in sex and money in book one to an advanced level of enlightenment at the conclusion of the trilogy. It was not his knowledge of Christianity that propelled Zach's growth but his openness to God's grace.
Since few people are as captivated by spiritual development as I am, I've found most readers overlook or don't understand this element of the trilogy. Before giving a synopsis of the process, there are three things to mention.
First, Zach reaches stage five. This is quite an accomplishment, even though he didn't get to the highest level. Only a few inspired souls reach stage six. Fortunately, God loves us wherever we are on our journeys.
Second, being saved or not saved has nothing to do with where we are in our spiritual development. As has long been observed, bidden or not bidden, God is present.
Third, the movement from one stage to another is not smooth. We taste a higher level before attaining it. We typically spend years, if not decades, in each level. I delineated the stages sharply (I hope), but they aren't so distinct in life. The Hangtowntrilogy shows the fuzziness of the process.
In my description of the six stages, I refer to God as He. I do not intend to suggest God is masculine. God is beyond gender identification.
Stage One: Blissful Ignorance
In stage one, we are consumed with the allure of success and security. Being good at something is regarded as the key to finding happiness. Instant gratification is preferred, and the reality of an inner world is typically denied. We seek authorities to tell us how to live. We attach ourselves to what they espouse because it is too frightening to do otherwise.  Fear and inertia inhibit our growth. Stage one doesn't provide us with what we want because we're estranged from our souls and the fullness of reality. Eventually, this narrow way of living leads to a great deal of pain.
Stage Two: The Call
In stage two, we are no longer able to fix our problems in the old ways. Honesty enables us to stop being duplicitous or emotionally evasive. Until we are honest with ourselves, we cannot grow. Change becomes possible when we admit our powerlessness and surrender to God. The call by God requires abandoning our previous lifestyle to undertake a new direction. There is the sense of being initiated into a new way of life. This is commonly called a conversion. We are full of vigor as we transition from the old into the unknown. In stage two, pain and honesty lead to growth.
Stage Three: Responding to the Call
New attitudes and behaviors emerge as we respond to our call. We move away from the past's familiarity toward the new's unknown. We feel reborn. Religious texts, ceremonies, and life in general offer glimpses of God's radiance. Something inside of us demands we undertake a new activity, career, or way of life. We think and behave differently. Our values shift.
The dark side of stage three is hubris. We can become full of ourselves, zealots. We feel we are the chosen ones and are motivated to bring others to the realization we've attained. "Believe what I do or die!" becomes our crusade's slogan.
Stage Four: Encountering the Void
In stage four, spiritual growth is difficult. There is a conflict between two insistent parts of our psyches. One part wants to cling to the light of the familiar while the other is ready to move further into the darkness of the unknown. Stage four requires letting go of the convictions about God that we've cultivated in stages two and three. We can't see beyond them until we do.
This is never easy and leads to more suffering. Stage four is a time when growing spiritually seems unattainable and pointless. This is the Holy Saturday experience. We are no longer connected to what once was while not yet participating in the new either. Saint John of the Cross referred to this experience as the dark night of the soul. The hardships of living in the void beat the fragility and spiritual complacency out of us. Keen spiritual insight gradually comes as we perceive more of reality as it truly is. Stage four brings us to an expanded appreciation for the sovereignty of God.
Stage Five: Purposefulness
During the struggles of stage four, the ego begins to be aware that though limited, it has a task and responsibility to fulfill. The connection between inner and outer events becomes conscious. We recognize all the internal and external influences in our lives are parts of a whole. They reflect and influence each other, and as they do, we discover an intrinsic purposefulness in creation.
In Stage Five, we no longer dictate to life what it should be like. Instead, we seek to be in service to it. When our souls encounter God, the Holy Other, we feel in the presence of a Reality that is accepting, caring, merciful, compassionate, and greater than ourselves. Meeting God is an experience of love.
Once we taste the deep joy and serenity of feeling close to God, that we are intended and loved, injuring this relationship (sin) is dreadful. The greater our closeness to God, the harsher its loss is.
Stage Six: Union/Oneness
The final stage is characterized by a oneness with God, a living in harmony with the Creator's unfolding dimensions. We see God's radiance in all things: all of life is holy. God uses our lives to reveal the sacredness that is life. Only a few spiritual giants reach this level. Those that do, don't2 believe in God. They know Him.

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