Stages of Spiritual Development

But before I delve into the next steps in this journey towards God, I want to pause for a moment to talk about initiation. I was baptized as an infant, and confirmed, very unwillingly, at fifteen, a few years before I felt God’s playful beckoning in a Wisconsin field and in the John Muir Woods, and five years before I became intentional in my responses to it. I am not opposed to infant baptism. When my own daughter was born, we decided to have her baptized during her first year of life, and we did so because we wanted the community of the church to stand up and say that they would support her in her relationship with God. Such a baptism presumes that Christian life will be a sort of ongoing initiation — that experience will initiate the person being baptized again and again and again. 

Historically, infant baptism developed out of a fear of hell. The thinking was that we needed to be baptized to get into heaven, and since babies died with great frequency in the Medieval world, we needed to make sure that they were baptized as soon as possible. But because we wanted them to enter into a life of faith with a great deal of intent if they made it through their precarious childhoods, we created a separate rite of confirmation, and set the age for it at that moment when one was assumed to be an adult, which at the time was somewhere between twelve and fifteen.

All this is a far cry from the early church, when adults were baptized after a rigorous period of preparation. And it’s a far cry from Barbara Holmes description of initiation rites taking place in a focused spiritual environment. Contemporary American Christianity doesn’t usually link baptism or confirmation to the creation of focused spiritual environments which initiates can enter and which separate them from their usual communities, life patterns, and self-understandings. I am less interested in mourning this fact than looking at some of the ways in which we’ve created focused spiritual environments that do, in effect, the work that baptismal preparation used to do.

I don’t think that such initiations only exist in the church, or even within the context of religion. In college, I was initiated into a co-ed social group during an elaborately designed weekend (we called it “heaven weekend” to distinguish it from the “hell week” of the fraternities). I’m not sure that it changed me in any deep way, but it did invite a depth of community that I wouldn’t otherwise have had. I’ve also participated in writing workshops and improv comedy retreats that have had something of the flavor of initiation — unique collections of people coming together in places that are set apart for focused practices that, hopefully, mold and inform their regular work. What’s missing from these experiences, of course, is spirituality. These experiences can’t properly be called initiations because they don’t evoke the spirit world, or lead participants into the realm of mystery.

Within Christianity, retreats, pilgrimages, and designed experiences such as Cursillo and the Walk to Emmaus have become prime ways in which we create focused spiritual environments. Small communities form within places and times that are set aside for the purpose of inviting mystery and the possibility of spiritual change. Sometimes community can be reduced to nothing more than a retreatant and a spiritual director.

The story of my own awakening can’t be told without reverence to one of these initiation experiences. I was in seminary, and was required to take a silent retreat. Having been raised in a Christian tradition that didn’t have much interest in spiritual directors or retreats, I resisted this requirement, and when I couldn’t resist any longer without endangering my grade point average, made sure to find a way of going on retreat that wouldn’t inconvenience me. Living in Chicago, I discovered that the Cenacle Sisters in Lincoln Park offered directed retreats, and I signed up, taking the El a mere ten or so stops to arrive at the Cenacle Center. The sisters are Jesuits, and the nun who directed my retreat met with me twice a day. In the morning, she would assign scriptures for me to meditate on, and in the afternoon we would discuss the content of my meditation.

At the time, a 1970s decorative scheme still clung to the Center, and I found myself trying, and failing, to meditate on shag carpeting. So I left the Center to go and wander through Lincoln Park, reasoning that as long as I stayed silent, I wasn’t really breaking any rules. I soon found my way to the zoo and conservatory, and sat in the orchid room, a bible open in my lap, surrounded by the scent of growing things on a cold March day. That weekend I was struggling with a deep sense of unease. My experiences in the John Muir Woods and the Sierra Nevada mountains had convinced me that God was real, and that people could be good. But I didn’t think that I was any good. I was still looking to my faith to give me a short cut around myself, so that I would never have to travel through all the brokenness and sorrow of my selfhood. And the nun kept insisting that I read the Parable of the Prodigal Son and understand that my own brokenness had a place in God’s story.

My wandering through the park brought me, eventually, to the Great Ape House, and I sat inside it, on the tiered benches looking into the gorilla enclosure. The room was dark and mostly empty, silent except for the occasional interruption of a school tour passing through. A silverback came to lounge against the enclosure’s class, eating something slowly and staring out at me. Our gazes met. I saw tremendous beauty in his eyes, and was overcome by a sense of deep relief. If God made the silverback beautiful, then why not I? Was the gorilla seeing a similar beauty in me? And was God peeking out from its face, saying, yes, you are no different from the rest of creation, which I have made large and introspective and strangely gorgeous?

An initiation, of sorts, and an awakening to something. And it was followed by many others. At a campus ministry retreat, students from the University of Cincinnati interrupted a hike to sing. Sandstone cliffs rose up on either side, striated by the lapping waves of an ocean that disappeared millennia ago. Thin trees clung to them, and when the wind blew yellow leaves shook loose and scattered like the rain that was occasionally falling. A thin waterfall trickled down at the trail’s edge, and small fish darted in the shallow pool at its base. And the song reverberated through all of this, as other members of our group arrived at the big rock where the students were perching, and joined them in singing. At a retreat in Chicago, worshippers improvised tunes and sung psalms to them in the midst of communion, their voices rising and blending together in a conference room of the Chicago Youth Hostel. Again and again my life has been blessed by those who have set out to create focused spiritual environments, and lead me into a greater understanding of myself, God, and the possibilities of beauty in this world. These experiences have been both transcendent and immanent, full of a divine blessedness that comes from somewhere beyond ourselves, and a divine woundedness and healing that leads us more deeply into ourselves. 

All of these ways of awakening present the awakened person with some profound questions. What comes next? Something has changed. A new world, a new way of being, has become visible. God is discovered to be present in the beauty of nature and in the pain and glory of humanity. We feel called to respond to this revelation, and unable to retreat from it. But how should we respond?

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