Do Contemplatives Need To Move Through These 3 Stages?

In seminary, it was pretty common for students to come to a point of crisis at one time or another during their studies. The individual inflection points were different but the effect was largely the same.

Do Contemplatives Need To Move Through These 3 Stages?

What do you mean most scholars don’t think Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob actually existed? What, the timelines in the synoptic Gospels don’t line up with the Gospel of John? What do you mean there are two conflicting accounts of how Judas Iscariot died? So I guess God just lies to us then?

Brought up on a foundationalist belief system (if you take out one brick, the whole thing falls apart), some students are challenged to their very core, especially if they are used to literalist readings of Scripture.

Deeper questions open up. If something isn’t literal, can it be true? What is truth, anyway? And so on.

Those of us who don’t set aside time to address these questions head on often still come to them, just more obliquely, through personal challenges: a divorce, a layoff, a death in the family. Some core aspect of our sense of identity comes apart.

Who are we, anyway?

In midst of this deeper level of questioning when the rug is pulled out from underfoot, we usually do some profound reexamination and inspection of our assumptions and unconscious beliefs.

The trajectory from a naïve to a mature spirituality seems to follow this pattern. Richard Rohr identifies the categories as order, disorder, and reorder.

For people in the original stage, everything else looks like backsliding, relativism, a compromise, a rejection of true faith, instead of maturation and growth.

For those of us who go through this process of transformation, which is disorienting and painful, simple answers no longer work, and we’re often caught in tension in relationships with people who wish we could just go back to a naïve faith.

We tend to find community and affinity with people who have gone through a similar process, and have been able to rigorously examine their own belief systems and mental structures and come out the other side with something like peace, joy, humility, and acceptance.

Others of us are stuck in the deconstruction or disorder phase for longer periods. Some feel hoodwinked, lied to, taken for a fool, subjecting themselves to rules and judgments, giving up pleasures or freedoms for things they no longer believe in the same way. Resentment sets in.

But this isn’t the end phase. Resentment doesn’t bring about healing for us or anyone else, though nursing a sense of victimization can be addictive.

Just as one crisis can throw us into the disorder phase, another one can throw us into the reorder phase. We recognize the right beliefs won’t save us, won’t bring about wholeness, we need some ongoing practice for the inner release of wounds and resentments. Some means of no longer fighting, resisting. Some means of growing, of entering into a profound freedom. Of letting joy creep back in.

For many of us, this is the offer of contemplative practice, it’s the means of reconstruction, of reordering a spiritual life. As I’ve gone through several years of evangelizing contemplative life and practice, it’s clear this isn’t for everybody. There’s both a temperament and a set of experiences that drop us off at the trailhead.

The profound surrender it demands requires at least one crisis, maybe two: a crisis of faith and a crisis of life. We still need somewhere to go when the maps we’ve been using aren’t working. And for many the isolation and solitude that accompanies this process is one of the most difficult parts.

As I move forward with writing projects and moving Contemplative Light to a working non-profit, establishing spaces of community for those of us on the contemplative path is going to be a big priority.

Wherever you are on your journey, we pray for God’s work to be done in and through you, even if the path sometimes stretches us to the breaking point, and beyond.

Going Further

Richard Rohr on The Three Boxes

Richard Rohr on Deep Time on Krista Tippet’s On Being Podcast

Contemplative Light’s Contemplative Practice Course: The Divine Transformation

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • mystermjt

    Wow Marc, this is exactly what I went through, spent a good ten years in stage 2 until I found contemplative practices. I hope we can all help others to get there quicker than I did.

    • marcthom

      That can be a long valley! I’m glad this resonated with you. I’m wondering what practices you came to.

  • Cassie J Warren

    I love this Marc. It moves me to revisit Rilke’s letters to a young poet. Letter #6 I believe. I love that one. The work of solitude, opening, becoming. And again, the wisdom in understanding paradox. We cannot go deeper into an experience of God by intellect alone. We believe in the promise of diligent study, that the picture will sharpen; but it inevitably blurs and we are separated again. We try to bronze his image with our mind rather than feel his forever in our heart of hearts. Carry on your beautiful work, my friend. All my Love.