It has been a rather incredible ten days, in France and Belgium, in terms of spiritual encounters.
During this time I spent 5 days at Notre Dame de Vie at Venasque, near Avignon, an Institut Séculier of the Roman Catholic Church of Carmelite inspiration. The prospect of translating a major book for them required me to clearly understand certain key Carmelite concepts. In the process I crossed tracks with people of a deep spiritual life bearing the print of years of steady spiritual discipline. There was an extraordinary simplicity in our encounters, out of a common concern to plumb the truth and then express it across a major linguistic/cultural divide.
On my return I immediately had two very deep and open exchanges, with two senior members of the Orthodox and Protestant communities here in Brussels.
Apart from a confirmation of my own being on track (useful as the community I am part of is far from on track right now), these conversations enabled me to put words on something I sense to be increasingly important (in Protestant-talk: something I am “burdened with”): the urgent need to teach a more advanced Christian spirituality. ‘Entry-car’ spirituality is everywhere: well-structured, more or less intellectually coherent, with masses of teaching material. But somewhere, ten, twenty or thirty years along the line, God kicks out a couple of lynch-pins or supporting columns, the nice structure collapses, leaving you searching for something else to rely on. In fact leaving you having to rely more and more directly on Him, rather than any organizational or mental structure.
It is vitally important to recognize this stage, often accompanied by a lot of unease. It is a juncture at which many people leave the church, sensing that what they have had so far is not enough, but unable to find it in the weekly church round. But it is a critical passage towards really mature Christianity.
Each confessional group seems to have its own problems with this passage:
- Protestantism often lacks language for it, and has nowhere theologically to put it. People hit against a sort of spiritual glass ceiling, accuse themselves of backsliding, redouble traditional prayer and bible-reading and group bible study routines, but still it does not work, and after iterating two or three times, and banging their heads every time, retire discouraged.
- Orthodoxy has a sort of language for it, if you are looking for it, especially in the Philokalia. That being said, the references are all i) monastic and ii) male. The language tends to concentrate on the early stages, with great stress on all the ways the evil one will try and trip you up, and on the final stages (with a distinct danger of voyeurism – delighting second-hand in other people’s ecstatic experiences). There is little sense of gradual maturation: notably specific instructions for those two-thirds of the way down the road (in Teresian language, at the fifth and sixth mansions) are almost non-existent. Also a real problem in Orthodoxy is that people moving on to real spiritual maturity can be seen as a threat to those guarding ecclesiastical power bases. And for those in established ministries, it is very difficult to obtain the necessary free time and space (ideally several months’ sabbatical or lightening of duties) that such a passage requires.
- Roman Catholicism has the most developed approach (St Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle with its seven mansions being the classical example). Perhaps too developed at times, with the spiritual temptation of measuring oneself (‘have I finally passed from the fourth to the fifth mansion’?) and forgetting God’s sovereign liberty to take people down any route He wants. I suspect also that accessing this more advanced spirituality requires people to quit parish structures for the churches of the teaching orders (Jesuits, Dominicans, Carmelites etc.), producing a sort of two-tier Catholicism.
Be that as it may: it is vital to have people who have made the jump into this ‘Book 2’ Christianity, living much more through faith than outer structure. Also who are able to guide other people as they struggle into this new stage of Christian life, including importantly being able to pick up God’s working in the soul when expressed in non-standard language (in fact a sure marker of deepening spirituality) or happening in non-standard life situations. And people who simply, being more Christ-like, ‘speak the Gospel with their lives’.