2. Stages of Spiritual Growth
Many writers have offered models of the ways in which we grow spiritually as human beings. Most of them have valuable things to say, and not surprisingly there is a good deal of overlap between them. A model which we have often shared with people at Greenbelt, is that set out by Elizabeth Liebert in her book: “Changing Life Patterns : Adult Development in Spiritual Direction” [ISBN 0-8091-3296-6] I will explain in outline what she says because our experience from ‘Soul Space’ is that many find it a liberating model.
But first it’s important to remember that it is a model, no more than that. It is not a straitjacket or a box you have to fit into. It describes a process that you may recognise, and which may offer you reassurance that the way you are on is indeed a way leading somewhere and not a dead end. It is not a process which will necessarily speak to everybody, and those to whom it does speak will not necessarily recognise all of it.
Elizabeth Liebert distinguishes three stages in our spiritual growth. The first she calls The Conformist stage. Here the most important characteristic is the importance of belonging. Your spiritual reality is defined by the groups to which you belong. You conform in order to be able to have an identity as a member of a group, to which you commit and where you find the friends with whom you will share activities.
You want to do God’s will, but someone has to tell you what it is that you have to do, so rules are important. You will see any kind of spiritual teacher as an authority, an expert whom you expect to provide correct rules and answers.
You may tend to see things in black & white, and don’t easily make allowances for individual differences. You may well be rather judgemental. Your world is governed by ‘shoulds’ & ‘oughts’, so you can be very hard on yourself. You probably deny having any negative feelings.
You will present to others as a ‘nice person’ who does things right, and doesn’t break the rules. My guess is that many regular church-goers belong to this first stage.
When the conformist stage doesn’t work any more for you then you may be moving to The Conscientious stage. The change may be caused by many things. It might be that an issue arises in the church community where you take a different view from the leadership. It might be that something happens in your own life experience and you find that the teaching offered by the church simply doesn’t fit it. You may find yourself joining other groups whose assumptions about life are different and this leads you to question what you have previously accepted. It often happens to young adults on leaving home, and discovering a world outside the church community in which they grew up.
You possibly start asking questions that in the ‘conformist’ stage were never asked. Or you start coming up with unacceptable answers to the questions that were being asked. You are no longer willing to take something as true just because somebody else says so. You want to discover your own answers to your own questions. You are being called to learn to trust yourself, and to discover your own relationship with God, rather than accept a relationship that somebody else tells you about.
It can be an extremely painful and lonely time. It may feel as if all the old certainty is gone and with it the faith that you once knew. It often feels as if you have somehow failed. Friends who are still in ‘the Conformist stage’ can be very critical and judgemental of you. They may accuse you of ‘selling out’; of ‘back-sliding’. They almost certainly don’t understand where you are at. You will long to find a group who does understand, and yet this is quite likely not to happen. Indeed, in a sense it almost can’t happen, because you are being led to do some spiritual learning for yourself and you can probably only do that on your own.
It can feel like leaving home. Meeting someone willing and able to provide a sounding board as you find & redefine your own identity, can be a great help. The call is to become more self-aware, more trusting of your own insights and feelings, more able to relax and be yourself with others and before God. God will gradually reveal God-self as a truly personal God: ‘My God’ and not ‘the God of my parents or my church’ etc. As a consequence prayer can now be more honest, and the relationship with God more real. Other relationships will also change: as you are more real yourself, others will feel able to be more real with you in return, and friendships will deepen.
Conscientious people are usually people who care, but this usually means caring for others rather than themselves. Self care is something you will still need to learn.
What is changing here is that you are no longer letting others tell you who you are and what you should think and do. Rather than giving your power and authority away to others, you are now ready to claim it for yourself.
This is not without its down-side. Having claimed your authority to yourself can also mean an excessive self confidence in your own judgements and insights. ‘I have prayed about it and I have decided….’….other views are not welcomed or heeded.
You may also experience difficulty fitting your newly claimed self into the larger, ever changing world. When other people or groups don’t treat you as the unique individual you now know yourself to be, and fail to respect your new found freedom, you may find this very hard. You may find it hard to accept others who don’t share your idealism. You may become cynical and alienating. Church membership is often difficult at this time.
Elizabeth Liebert’s third stage is what she calls The Inter-individual stage. She reckons that it is rare to meet people at this stage before mid-life. Some people never move into this stage; or their highest level of development may have some characteristics of this transition but be lacking in others.
These people have learnt to accept themselves with all their imperfections and so are able to accept others as they are, as well. You have learnt tolerance and compassion. Not all problems are solvable; it is alright not to know; and you don’t have to be perfect and neither does anybody else. You are very creative when it comes to the pursuit of the spiritual life, because you can handle complexity, paradox, ambiguity and the difference between your inner and outer lives.
Recognising the legitimacy of perspectives other than one’s own can lead to interdependence with those whose values and goals may be antithetical to your own. Your goal is achieving harmony among groups and within yourself, to transcend the differences between yourself and others. These people are the great reconcilers. There is a generosity of spirit about them.
Your criteria for acting are not simply those of the church, society or family, but they come from your own inner life. You have learnt to trust your own judgements, but you no longer feel the need to beat other people around the head with them. Since you have come to terms with yourself in a realistic way, you are able to be more compassionate and kind to yourself. Self care springs from the realisation that it is only the healthy person who can help the other.
Because there is greater freedom within your inner world, elements from the unconscious emerge more readily. As a result you may be dealing with many so-called negative feelings. Previously ignored needs may surface which need to be integrated.
Images of God are vague but intimacy with God is more available. God is now free to be God. What images you do find amenable may be those of your own creation. The images will be more felt than imagined. You can allow yourself to be guided by your unconscious world.
You need a companion as you deal with the fact that you must live in sinful structures and institutions which are at variance with your ideals. You will value a co-pilgrim who walks alongside you, sharing the challenges & delights of the journey. You are more interested in the journey than in arriving. Perhaps you need to learn to die to yourself when you accept the autonomy of others, when you build relationships which are truly mutual and intimate, and when you confront the sinful structures in which they find your life entwined.
This may be a model which you recognise? There is nothing judgemental about where you feel yourself to be in these three stages. You are where you are. In all probability you won’t reckon that you are all neatly in one place: different parts of life may be at different stages of growth. Bits of life experience may suddenly catapult you forward or send you back to a place you thought you had left behind, rather like snakes and ladders! And there is nothing you can do about ‘moving yourself on’ to the next stage: it will happen naturally as and when you are ready for it. There is no competition here.
But the model may help you to name where you are, to accept yourself in that place, and to recognise the gifts and learning opportunities that may await you there.
My experience says that finding yourself moving from one stage to another, in one area of your life, is likely to have implications in other areas. One of the potentially trickiest examples of this is when one of a married couple leaves the conformist stage for the next part of their journey. The odds are that their partner will not make the transition at the same time, and may not make it at all. Indeed it may be a transition that their partner is never called to make. This may well put considerable pressure on the relationship, as a faith journey that had previously gone along in tandem pretty happily may now no longer do so. The one breaking new ground may suddenly find that their partner cannot share their excitement, and it may even feel as if they are holding it back. While the one left behind may suddenly feel that the one they felt they knew so well has suddenly become a stranger! Relationships can and do survive this experience, and with good luck will be the stronger for it. But it may not be easy. The reality is that you don’t have much control of this. If you are being led onwards then you have to proceed, although you will hopefully remain sensitive to the needs of those around you.
My guess is that many of those coming to ‘Soul Space’ at Greenbelt are engaged in making the tricky transition between the first two stages of Elizabeth Liebert’s model. And I reckon that there are lots of other people in that place. It’s not an easy place to be, but it is a place of potential growth, and you will have got there because God sees that you are ready to grow not because you have somehow failed somewhere!
But growth is not automatic. Some people will find their way through to the next stage. Some people may stay stuck for quite a long time. Some may give up the struggle and either abandon their faith journey altogether or sink back into the Conformist stage they are ready to leave, because it just seems too hard to make the change.
My guess is also that there are a lot of people who are exploring this transition time, without having gone through Elizabeth Liebert’s first stage at all in any obvious way. I’m thinking here of those who have had no background in any faith community, but suddenly find themselves asking these spiritual questions. These folk might have quite a hard ride, as they may have little to react against as a spur to moving on, nor any obvious faith experience on which to build. They may indeed be put off exploring faith by the noisy assertions of people from the conformist stage telling them that faith is all about believing all these certainties which they’ll tell them about, and which is probably the last thing they need to hear!
Perhaps all these uncertainties and difficulties are of a purpose? Maybe they happen because at a certain stage in our spiritual development we have to break out on our own and allow ourselves to be discovered by God alone, and for us to re-discover God for what may feel like the first time? This is often not easy. But it is always possible, and maybe part of this phase of the journey is a coming to trust that the God Who calls us can be relied upon to provide us with what we need at the appropriate time. The challenge is in accepting that we cannot control when that time is, nor can we determine what it is that we need. Instead we are being invited to a deeper trust in a God Who knows our needs and the appropriate timing better than we ever could!