Whether we speak of Dante’s Seven Storey Mountain, St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s “ Four Degrees of Love,” or Ken Wilber’s Spiral Dynamics, there are many different expressions of spiritual stages. Sometimes these are expressed in metaphor and sometimes they are directly described in different faith traditions, monastic orders, and religious practices.
The recent HBO documentary Going Clear about the Church of Scientology shows that this idea can be taken to a ridiculous extreme. In general, though, it can be helpful to think in terms of stages to provide context and language for our own spiritual path and to embrace the process others are undertaking. Our individual place on the spiritual continuum is not static.
In my writing and teaching, I refer to three stages of spiritual development, though these could easily be subdivided further, and often are. These roughly correspond to stages of human development – childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Each stage is not necessarily outwardly visible, and there can be some movement back and forth. It’s helpful to think in terms of both states we experience temporarily or have a foretaste of, and stages where we dwell or have our center of gravity. It all depends on the extent to which a person has internalized a set of orientations, values, and practices that affect their relationship to themselves, others, and the divine. It depends on the extent to which we’ve experienced transformation into wholeness.
People begin at different points on the spectrum given their natural temperament and gifts. Progression is by no means linear. My experience is within a Christian contemplative tradition, though these stages should translate to other traditions as well.
In stage one, people generally behave egocentrically out of their lower nature, with their behavior largely still dictated by their core desire (stability, affection, or status), which emerges out of their core fear and core wound (early life experiences). In stage one, they may exhibit destructive, oppressive, or addictive behaviors, or simply adhere to social norms. They tend to have low levels of personal awareness of the numinous or divine, and low levels of self-awareness (why they do what they do). If they invoke spirituality at all, it is usually for selfish gain or out of fear.
In stage two or spiritual adolescence, people achieve a broader awareness beyond their immature egocentrism and achieve some kind of transcendent moral awareness. Stage two is usually about developing an identity either within or in rejection of some kind of group. This might be centered around a faith community or ritual practice. The expression or set of values adopted is dependent on the person’s core desire or energy center (stability, affection, or status).
Whatever the expression, whether “conservative” or “liberal,” whether centered around sin and guilt or justice and compassion, advancement in stage 2 is considered disciplined adherence to the set of adopted values and practices. It is the double edge of community: it gives belonging, identity, warmth, but also enforces conformity.
The downsides of stage two can be excluding outsiders, with sin considered a violation of the community rules. These rules can be either explicit orthodox doctrine or group cultural norms. Either way they organize the group’s status issues, determine what is punished, who is excluded, and who feels righteous. Stage two includes the dangers of leader worship and abuses of power.
Most expressions of faith eventually become self-perpetuating institutions and can wind up focusing their community life and teaching only up to advanced levels of stage two. Stage two can be highly effective in moving people out of immature or chaotic state, but it clearly also has limitations.
Stage three or spiritual adulthood is characterized by the increasing ability to radically see oneself and others through the eyes of grace or what the Christian tradition calls Agape-love on a moment-to-moment basis. This state can exist even as we go about our daily tasks (before enlightenment/ after enlightenment/ chopping wood, carrying water). In this state, we genuinely dedicate our life to the Wholeness of all using our particular temperament and gifting.
This stage is usually entered into through some form of profound suffering, or what the mystics call the Dark Night of the Soul. If a stage two water baptism brings one into a community, stage three baptism by fire brings us into direct contact with the divine. This happens through progressive letting go of the false self that still exists even in advanced levels of stage two spirituality. It is death and rebirth on a cosmic scale.
In seeing more and more of one’s own capacity for evil, understanding one’s own patterns of negative emotion, thought, and action, one becomes more and more sensitized to the patterns in others. Letting go more and more of one’s own ego projects and the false self allows God, grace, andlove to manifest in that cleared space within.
Although there is commonality in the descriptions of this state of awareness across the mystical forms of all world religions, it is only arrived at through rigorous attentiveness, daily, and even moment-to-moment practice. Stage three spirituality is always attended by a growth in inner qualities, or what St. Paul called fruits of the spirit: peace, joy, awareness, and love. Stage three practices are usually preserved and disseminated by monastic traditions of the various religions, or in the writings of individual mystics and contemplatives.
Most authentic faith communities will include people at all three stages of spiritual development, and so can neither be dismissed outright nor achieve complete effectiveness. Given its inclusivity and its deep internalization and manifestation of grace, the teachers, contemplatives, and mystics in stage three are often perceived as dangerous or threatening by leaders in stage two, who often have a deep need for stability, and who depend both in their own person and in their teaching on a rigidly defined moral order. Rather than focusing on the shortcomings of the previous stages, though, mature spiritual teachers like Fr. Richard Rohr encourage us to “transcend and include the positive elements” of previous stages.
In these three stages we move from the self to the community to the divine or mystical level of awareness. Again, this is not absolute nor do people progress in a linear path, and each stage contains further subdivision and progression, but articulating our spiritual maturity in stages can be extremely helpful in treating both ourselves and others with patience and grace.
Evelyn Underhill, following many of the great mystics, writes of the three stages of the mystical path: purgation, illumination, and union. This inner path is held within and emerges out of many faith traditions, especially in their monastic or contemplative forms, but is essentially an inward or esoteric, and eventually extends into the ineffible, beyond language and concept. The inner experience is one of a total transformation of the self, and even of what we conceive of as a self.
Contemplative Light on Purgation, Illumination, and Union
Richard Rohr on Developmental Stages
Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism