The Feast of Epiphany is a celebration of the Journey of the Magi or the three wise men, popularized in Christmas nativity scenes and a bigger part of Catholic and Eastern traditions than, say, most Protestant faith expressions.
It’s a natural time to reflect on the process or journey and the changes we undergo as we move through stages of faith. I’ve written about these stages in a previous post, and these are usually articulated from a fairly macro level. Bernard of Clairvaux, for example, writes about four stages: loving self for self, loving God for self, loving God for God, and finally, loving self for God. And Janet Hagberg’s The Critical Journey outlining six stages is common reading in spiritual formation programs. But in this post I wanted to address the stages of faith from a more personal angle.
More recently, James Fowler also discusses six stages of faith, as people move from more literal-conventional interpretations and understanding of faith learned in childhood to a more reflective, integrated, and mature faith beyond superficial interpretations.
In my experience with both friends and loved ones in college, seminary, and beyond, moving through these stages can be a hard road, full of disillusionment, stretched boundaries, disorientation, and loss. As a seminary professor reminded us, it can also be just as hard for some to lose their faith as it is for others to maintain it. In my experience, moving and maturing through the stages of faith includes some combination of the following:
- An unflinching look at the reality of suffering in the world without escaping into triumphalist, simplistic worldviews. The danger is getting stuck at this stage and falling into a general cynicism and essential nihilism. It can cause the deconstruction without the reconstruction.
- A rigorous and radical self-examination. We come to a point of examining not only hot-button issues and where we stand on a given topic, issue, or Bible verse, but our unconscious processes, our assumptions about the world and others. Our assumptions about ourselves. Looking at our mental infrastructure often takes prompting from the outside, precisely because the processes are deeply embedded and unconscious. We can’t see them. And unless we’re open and in a trusting, nurturing environment, we tend to get defensive. This process is even more deeply disorienting than confronting external suffering, because we begin to see our own unflattering ego at work and recognize the need to change, but usually still feel unable to or afraid to.
- A confrontation with our own shadow. We see in some blatant way our destructive ego at work. Since we are usually at pains to put on a good face or perform according to social codes, this is usually a humbling experience leading to a profound inner strain.
- The great annihilation. At some point, after strain and struggle, after ping-ponging from striving to weeping, from performance to guilt to forgiveness, we give up the game, we let go, we accept, we surrender. We’re able to see that aspect of ourselves we’ve mistakenly assumed was our only self, the ego, the false self, for what it is.
There comes a point from refinement through suffering where we are able to stand as if outside ourselves and extend the same kind of grace we might extend to an addict because we recognize that’s exactly what we are, even if all we’re addicted to is our own narrow pattern of thinking.
Neither outward conversion or long-standing participation in a community of faith shields us from the necessity of undergoing this transformative process if we are to move toward wholeness of spirit and authentic christlikeness. Sooner or later, we will be confronted by our failure, inadequacy, anxiety, depression, or addiction once again. But St. Augustine writes of the felix culpa or happy fault. It is our weakness that becomes a strength. It is the weakness that drives us to the point of death, of annihilation, when nothing is left and we are suddenly flooded by an awareness of infinite grace.
Denise Levertov writes of this experience in her poem The Avowal:
As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.
Until that point of floating when we thought we might drown, we are still striving, still earning, caught in the great game of divine meritocracy, or hounded by desire and craving from our wounds on the one hand, and kept in line by convention, conformity or fear on the other. We will ourselves toward righteousness instead of being genuinely transformed.
In seminary, it became almost a catch-phrase to say “too many of us want the resurrection without the passion.” In our zeal, some of us on the faith journey exchange a pleasure-seeking ego for a righteousness-seeking ego, but are never fully hollowed out by grace. The litmus test is usually how easily we condemn others and assume an air of superiority. We project enemies instead finding opportunities for care and service.
It’s no secret that the religious establishment – the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the Scribes, and Scholars, the New Testament’s morality brigade found themselves the target of much of Jesus’s teaching. They’d found a way to consolidate an ego while staying beyond reproach. Technically, by the religious standards of their day, they were unassailable, following the law to a T. When faith becomes a perfection game, as it often does in the synthetic-conventional stage, we can’t help notice all the flaws in others. The further outside our immediate sphere people are, the more we tend to project, since our righteousness needs a foil, a contrast.
We look for things to be offended by instead of opening ourselves to the process of transformation toward a greater wholeness, which is always inextricably linked to the other, the outcast, the excluded, and the downtrodden.
In a self-righteous state we tend to get caught up in culture wars. In a transformed state we tend to find quiet ways to serve.
This process of transformation can go by various terms: the way of the cross, the paschal mystery, the downward journey, the way of suffering. It’s usually occasioned by some kind of loss – of a job, of a loved one, of a relationship. There’s some kind of death.
The contemplative teachers from throughout the Christian tradition suggest this is the only way to the highest stages of faith and deepest unitive awareness of a creation shot through with grace like sunlight through and opened window.
It’s interesting to note that, according to both Fowler’s chart on the stages of faith and David G. Benner’s excellent Spirituality and the Awakening Self, people stuck in literal-conventional stages of faith often feel those expanding into higher stages of faith have lost their way.
But ultimately, at the higher levels, faith is not about maintaining a life-long assent to literalist dogma and trying to get others to agree. That’s a game for earlier stages of development. It’s about an ever-expanding capacity to accept, receive, and become a channel for ever-greater grace and love in the world. Or to increase the awareness of the grace that is ever present.
Everything else becomes recognized for the ego-extension game it is. To become this kind of channel requires a carving, a scraping, like hollowing out a jack-o-lantern for light to shine through. In fact, contemplatives teach of a second baptism. The first having been of water, the second of fire. In spiritual texts, fire is that which burns away what is impure, it refines, it transforms into unalloyed essence.
If you take up the contemplative path, the teachers say, welcome to this great burning, this great hollowing out, welcome to the cross and the great annihilation. Of course, it’s the false self that’s annihilated, but good Lord if that scraping away doesn’t hurt like hell at times. And then again at the next stage, and the next. In fact, this very pain, these very wounds become the points of connection with others on the journey. It’s in the woundedness and vulnerability that we connect with others in a deep and authentic way, much more than when we catch each other being very good. Wounds and grace are inextricably linked, as we experience in the ritual of communion.
As Anthony De Mello reminds us: to get to the land of love we have to travel through the land of death. What falls away is not just selfish desire, but also exclusion and insularity. We’re less interested in being certain that our articles of faith are the correct ones and that our capacity for selfless love is ever-expanding. We learn a profound joy in simple things, and at times of deepest insight and awareness, we let go of any agenda but that of love.
T.S. Eliot touches on this process and transformation in his poem The Journey of the Magi, an appropriate poem on this Epiphany week. No birth without death.
As an exercise this week, consider the rebirths you’ve experienced yourself. What kind of deaths were required to experience that birth? Consider writing down those areas that either needed to or still need to die. Or maybe it’s a relationship. Or maybe even a family member who’s passing allowed new spaces to open up, whether through grief or forgiveness. Honor them. Find a nativity scene or manger still lying about from Christmas or some representation of Christ’s birth, fold the paper, and place it close by or underneath the manger.