What's this spiritual quest all about?
Yesterday, a priest friend on another list I belong to posted a fascinating article by Paul Wilkes from the journal Commonweal entitled Merton's Enlightenment - what he found in Asia. The following reflection was written in response to that article which can be found at: http://www.commonwealmagazine.org/article.php3?id_article=1667.
Somewhere or other in the last 15-20 years my own spiritual outlook took an enormous turn. I can pinpoint some of the events that coincided with or even triggered this enormous turn but the further I move away from the corner I can see it wasn't some particular big event, or even a series of moderate events that led to the change in my outlook but a series of very small steps or "turning points". From this distance though, as I look back, it seems I've travelled some enormous distance from what I used to think and believe. This is particularly so at the level of trying to understand what this entire "spiritual quest" is really all about.
As I see it now, the "mistake" in my previous outlook is that I saw the spiritual quest as some kind of game of social conformism. Following Christ was some "game" of endeavouring to suck up to God in the hope that eventually we would be rewarded with some intangible prize which we tried to condense into expressions like "eternal life" or "heaven". Somewhere deep down within all of us there is this notion planted of what it means to be a "good" person. I suspect our mothers are primarily responsible for the planting. Maybe we take it in with the milk and nourishment we receive at the breast. Fathers undoubtedly play a role also - and others like teachers and significant other influences in our lives - but mothers seem to play the most important role in forming this "idealised goal" that we all seem to have deep within us of what the ideal person ought to be.
In my former life this quest of "being a good person" - or the quest to be "holy" to use that quaint language the Church uses - was somehow equated with some process of realising within ourselves this idealised version of what we ought to be. Largely in my case what my mother had planted there was some picture that was more related to social conformism - not upsetting the neighbours, trying to be on one's best behaviour all the time in case you should meet the Queen, one's aunts and uncles, or some other important figure or celebrity. In this paradigm, "being holy" was equated with "minding one's manners, minding one's language, minding one's thoughts" not basically in order to impress God but to somehow impress our friggin' neighbours as though they were God. But it wasn't even that. My own mother would have laughed at the absurdity herself if I had outlined what I have just outlined even though that was the end conclusion of the proposition that she had planted within me and what I thought all this "religious" or "spiritual" stuff was supposed to be all about. She would have seen that it really wasn't about "trying to impress the neighbours" but it was somehow trying to impress some "idealised conception of neighbour who stood in the place of God". "Being good" was some process of trying to "curry favour" with God in some adult-sized version of the social conformism we are all taught at the kindergarten stage of our social development.
Today I honestly do not believe that that thinking paradigm takes us anywhere remotely close to "heaven", "eternal happiness" or whatever other expression is used to describe what the final state of our be-ing is. Yet, and here's the irony or paradox, the insight of thinkers like James Fowler is correct I think that we do have to actually move through that "thinking paradigm" in order to even get to the "launch pad" where we can begin to see the final destination.
I found Wilke's article fascinating primarily from this one perspective. The events he is describing occurred very shortly before Merton's death. Merton, I suspect, is one of those rare figures whom a person like Fowler would describe as having found the seventh stage of spiritual maturity. Wilkes, and more so Merton himself, I think provide for all of us some better or more complete picture of what the true "end state of being" or "end destination" of this spiritual or life quest is all about.
The spiritual quest is actually not some business of social conformism, or trying to live-up-to some idealised "alter ego" image we carry around in our heads and emotions of what the "ideal person" is. It is literally a business of endeavouring "to grow into the Divine". It is a process of literally growing ourselves, or maturing ourselves until we can think, feel, smell, taste, touch, hear and act as God thinks, feels, smells, tastes, touches, hears and acts. This is not some "game" of social conformism or trying to please our mummies - or the alter ego she planted in us with her milk. The invitation God extends us in this thing called the Beatific Vision is nothing less than an invitation to eventually "rest in the Divine" or to subsist in the Divine.
It is a lifetime's work to get there though. And it is a process that we can only navigate in stages. The four parts of our being - the physical, the intellectual, the emotional and the spiritual (there are no other "parts" to our being) - each seem to go through different rates of maturation. The quickest type of maturation is the physical. Basically we have grown as much as we are going to grow by the end of our late teens or early twenties. From then on our bodies are engaged in a gradual and long process of disintegration until we eventually end up as dust again. Recent research suggests that mental maturation is achieved at around the age of 25. From that point on the neural processes in the brain are "locked". Even though we might still have much to learn and cram into our brains the actual processes by which the brain stores and processes information are fully formed at around the age 25. My own life experience suggests to me that the process of emotional maturation takes much longer. I suspect for those of us who reproduce the final phase of emotional maturation doesn't even begin until we have seen our own children into adulthood. Emotional maturation seems to take place anywhere between somewhere in the early forties and possibly up into one's sixties. It seem to me there is a certain logic to speculating that the process of spiritual maturation is the longest of all and in fact may, or does, last our entire lifetimes.
Of course we see in life many individuals who never mature in some of the phases. In the case of the physical it might be through premature death through an accident or some disease but there are individuals one comes across who simply never seem to mature intellectually or emotionally. It's another conundrum as to what happens to them and I suspect Jesus endeavours to answer that in the Parable of the Talents. I'll leave that discussion for another time though.
What I am trying to focus on here is this sense I picked up from Wilke's article that Merton somehow in those final days reached that stage of spiritual insight or maturity that in the idealised life should immediately precede death. In a sense this is what this whole eschatological language of "heaven" is trying to point us towards. Heaven is not some place that we go to, and it is not some "reward" for "being good". It is "a state of being" (JPII) or "a state of spiritual insight" where we can finally begin to really understand how the Divine itself "thinks, feels, smells, tastes, touches, hears and acts".
I suspect that individuals like Thomas Merton are the real saints whom we ought be looking up to rather than this childish game of looking up to individuals who are reputed to able to pull off the "magic trick" of performing some miracle or who might be some models of social conformism, which seemed to be JPII's criteria for sainthood. The idealised model God himself gave us is "the only begotten Son" who, through his life, death, resurrection and Word models and illustrates for all and each of us (female and male) the idealised Way of thinking and acting like the Divine itself. We don't worship Jesus Christ to suck up to him, nor to hero-worship him as some awkward sixteen-year-old might hero-worship some film, sporting or pop celebrity. We worship Jesus Christ in order to learn how to think and act as the Divine itself ("the Father who sent me" in Jesus words) thinks and acts.
For me personally, at this stage of my life (I turned 58 a couple of days ago), I suppose I feel like the pilgrim or orienteerer who has been pouring over a map of some difficult journey to a place I have never been to before and that point in the journey has been reached when the map finally begins to make some sense and I can begin to glimpse the end destination. I'm impatient to get to the end of the journey right now but somehow I have to still that impatience because I have many miles of laborious trekking still to be completed before I broach the last hill where the end destination comes fully into view. I cannot yet view the end destination but I have a picture of it in my mind now largely formed from the map and accompanying Michelin guide that has been trying to describe both it, and how I get there.
What it seems to me Paul Wilkes is describing in Merton is that Thomas Merton had "broached that last hill" when he stood in the presence of those ancient statues and he finally felt "in the real presence" of the Divine. This was not "real presence" though as we try to envisage it in concepts like the Eucharist. This was the real, real presence and as close to the Divine as it is possible to get this side of death.
We welcome your thoughts in response to this commentary in our forum.