I believe that our Lord and Savior guides each of us uniquely along our own spiritual paths in route to the Kingdom of God. Even though each of our paths has its own unique orientation, challenges and gifts, I believe that most of us will go through a number of very similar stages in the spiritual life – even if when and how we encounter these similar stages will vary according to the individual.
The last couple years, in going through the common and natural transition of a vocational transition, I have ‘graduated from’ and have been invited to live out of a new spiritual stage. In moving from teaching to chaplaincy, it is only now, years later, that I can truly look back in retrospect and celebrate this transition as yet, another one of these graduations to and spiritual invitations to live from another stage of the spiritual life.
What am I talking about when I say “similar stages” in the spiritual life? I’m thinking in terms of universal stages in which we learn “spiritual ways thinking and being” that we must, by grace, integrate into our being and life before God allows us to, as it were, graduate onto the next spiritual stage and disciplines in route towards heaven. Let me give a couple examples of the spiritual stages that I’m talking about.
I believe one stage in the spiritual life is that of learning to appreciate, live out and respect the Scriptures of our own specific religion. Scripture, as the divinely revealed Word of God, should come to play some kind of role in guiding and leading us, even if we are not scripture scholars. Scripture is often where our primary images about who and what God is can be found as well as being the source of the moral expectations that God has for us as his children. Even if one does not study Scripture as a Scripture scholar, the acknowledgment of Scripture as holy/divinely inspired and that we are called to live out of its commands and expectations, like morally frm the 10 Commandments and the New Testaments Laws of Love, is an important stage in the spiritual life of the person in route to the kingdom.
Another one of these stage in the spiritual life, is not just the recognition of our own unique gifts and talents as natural human beings, but the recognition that they are gift given to us for the purpose of loving and serving others in route towards God’s Kingdom. Many recognize and are graced to be able to develop their gifts and talents as young adults, leading to various levels of professional, vocational and financial success in this world, but only later come to realize and live from the spiritual reality that they are given to them and are not theirs alone to own. Many of these people become more philanthropic as they age, sharing both their resources and time to build up the community in ways they would have never imagined as young adults.
Finally, the third and final example of a common stage that I believe all are invited to grow through, is that of acknowledging that God’s goodness and grace is not and can not be limited to and cornered within our own specific religious understanding, communities and practices.All, whether growing up in a specific faith or choosing one as an adult, must eventually get and grow to a point in which they can theologically and practically acknowledge that the greatness of God’s and His grace transcends all specific religions. This stage invites us to both live fully from our chosen faith path as we also and willfully refuse to limit how, when and where God’s grace may be working in the lives of others, and regardless of their religious and/or spiritual beliefs and practices.
These are but three common stages and/or “schools, disciplines or moments” within the spiritual life leading to the Kingdom of God. I believe that the Holy Spirit leads each of us to and through each of the schools and disciplines based on the uniqueness of our own life, choices, journey and contexts. In short, there is no universal first step for all humanity: God can start with any school/discipline/stage and guide us to holiness throughout the course of our lives.
Often, the transition from one spiritual stage to another occurs unexpectedly, through the natural realities that make up human life: like finding and developing our gifts as the young adults, acknowledging and learning to struggle through the specific “– isms” that may stamp and affect our lives with their sin and pain, falling in love and struggling to live lovingly in relationship with others, and of course in such realities as marrying, parenting and of course, the common struggle that we all face – aging.
Allow me to briefly state and explore one gift I have received from entering my present spiritual stage that has been offered through my present vocation as a hospital chaplain, in my journeying towards God’s Kingdom.
The gift given, received and that is now being honed is an ability to truly ‘walk with’ and to ‘be genuinely present to’ those I am serving – without being tethered to or guided by specifically stated theological/educational goals, like teaching specific learning outcomes/philosophies/religious doctrines, etc., as found in Catholic high school religion class rooms and departments. Being no longer responsible for imparting any specific religious denomination’s ‘good and stated outcomes, doctrines and philosophies’ to those I am serving – apart from walking with and being completely present to those I am serving and their needs – has been such a refreshing change, that I now look back and am amazed at how God’s grace allowed me to minister and teach in that context with ‘so many religious doctrines, outcomes and goals’ hovering over and guiding my ministry.
In retrospect I do very much appreciate the two plus decades of formation and guidance, even though in looking back as one does with high school, undergraduate education or early parenting stages, I can say, “Whew!!! Been there, done that… and I am now soooo glad that it is over with!” God knew that during that period of ministry andfamily life, I needed the structure and guidance offered institutionally.
Then, by God’s grace, my vocation corresponded to my role as a father guiding and laying the moral and spiritual foundation for my young family. Now, as they are now young adults finding their way in the world, the new gifts and vocational freedoms I am experiencing, once again and by God’s grace, correlate with my journey as a parent of adult children. Only God can do these kind of mysteriously beautiful things, like writing straight with the crooked lines of our uniquely human lives.
My prayer is that all who read this will also come to experience and one day testify to the power of the Spirit and the universality of God’s grace, in leading them through life’s various stages and on towards God’s Kingdom.