Spiritual Growth [Part 2]: Where am I and how did I get here?

Over the ages many people have tried to describe what growth in prayer looks like by outlining it for the rest of us to glean insight and understanding into our own prayer lives. I’ve found it amusing just how many different pictures or models have been offered over the years.

I think this may be because each person is created individually and uniquely different from the rest, therefore that person’s experience interacting with God is also unique. Because each person is particularly made, the Father particularizes His love for each of His children differently. This phenomenon is one of many factors, which account for the differences of how the saints have interpreted stages of growth. Because of this factor, as well as others like hermeneutical liberties, there have been some discrepancies in a universal model as to exactly how many developmental stages a “baby Christian” ought to experience on their way to full maturation in Christ.

Origen, the earliest contributor to this discussion, at one time suggested that there are forty-two stages! He arrives at this number through his parallelism of Israel’s wilderness account in the book of Numbers to the life of a believer. Finding the spiritual or higher meaning in a Bible story was an “integral part of his overall understanding of scripture, according to which a hidden or “mystical” sense was to be found beneath or alongside the “narrative” sense.”* In another work of his, Origen completely sets aside the Numbers model for a much simpler model fashioned after the three books of Solomon: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon.

St. Augustine, who influenced church thought in the forth or fifth century, also offered his own model of growth. “In his De quantitate animae, one of his earliest treatises and one which reflects the strong emphasis of Neoplatonism, Augustine writes of the seven stages or steps involved in the ascent to the knowledge and contemplation of God.”

It may seem as if there is no correlation between these authors or many others who came after them. Origen presented forty-two stages, while Augustine presented seven; John Cassian is unclear if there are four or five stages. Hugh and Richard of St. Victor seem agreeable but Richard takes Hugh’s final stage and divides it into six! St. Teresa seems like the over-achiever and makes seven stages out of St. John of the Cross’ three.

Although there may seem to be no relation or collaboration between these spiritual writers, there is actually much more similarity than there is dissimilarity. Even among all of the great thinkers mentioned above there is general consensus about three meta-stages to the spiritual life present in each of their individual models (which I’ll dig into more in my next Blog Entry). Those three stages consist of a purgative part, an illuminative part, and a unitive experience or goal. The apostle Paul gives plenty of support for these different roles or seasons in a believer’s life, although he doesn’t give a linear order or a coherent picture for moving between these states.

In terms of the purgative and illuminative process, Paul stated, “Throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy.” To the Ephesians, he suggests a two-fold process, one of emptying, and another of filling.

In regards to the telos of growth or the “unitive” portion of prayer – Paul quotes from his own experience when he says, “My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” And again in another place he adds, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Gleaning from Paul’s personal experience, it can be assumed that Paul’s experience of Christ had moved beyond relationality to a mysterious unitive familiarity that can only be described in metaphors and mystical language.

What do you think? Have you experienced different seasons or flavors of prayer? How many distinct “stages” have you experienced? Do you spend more time in either purgative, illuminative, or unitive prayer than others?

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*a full list of reference text is available upon request

Posted in Church History, Prayer, Spiritual Formation.