Richard Rohr’s Levels of Spiritual Development – Part 3

This morning at St. Paul’s I’ll be picking up again with Rohr’s levels of Spiritual formation. In previous posts we’ve covererd:

  • Level One: My self-image and my body is “who I am”.
  • Level Two: My external behavior is “who I am.”
  • Level Three: My Thoughts / Feelings are who I am.
  • Level Four: My deeper intuitions and felt knowledge in my body is who I am.

As I touched on in a previous post, stage Four can be a very liberating place to be early on, but gradually becomes more troubling. The liberation comes from the loosening grip of religious dogma combined with a willingness to trust one’s own experiences as providing insight into the Mystery of God. One example of what this might look like involves generosity. Those raised in conservative Christian settings are taught to give 10% of their income to the church they attend. In stage Four a person begins to move past this “rule” for giving toward a principal of sacrificial giving. They might decide to give less to the local church, and direct more funds toward other projects that they perceive are serving the Kingdom of God.

As I also said in that previous post, this can be daunting becomes it places much more responsibility on me! If I’m going to operate from my intuition and experience, instead of according to a set of rules, then I must take more time to truly examine myself and understand my motivations. The temptation is to simply return to a rather narcissistic place where I say, “Hey, I make my own rules!”

I’ve been asking the class to read In His Steps as an example of a congregation seeking to evolve spiritually together. By the middle of the book it is clear that the characters have been thrown into Stage Four together. Many of them keep discovering that simply asking he question, “What would Jesus do?” creates more fog than clarity. Yet through mutual support they tease out their answers, and act on them.

The self-examination needed to navigate this stage successfully will no doubt stir up plenty of anxiety (as it does for Sheldon’s characters) If we can sit in that anxiety, then we move into Stage Five.

Level Five: My shadow self is who I am (The dark night).

Richard Rohr describes his experience in Stage Five like this:

As a young man I thought I had become a Franciscan and a priest to teach and talk about love, that I had left everything to love God and neighbor. But by my forties and fifties I had to be honest and say, “Richard, have you ever really loved anybody more than yourself? Is there anybody in particular that you would die for?” My celibacy was based on the utterly false premise that if I did not love anybody in particular, I would automatically love God more. I realized that that was not at all true. All I did was love myself more, but in a very well-disguised form. Much of that middle period of my life I spent shadowboxing, seeing my own inability to believe and to practice the very things I was teaching to others. And this continues!

In this stage of development weakness, along with a deep sense of hypocrisy, may seem overwhelming. The previous stage invites a much more honest look at oneself. As this unfolds one begins to realize just how broken he or she is, and that the tendency to project “evil” on to others is a genuine issue. One may began to think, “How could I have ever claimed to be Christian?” Confronting anger and fear is important, but it is also necessary to “upgrade” one’s understand of Grace. It can be very painful to sit in this place, and trust that God is the one who transforms us, and we cannot transform ourselves. Many people benefit from a close relationship with a spiritual director during this time. As with every stage, there is a danger of feeling overwhelmed, and tempted to retreat to an earlier stage.

Earlier, in Stage Three, one becomes liberated from all of the dogmatic rules regarding what one has to do to be saved. In Stage Four, one begins to realize, “Dang, I may not be lost in the ways I was taught back then, but I’m still lost!” Stage Five unfolds as one truly sits in this anxiety.

This is the stage where Grace truly becomes a life-giving reality. The only way we can live with our destructiveness is to believe that God is indeed redeeming all those who wish to be redeemed (and maybe those who don’t).

Once again, if we navigate this leg of the journey, our reward is not much in the way of contentment. Level 6, “Who I am Is Empty and Powerless” still doesn’t sound like a wonderful place to be!


About Wes Eades

I've been a pastoral counselor, marital therapist, and overall listening ear since about 1989 or so.
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