We cannot escape most of the crises in our lives, nor should we. In fact, these events frequently provide the energy for movement on our spiritual journey, even when we are stuck along the way... we ask questions about our own life. We wonder about meaning. – Janet O. Hagberg, the Critical Journey
Prayer is our relationship with God, and just like any relationship, it cannot be limited to programs, practices, achievements, standards for progression, or measured by successes or failures. It is a lot more complex, mysterious and organic matter.
However, it has been incredibly helpful to me to learn about the movements in our lives of prayer and changes that can be observed as a part of a spiritual journey. I am grateful for the resources that help us to understand patterns and themes in a spiritual life. One of the most helpful aspect that I have been learning about is the study on the stages of the spiritual journey. When understood and used correctly, it helps us to embrace the many dynamics that we face both in our own spiritual lives and of those around us.
It can bring an incredible amount of relief to us when we understand the nature of the journey of faith and that what we are experiencing is a normal part of a Christian’s experience. Each stage has its specific characteristics, needs, challenges, gifts, movement toward growth, as well as dangers for getting stuck. Although the stages of faith may appear as a linear developmental model, it is important to understand that we can move both forward and backward from stage to stage, as well as find ourselves in two different stages at once.
Here are the names and brief descriptions of each stage as described in The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith by Janet O. Hagberg and Robert A. Guelich.
1. The Recognition of God – Powerlessness
The journey starts when we first recognize God in our world and in personal lives. This stage is characterized by a sense of awe, newness, tender love and vulnerability. We are overwhelmed by the mysteries of the new life, beauty, and the relief from guilt and pain. We can get stuck and feel torn at this stage if the call to follow Jesus is in a great conflict with our past relationships, world views, and lifestyle, and if we have an enduring sense of spiritual failure and inadequacy. This can create fear, depression and loneliness.
It is important to spend time meditating God’s love, be surrounded by encouraging spiritual companions, and soak in the beauty, love, and goodness of God for us personally.
2. The Life of a Disciple – Power by Association
When we are at this stage we want clarity and direction. This can appear as a rigid black and white thinking. A mentor or a leader who can “taking us under his/her wing” and show us what it looks like to follow Jesus has an important role. We are eager to learn, and have a strong need to belong. This sense of belonging will foster the new identity we begin to form. One of the pitfalls at this stage is to become judgmental towards others who don’t share the same views or faith practices as we do. And although we have just started our journey we might feel like we have already reached the hilltop because of the joy, freedom and forgiveness we have experienced. We can avoid falling into this pride trap by engaging in respectful conversations with people who think and believe differently to us.
3. The Productive Life – Power by Achievement
At this stage we gain our identity from our sense of calling and role in the community of believers and God’s salvation narrative. Our faith is practiced, experienced and nurtured through discovering our gifts that God has given us and the place of service in God’s mission. We are eager to share the gifts, knowledge and experiences we have gained. We feel honored to be chosen to be on “God’s team.” There is a real danger of a burn out at this stage. We can be overwhelmed by the amount of need, and if we don’t have a clear sense of boundaries we can be led by feeling flattered by how “needed” we feel in the church and our community.
4. The Journey Inward & The Wall – Power by Reflection
We are the most misunderstood and often feel the loneliest in faith communities at this stage. We begin to question our previously held beliefs and efforts. We experience much confusion, dissatisfaction, and uncertainty about God and ourselves. We are often led into this stage through crisis of some sort and experience “the dark night of the senses/soul”, an inability to experience God’s loving nearness with us. This is also described as “the Wall”. We cannot work our way out from it by ourselves but by learning to rely on God’s grace to sustain us and our faith we grow in faithfulness, surrender, and love for God for his sake. It is hear when we receive much healing, transformation, and come to a place when we are willing to be undone and embrace deeper surrender to God.
Some of us experience too much fear and resistance to stay in this stage and instead of waiting for God to do what only he can do, they might move back to the previous more comfortable and familiar stages. Others, whose “home stage” is one of the earlier stage often feel uncomfortable with the confusion and desolation we experience here, and might respond to us insensitively. However, it is important for us to stay connected to faith community in a way that allows us to process what we are experiencing. For many a spiritual director is a great resource at this stage.
5. The Journey Outward – Power by Purpose
After “the Wall” we move again outward much like at stage three but this time we are not driven by need to achieve or belong, but we do what we do from a deep place of love and sense of calling. We have greater capacity for intimacy than before and are less attached to our ego. We have stopped striving and trying to prove ourselves. We serve God and others freely and joyfully. Our service does not burn us out anymore. One of the great gifts of this stage is that we come to accept ourselves, others and our lives realities as they are.
6. The Life of Love – Power by Wisdom
At this stage we see God’s love more clearly, frequently and authentically than ever before. We enjoy deep and satisfying communion with God. We experience life as grace. We continue walking in a healing path and our healing will heal others. We see ourselves, others and the world through the eyes of God, listen with the ears of God and feel with God’s heart.
If we see these stages in a circle rather than a progressive linear line, we realize that stage six and one are next to each other. This reminds us of Jesus’ teaching of his disciples needing to become like children in order to enter the kingdom of God. Jerome Berryman describes this cyclic pattern of spiritual journey as follows,
“Children are not adults. Adults are not children. Adults, however, can become like children and over time children can become like adults (who can become like children, etc.). This path of infinite progress is the way into the domain of God. All else is an infinite regress.”
Prayer Practice and Reflection
Prayer Labyrinth is a rich metaphor and prayer tool to explore the nature of cyclic journey of a praying life. I wrote a blog post some time ago about the use of Prayer Labyrinth, included a finger labyrinth prayer guide in the post. See the blog post here.
The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith by Janet O. Hagberg and Robert A. Guelich.
The Dark Night of the Soul by Gerald G.May
Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr
Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation by Robert Mulholland
Surrender to Love: Discovering the Heart of Christian Spirituality By David G. Benner
The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery By David G. Benner
Stages of Faith Descriptions (Janet O. Hagberg's Website)
This blog post is the last one of a six week long Adult Education Class that I taught at my home church Denver Presbyterian Church. If you want to listen to the audio of this or any of the previous classes you can listen to them here.