In one of his many stories from the East, Jesuit Anthony De Mello describes a man being chased by a tiger, coming up to a cliff, then climbing down to catch hold of a small branch jutting out of the rock face.
With the tiger above and thousands of feet below, the man sees berries growing on the branch in his hand. In his final moments he picks one, and as the story goes, it tasted so sweet. At the moment we accept death as inevitable, life takes on fullness and freshness.
As we consider the spiritual life in the abstract we tend to envision greater peace or calm or maturity, or within the religious traditions, of discipleship or leadership and growth, and that’s fine at the institutional level. Even contemplatives can develop a sense of a spiritual ladder to climb if we cling too tightly to the understanding of spiritual stages, which, properly understood, aren’t so much states we achieve, as experiences we move through.
And for some reason the mystics, teachers, and spiritual masters keep bringing up the specter of death as essential to this process.
Traditionally, “dying to self and rising in Christ” is the language of baptism and marks an entrance into Christian community. But the one-off conversion experience or the moment of commitment and baptism somehow doesn’t seem a main focus for contemplatives. Instead, there are a series of deaths. Some even write of the moment-to-moment death and rebirth.
As we’ve been writing about in recent posts at Contemplative Light, there do seem to be identifiable patterns, stages or movements of the spiritual life. But once we start thinking in categories, we often want to know the formula for moving along. There’s a danger in confusing the spiritual life with an achievement project, and our ego just wants to climb to the top of the mountain as fast as possible.
Instead, moving along each stage of the spiritual life as understood by the mystics requires a greater and greater death of the self. The Godhead rises within us to the extent we participate in the process of dying as modeled by Christ and the mystics.
It can be valuable for those of us on the contemplative path to understand how teachers both ancient and modern have understood the stages of the spiritual life, whether pre-Awakening, Awakening, and Enlightenment, or Purgation, Illumination, and Union, there are many descriptions for it, and much overlap in the descriptions across traditions, eras, and cultures.
And yet, all conceptualization will not protect us from what is required to move along these stages. We can delude ourselves into thinking as long we understand what is happening, as long as we have a category or container for it, it will never be too bad. After all, we’re making progress. But these can simply become new forums, new means for the ego to feel like it has some control over the process.
But for awakening, for realization, for non-contingent joy of spirit to manifest, more death is always required. And that comes not in abstract categories and concepts, but in real ways in our very particular lives. And though this is the way toward greater life and wholeness the process itself is still harrowing.
In this sense, the cross transforms in meaning from a religious symbol or something that happened a long time ago bringing about a divine transaction into a symbol of dying to the self in the here and now that leads to freedom.
In traditional thinking, Christ’s sacrifice is a substitute for us, which translates us if we accept that sacrifice on an individual basis. For contemplatives, it’s rather a model of the path we ourselves must walk, of acceptance, divestiture, loss, of dying to ego, moving to freedom and awakening to become “children of God.” Rather than dying for us, he taught us how to die that we might live.
There’s a world of difference in assenting to a concept that someone else died for us and walking through that death to receive the life on the other side. We enter the state of being called kingdom to the extent we die to ourselves or even our sense of self more and more.
From John of the Cross to Evelyn Underhill, mystics teach of different deaths along the way that facilitate this movement – the Night of Sense or The Dark Night of the Soul. In the East, before there is a Great Awakening comes the Great Doubt.
As we walk deeper in the process, “dying to self” changes in meaning from leaving behind behavior patterns we used to engage in, embracing a moral life and a Christian community to a change in our understanding of the self and the very reality we find ourselves in. The phenomenal world of our daily perception is just the surface of the vast ocean of Spirit.
Understanding the patterns or stages of the spiritual life can be like understanding Scripture or understanding theology. The mental framework is not the life. The map is not the journey.
From the contemplative perspective, the practices lend perspective, and help remind us: the body is not who we truly are. Long-time practitioners have the same experience with their conceptual-emotional selves, understanding, ultimately, this is not who we are either. On a much deeper, more essential level, we are spirit.
Can you imagine your ultimate happiness or inner state dependent upon nothing whatsoever, just a deep acceptance and joy springing forth? This is what happens when all the obstacles are removed. And the process of removing those obstacles is what we call death.
Understanding the stages of the spiritual life can be helpful, but the only way to experience these movements as described by the mystics and sages is to walk the way of the cross, is to continually die to ourselves.
Contemplative Light on Stages of the Christian Mystical Path
Rohr on Incarnation Instead of Atonement
De Mello on Dying to Our Conditioning
Thomas Keating on Stages of Contemplative Living