Introduction to Stages of Spiritual Development

Stages of Spiritual Development

Many of the mystics, my friends and mentors, offer clear warnings against those who would set themselves up as spiritual teachers. So I want to make it clear at the outset that I offer these posts about Evelyn Underhill’s model of spiritual development as a student, not a teacher. I am still exploring the ideas and questions that I raise here book, and expect to explore them for the rest of my life. Nothing written here is definitive.

I’m writing because I’ve been trying to discover good ways of reading the mystics in community, and I find, as I work and learn with groups of friends, that we often need some framework of understanding to help us make sense of the author we’re reading. Great and brilliant people have provided various understandings of the mystic life, and all of them are useful. Every metaphor helps to describe something that is, in a very real way, indescribable. The mystics try to answer the question of how the human soul grows close to God, and they do so with metaphors of liturgy, of journeying, of love-making, of moving through the rooms of a house, of being burnt up by a divine fire, or blinded by divine light, of gazing into mirrors and growing like plants. Some, such as Julian of Norwich, expound on visions that they’ve received. Some, such as St. John of the Cross, describe the meaning of poems that they’ve written.

These mystics are my friends and companions as I grow in love of God and of the world. They are always gently telling me that love for God and love for the world are intertwined, that I cannot pursue only one love. The love they teach isn’t easy. So much has to happen within me for me to be capable of that love, and my capacity to truly love is only momentary. St. Teresa of Avila said that no one is so advanced in prayer that they don’t, from time to time, have to go back to the beginning. In these posts, as I talk about the mystic way, know that I have sometimes advanced along it, and sometimes find myself back at the very beginning. Teresa’s great metaphor for our journey with God is a castle with seven rooms, an interior mansion in which we move from room to room. There seems to be a kind of progress to this. Not all of the rooms are accessible to us right away, and our journey is one of receiving the gift of entrance into more and more beautiful rooms. But if you think about where you live, you will know that having access to a room doesn’t mean that you’re always in it. My home happens to have exactly seven rooms, and in the course of a day I wander in and out of every one of them. You will find, as you grow in love and understanding of God, that there are times when you’ve wandered back into the mud room, and can’t seem to move past it into the kitchen or the living room, or whatever rooms you pass through as you go deeper and deeper into your home.

One of St. Catherine of Siena’s great metaphors is that of a tree, planted in the center of a circle. The tree is the human soul, always trying to grow and flower. The earth that it’s planted in is humility, and the circle itself is God. God goes round and round, never ending, creating an earth, an atmosphere, a place in which the soul can flourish. But in order to flourish, we need to learn humility, to seek deep roots into a true and dirty understanding of ourselves, and accept that we will find worms and little skittering things in that dirt. Not always pleasant, but the soil of our humility is aerated by such things: by our little failures, our sorrows, our recognition that many things have to die within us to create that wonderful, loamy compost from which we can grow. 

I have journeyed with the mystics over the course of months and years, and during that time I have sometimes been full of grace and love, and at others I’ve been very small and broken. I have kept writing, even during the hard times, the times of my spiritual adolescence, when metaphorical bones have ached and the mind that should be centered on God has been flooded with hormonal yearnings. The child is the father of the man, or the mother of the woman, and there have been times when that child, who is still very much within me, has thrown tantrums, pouted, and done everything he can to try to get his way. Through it all, my conversation with the mystics has sustained me. They have been my guides, my mentors, my friends. I want to share their understandings with you, and hope to do so in such a way that you’ll come to love them, as I have.

But do know that I have only an incomplete understanding of them, that I see through a glass darkly. Mechthild of Magdeburg wrote that in order to truly benefit from her book, The Flowing Light of the Godhead, one must read it nine times. I have only read it once. I find, as I read the mystics, that I need a guide, someone who can converse with me and draw me into greater understanding. Evelyn Underhill has been that guide to me.

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