If there is one thing the internet age has made abundantly clear it’s that the human craving for lists and how-to guides is insatiable. Long before the internet made ‘listicle’ a word, this love for tidy numbered frameworks was taken up by the mystics. We’ve seen this in this Lenten mini-series already, in St. Bernard’s four loves, in the seven dwellings of St. Teresa’s Interior Castle, and even St. John of the Cross’s spirituality suggests a sequential movement from the daylight to the dark night of the senses and then the dark night of the spirit. And the mystics I’ve explored here are far from alone in this. Many of the Eastern Fathers spoke of movements from repentance through discipline and dispassion, to the experience of the divine light and, ultimately, complete communion with God. In one of my personal favorites, St. Maximus the Confessor spoke of being, well-being, and eternal-being. And for the truly daring, St. John Climacus divided the spiritual life into thirty rungs on a five-storey ladder.
There are three things I’d like to comment on about this phenomenon today.
First, we ought not to be confused or concerned by the differences in the number of stages amongst the different frameworks. There are any number of ways a journey can be divided up. My commute to work, for example, could be counted in kilometers, blocks, steps, or landmarks. That doesn’t make the journey any less the same. Similarly, there are infinite ways we could divide up human personality and thinking. Some will resonate more strongly with each of us than others; and some will be more helpful in a given context. And the same is true for the life of faith. The point for all of these writers is not to define the number of stages but to help us mark our own journey. If a particular model resonates strongly with you, then work within it to the best of your abilities and by the grace of God. Otherwise, the frameworks simply stand as beautiful exemplars for us. The important thing is just to take the next step. The map is not the territory, after all, and there isn’t really even a map.
Second, if we’re not careful, it can be easy to confuse mystical writings for self-help books. That is to say, we can mistake St. Bernard as advertising “True Love is as Easy as 1, 2, 3, 4” or reduce St. Teresa’s Interior Castle to “Seven Simple Steps to Finding Yourself,” when this couldn’t be further from what they are trying to do. Now, there’s nothing wrong with self-help books. Self-help books are unfortunately maligned in a lot of Christian circles and most of us could benefit from the genuine wisdom that is present in many of them. (The good ones at least.) But we are sorely mistaken — and will be sorely disappointed and unnecessarily frustrated — if we confuse these ancient frameworks for self-help.
There is nothing easy or quick in the life of faith. There is no workbook. There is no checklist of steps to mark as ‘complete’. What these mystical frameworks articulate is the project of a lifetime. If we think of them as maps, the territory they cover is more vast than most of us can hope to explore. And even more importantly, as much as they might involve distinct actions or attitudes for us to cultivate, they are more fundamentally describing ways in which God’s grace tends to move in people’s lives. And this God of ours is infinitely creative and will move when, how, and in whatever direction God chooses to move. God cannot be pinned down or expected to ‘behave’ according to a set schedule. If we turn these old maps into plans and processes we delude ourselves into thinking we’re in control. And if 2020 has taught us anything as a global society, it’s that we are not in control. Knowing God is about faith and trust in what is beyond ourselves. This is the antithesis of control. And so, this is not self-help. This is something deeper and more challenging still.
Finally, because God is infinitely creative, no one really ever moves through these frameworks in a linear fashion. God will lead us when and how God will lead us. Even the most ‘advanced’ spiritual ‘master’ will need remedial lessons. And even the inquirer taking her first hesitant steps can find herself bathed in the Uncreated Light. God knows our hearts and what we need. There has been a sad tendency in some parts of Christianity to build barriers between different stages in these frameworks and then to say that the practices associated with them should be reserved for certain people and not others, as though the presence of God were somehow earned or merited. While there is certainly a tremendous amount of wisdom in starting small and from a place of humility, God will do what God will do. In the life of faith, we are all beginners anyway. Always.
There are no shortcuts in this quest to know and experience God. What the mystics offer us is not a spiritualized get-rich-quick scheme, but deep, slow-burning, wisdom. Those of us in the contemporary West who have been brought up to expect results and immediate gratification will unquestionably be frustrated in our impatience. But nothing worth having in this life ever comes easy. And all good things are worth the wait.