A reader named Judy comments on my Teresa of Ávila page thusly:
… as to the stages of mysticism, the less I know the better. I do not want that craving of evaluating or one could say taking their spiritual temperature ever again. That sneaky ego always popping up saying “well done”. I am terrified of taking pride in what is “all God” and his work in me. I know myself and how quickly I can slide right down the chute, having done it several times.
As for being “terrified” of pride, I’d like to gently encourage Judy to consider Jesus’ repeated command to have no fear. That said, I certainly can appreciate her desire to live in a space uninfected, as it were, by the “sneaky ego” and the many ways hubris can insinuate itself into our spiritual lives. Which leads to why I find her comment so important:
We need to be careful whenever we put too much cognitive energy into understanding the dynamics or developmental process of mysticism (or spirituality in general). It’s way, way, way too easy to get caught up in measuring ourselves against what other people have said about the way in which the unitive life unfolds.
I remember when I took a course on spiritual direction from John Westerhoff some fifteen years ago, one of my classmates loved to talk about where he was on the spiritual ladder. “I don’t think I’ve entered the dark night of the soul yet, but I’ve clearly undergone the dark night of the senses,” he said with deadpan earnestness. I said nothing in reply, not sure that I could pick out either dark night if they were standing in a police line-up. But these thoughts occurs to me when I think of my former classmate:
- Wherever we are on the spiritual journey, our task is to seek deeper intimacy with God, deeper conformity to God’s will, and a more profound willingness to allow God to bring healing and joyful Christlike transformation into our lives. If this is our task no matter how “advanced” we are, then who cares how advanced we are? In other words, there is a real way in which thinking about mysticism developmentally is really just a huge trap that can distract us from the real business of growth in grace.
- Even if there are valid reasons for evaluating upon which rung we stand on the ladder of divine ascent, such issues need only be discussed privately with one’s spiritual director or confessor. Airing out these concerns with anyone else — family or friend, prayer-partner or stranger — leaves us deeply vulnerable to the snares of pride: feelings of self-importance or self-abnegation, depending on how we “compare” to others, or to saints or great mystics, or whomever. Neither of these feelings are particularly useful as we progress on the spiritual life. It is best to learn to simply ignore the towering temptation to evaluate or compare, at least in terms of our spiritual progress.
- As Judith so succinctly points out, the less we know, the better. Perhaps if we are really serious about learning how to trust God, we can simply abandon the notions of spiritual progress and development, and just leave it to the responsibility of our spiritual director or confessor to discern where we stand — and what we need as we continue to make our slow progress along the way.
Is all this to suggest that John Climacus’ ladder of divine ascent, or Walter Hilton’s scale of perfection, or Teresa of Avila’s four degrees of prayer (or seven mansions), or any other schematic way of understanding mystical growth are useless? Not hardly. I believe that the writings of all these mystics can be profitably read by anyone who sincerely seeks to learn more about how others have experienced the process of transformation in Christ. But I do think there can be wisdom in preferring the writings of other mystics, like Julian of Norwich or Thomas Merton, who avoid description of methods or programs and instead simply reflect on the beauty and majesty of the spiritual life in a way that is relevant to all people. Meanwhile, when we do encounter any effort to explain the spiritual life systematically, it may be helpful to remember to hold such schemata lightly. Alan Watts once wrote about how the point behind a symphony is not for the musicians to race to get to the end, but rather for both musicians and audience to enjoy every single note along the way. The mystical life works much the same way. Everyone knows it would be silly for a bassoonist to think “Wow, we’re playing the third movement of Beethoven’s fifth; we’re so much farther along than those poor beginners who are stuck playing the first movement!” Likewise, continually taking our mystical temperature to figure out where we stand on the path toward Divine Union is pretty much a useless endeavor.