The spiritual journey has been described classically in four stages: awakening, purgation, illumination and union. Awakening is the first movement in the journey into God’s world. It can be a direct answer to God’s call to be born again, to surrender your life to him. Or we can be thrown out of our normal life by a natural disaster like the recent hurricanes in Texas and other parts of the South or the wildfires in N. California which destroyed hundreds of homes. Whether one answers God’s call or is tossed out of normal life, we land in the wilderness. There in the unfamiliar and not quite comfortable environment the task is purgation: to give up all our attachment to the world’s ways of doing things, to give up our personal way of doing things, our expectations, preferences about life in favor of opening ourselves to God’s plan for us, His purpose, His way of thinking.
Illumination is the third stage in the spiritual journey. It’s a place where we have given up living in the world’s ways, any rebellion left in us, but we’re still in the world, of the world. From there we are immersed in the Holy Spirit, much like the disciples at Pentacost or Paul after his encounter with the living Christ. This stage is called union, a oneness with God in which we partner with Him in everything, bringing in His kingdom on this earth.
I wrote extensively about these stages in my book, Exodus: Our Story, Too: from Slavery to the World to the Kingdom of God. Few devotees of God get beyond the purgation stage or even to the later purgation stage.
And here is why I think we don’t or won’t go as deep as God is inviting us to be with Him: we cannot accept God’s love. That’s it. We say we believe He loves us and forgives us, but that belief never penetrates beyond the surface of our minds. It doesn’t get to our cells and bones and our opinions about ourselves. And why is that? you might ask. I think it is because God’s love and forgiveness for us is so foreign to how we think about ourselves. We are all raised to be letter of the law people, as I wrote last week. We are taught to obey the rules of our parents and teachers or to suffer the consequences. And we form our self-images early in our lives based on how well we did with following the rules and how we felt about our punishments. Shame and guilt color our self-images.
We form our self-images way before we have enough maturity to just follow the rules. We are stuck with a child’s rendering of who we are way before we could be expected to follow the rules, way before our logical minds kick in with reason and setting context—two important functions that would change our self-image.
All this is to say that we are raised to be letter-of-the-law people and that is how we relate to God. We are raised to just obey, regardless of whether the rules make sense. We can be quite rebellious beneath the surface and yet “look obedient” to others. And that is what we see in the Israelites in the wilderness: they are following God mainly because they wouldn’t survive in the wilderness otherwise, but they are totally rebellious at heart at every turn.
The overarching commandment of Jesus is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength. [Matthew 22: 36, Luke 10:25] We resist surrendering our whole selves; in fact, the nature of our “letter-of-the-law” training means that we hide and/or hold back a lot of who we are—our rebelliousness, our pain and suffering, our guilt and shame—all things that now stand between us and God.
In the first part of the wilderness up through the handing down of the 10 commandments on Mount Sinai, the Israelites are “letter of the law” people; they are obedient on the surface and rebellious at every turn. After the debacle with Baal, Moses made them liquefy the remains of the statue and then to drink it—to own what they did, their own rebelliousness. Then comes the second phase of the wilderness journey—continuing the purgation, this time to purge our subconscious and unconscious minds of the rebelliousness and the feelings of unworthiness, guilt and shame.
We’re beginning to achieve integrity when we bring our unconscious and subconscious attitudes and thinking out into the open, to lay them on the altar before God. There we can see the rebelliousness we try to cover with niceties, the pain and suffering we’ve hid, the me-first nature we refuse to acknowledge. Just like with the discovery of the worship of Baal, we have to own all that we are before God. This is the workout of the 2nd part of the wilderness journey. All that is hidden within us gets dealt with.
The proof of owning all that we are comes in the blessings and curses we receive through our own choices. When the Israelites decide to fight the Canaanites on their own after scouts came back with reports on Canaan, they are roundly defeated by the Amalekites and the Canaanites. [Numbers 14:41-45] When they followed the lead of the Lord, they were successful.
Fr. Richard Rohr of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque NM writes in his 8.23.17 email: “We are not punished for our sins; we are punished by our sins.” It is obvious from the “feedback” we get in the consequences of our choices that the teaching about our choices in Deuteronomy 28 is true—that our choices dictate whether we receive blessings or curses—the “punishments” and the blessings are built into the choices we make. We choose the consequences, not God.
If we are “letter of the law” people, then we expect punishment for God for all our sins. If we are following the Spirit of the Law and we make a mistake, we are forgiven. Knowing this has great spill-over for us in how much we trust God. If He is not punishing us, then He is loving and forgiving us. And we learn to trust that caring attitude towards us. Again and again, I go back to the Parable of the Prodigal Son. [Luke 15:11ff] The lost son certainly made some bad choices, blowing his inheritance. When he awakens to the truth of his situation, he decides that he would rather be a servant to his own father than to anyone else. So he goes home. Repentant, he faces his father who welcomes him with open arms, celebrates his coming home, restores him to his rightful place in the family.
That is our God! Loving, forgiving, welcoming once we have turned our backs on sin and separation from God. Then we have to just take in that loving, forgiving nature of his. We learn that we can trust Him in all things. That is the great benefit of putting all of ourselves in God’s hands, of believing in his love for us, in allowing God to love us and to learning to love ourselves.
Questions to ponder over the week: What is God calling me to? Am I listening to Him or ignoring Him? Have I put myself before God? Everything I’ve ever done and said? Everything that was done to me? Can I take God’s love and forgiveness and will to love myself? If He can love me, can I love myself?
Blessing for the week: May we be the people of God who put our whole selves before Him in love—warts and all. May we accept all that has happened in our lives and embrace all the lessons we have learned from the pain and suffering we’ve been through. May we be at peace with ourselves. And may that peace shine through us to others.
If you want to see the whole blog post for this week, go to bythewaters.net/blog.html. Also there are archives of my blog going back to 2011.
Here is an excerpt from the introduction to my book: “Exodus: Our Story, Too!”
“Our own slavery to the world’s ways is not so easy for us to discern. First, we’ve grown up in the system that enslaves us. Second, we’ve adopted the world’s thinking about ourselves as very young children, capitulated to the self-images the world offers us, not knowing that by looking deeper into ourselves beyond what the culture taught us, we would find another way to live. A way that is congruent, integral to who we were created to be by God….we can only see life as we imagine it to be, using our own limited point of view. And we are so fearful of any pain and suffering that we find many ways of pushing the pain of slavery away—watching TV, playing endless video games, drinking, taking drugs, always having our nose in a book, always going shopping and spending money, always checking our phones—and many other options which become addictive.
“Everything we see happening around us, we view through our cultures’ and our own personal lenses. Even religious teachings, which would open up how we feel about other peoples and about God, are skewed, so that they fit the cultural paradigm. And so, we miss God’s invitation to something much more than we know. We may not lead deeply satisfying lives, but all other roads are closed to us because of the limitations of our personal and cultural lenses.” Pp. 8-9 (available on amazon.com.)