Spiritual Practice: Faithing Over the Lifespan – Stages Five and Six

As we’ve looked at the stages of faith development, we’ve moved from the early stages of black and white thinking (stages 1-2), to the stage of belonging (stage 3). Then we generally “hit a wall” of some kind, which leads to stage four, a great time of spiritual disorientation.

Stage five is a time of reorientation and tremendous spiritual growth, like stage three, but with very different parameters.

As I mentioned in the last post, in stage four it’s as if the “God Map” we’ve built from our earlier experience has been blown apart. Suddenly God gets much bigger, less definable, and yet more all-encompassing. The image of using a larger basket to collect spiritual understanding is helpful. We find we relate to truths found in other religions and become less about “us-them” and more about “we.”

In stage five faithing we learn to talk less and listen more, especially in prayer. Words become less critical, and being present to the Divine and to others becomes profound. Contemplative practices begin to feed the soul more than those in stage three faithing, where Bible Study, Worship, and Church attendance were the primary means of spiritual growth. Now growth comes from silence, solitude, and contemplative faith practices.

Just a bit of history here: Contemplative faith practices (as those written about in this blog) are not new, or New Age, as some say. In fact, the early church was known for them. If you look at the Bible, you will see these kinds of practices in both the old and new testaments. Elijah hid in a cave, where he found God was in the still, small voice. And Jesus often went to a lonely place where he prayed. God did excellent work in deserts, wombs, and tombs.

What changed? Christianity became the state religion after Rome’s ruler, Constantine, ended the persecution of Christians. And whenever you mix faith and politics, things go sour. (This has never been more evident than now). So, after Rome got involved, the state church became corrupt, and many believers fled into the desert to be alone with God and try to reclaim their faith. They became known as the desert mothers and fathers, and they taught the way of contemplation. These desert communities grew into monasteries, and the practices of contemplation got trapped there, available to only those who lived inside.

During the reformation, the protestant churches threw out the contemplative practices baby with the Roman bathwater and only trusted spoken prayer, Bible reading, and preaching. In Catholicism, the contemplative practices stayed mostly inside the monasteries, unavailable to the congregations.

But, every five hundred years, as Phyllis Tickle says in her book The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why, God throws a garage sale to get rid of all the barnacles that have calcified our faith and bring something new. We are in the middle of that kind of cosmic shaking right now. This shaking has allowed these ancient spiritual practices to reemerge.

And, people seem to be coming to these practices sooner. Perhaps because young people are experiencing much pain early in life, or maybe it is time for something new to come to the church. I hope it is the latter.

Whatever it is, stage five is a lengthy exploration of a new relationship with God. People in Stage Three might look on someone in Stage Five and assume they have slid down the slippery slope into “liberal Christianity.” I know I used to think that way. Now I understand it is actually a place of deeper faith and increasing love of God, not less. This is where we will probably spend the rest of our days, exploring the ever-increasing depth and breadth of God—finding the Divine in all people and all sentient beings, often feeling closer to God in nature than in church. However, I still believe that being part of a congregation is important. Most of us will not move beyond stage five faithing.

So, what of Stage Six? I imagine few people get there. It has been described as a Oneing with God. Some people are so united with the Divine they care only for others. Think of Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., or Gandhi. These were not perfect people but people whose whole lives were to serve others and eventually died in that singleness of purpose.

What happens to what we learned in the previous stages? It is not lost; it is integrated into us as we continue to grow. We are not to disdain the things we believed in the past, but to honor them and hold them as foundational to what we have now. This is not a linear progression either. We can revisit previous stages at any time.

The goal of understanding faithing over the life cycle is not to box people into stages but to make us more compassionate to others on their own journeys and give us words for our own experience as we go through these passages.

I’d love to hear what you think of the idea of stages of spiritual development. Does it make sense? Does it help? What have you found to be true in your experience?

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Spiritual Practice: Faithing Over the Lifespan (Stage Three)

In the last blog, I talked about how our spiritual development moves along predictable stages, unless it gets stalled. We covered stage one and two. You can read about that here and also see the books I’ve linked on this interesting topic.

Today we will talk about stage three, a happy, wonderful time in faith development. Stage three is all about “belonging.” For most of us, that involves being involved in some faith institution like a church, temple, or mosque.

It is a time of tremendous spiritual growth. For the Christian, which is my faith tradition, it is a time to learn. If you’re lucky, you will learn to read and study the Bible, as well as teach others to do so. You might be taught how to pray, serve others, share your faith, and perhaps get to take a life-changing mission trip to share your faith in another country. It is a warm and loving stage where you are on the inside of a faith culture.

Unfortunately, a sense of “us versus them” develops by necessity at this stage because the goal of any institution is to keep nurturing its members. So, we are encouraged to invite people in. Those on the inside are “us.” Those on the outside are “them.” On the inside, we have our own language, music, and often unspoken rules that separate us from “them.”

People often ask if Institutions like churches can grow beyond level three spirituality. It’s very rare because how could they exist without people staying inside to run the show, give money, and help each other? Institutions need committed members to stay healthy but many folks, if they start to grow beyond stage three spiritual development, begin to feel stifled and look for support outside of the institution. Some churches with wise leadership create spaces for these people to continue to grow without leaving their faith community.

This understandable limit to institutional change can become problematic when there is a clear line drawn around who is inside and who is outside. When those unlike “us” are looked down on or defamed for having different beliefs, it can become toxic spirituality. I’ve known of churches that will “disfellowship” members for not behaving in ways they don’t consider proper, like dating a non-Christian, being a feminist, or, heaven forbid, being gay. To find yourself pushed outside of that warm and fuzzy circle can be devastating. We will discuss this phenomenon more in the next blog when we get to stage four.

I’ve noticed that for me, the current political climate has pushed me right back into stage three, thinking. It’s easy to villainize people on the opposite side of the political spectrum. Apparently, other countries like to stir up this discord on social media in incredibly smart psychological warfare to keep our nation divided. If you don’t believe me watch The Social Dilemma on Netflix . I’ve been trying to limit social media and skipping political posts so as not to participate in so much level three thinking.

You can see the benefits of stage three faithing. But there are drawbacks to staying in it for too long. Suppose we seclude ourselves from other ideas and keep people different from us at arm’s length. In that case, it can lead to all kinds of problems. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and other issues arise when our circle is too tight; we don’t allow everyone to have a voice at the table.

Does this make sense to you? What benefits and drawbacks have you experienced in stage three faithing?

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Spiritual Practice: Faithing Over the Lifespan (Stages One and Two)

In Greek, faith is a verb. Faith is an action, not a thing. Faith moves and breathes and grows with us in predictable stages. In the same way that Erick Erickson described predictable stages of emotional growth and development, others have described noticeable stages of spiritual development. These stages have been identified across religions and outside of religions as our spiritual development is a part of all human development. Over the next four blogs, I hope to describe an overview of these stages, but there are excellent books about these for those interested, which I will link here.

Stage One: Ages one to two years. Although the stages do not always follow chronological ages, stage one is an early part of development as it is mostly preverbal spiritual development. It has to do more with the way we are parented than it does with us.

Spiritual development begins from the moment we are born, or some would say that we begin to develop as spiritual beings even before we are born. Scientists say that new parents, with dilated eyes from the intensity of the childbirth experience, “gleam” into their baby’s faces, connecting brain to brain and stimulating brain development.

Celtic theologian John Phillip Newell tells of talking to OBGYNs about the first moments of a newborn’s life and hearing the consensus that looking into a newborn’s face was akin to looking directly at the Divine.

So, what is stage one of our spiritual development? It’s building trust. If a parent is consistent with us at the early ages of one and two, if our home is predictable and our needs are met, we learn to trust. Trust provides safety for a child to trust God as well.

If we are raised in a neglectful or abusive environment, this lack of trust is hard to overcome. Similarly, if we are raised with the idea of a scary and vengeful God, it will be hard to move past the guilt and fear which comes with that.

We know from studying children with attachment disorder that neglected children have a hard time developing any connected relationship. Interrupted stage one faithing can lead to difficulty trusting that God is good, safe, and available. It can also harm our relationships with others.

Stage Two: Generally, this stage is from ages 3 to 8 years, but we can get stuck in our spiritual development at any stage and have trouble moving forward, as we have seen in stage one.

Stage two is about black and white thinking. It is a necessary time to understand good and evil, heroes, and villains. This is why, in the Christian tradition, we tell children about all the wonderful Bible Stories like David and Goliath, Moses parting the Red Sea, or Noah and the Ark. Children need those heroes and this kind of concrete understanding that God as good, loving and will protect us from evil.

But you can see what happens when religion gets stuck at stage two thinking. It leads to legalistic fundamentalism in which there is only black and white with no room for gray.

You may have seen a bumper sticker that says, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” This is a classic example of Stage Two thinking. There is no room for discussion, no room for gray.

For our next blog, we will look at Stage Three, a very happy spiritual development stage full of belonging and spiritual growth. But it can have its drawbacks too, if we get stuck there.

So, why is learning about faithing over the lifespan a spiritual practice?

First, it gives us words for our experience. I LOVE to have words for my experience.

Second, it helps to understand when you meet folks in a different stage than yours. Since we all share similar paths of spiritual develpment, we can appreciate that one stage is not better than another. They are all essential building blocks to grow on. We don’t forget what we learned in a previous stage; we incorporate it and build on it as we move to the next stage. Also, we cannot force a person from one stage to another. God is in charge of helping us grow.

Third, we might realize where we got stuck along the way and be able to untangle and move forward in our development.

And fourth, when we get to stage four, which is a time of spiritual disorientation, we are going to need all the help we can get to understand what is happening to us! Hang in there, folks. Help is coming.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on your faithing journey. Can you see your own stage one or stage two history? Does any of it make sense?