In this piece I will outline two concepts that lie at the core of the religious, spiritual, and mystical dialogue: the notion of “vertical development” through the major stages of consciousness studied by the world’s great developmental psychologists, and of “horizontal development” through the major states of consciousness that are found in virtually all the world’s religious traditions. States and stages, fullness and freedom, human and divine—these are the two axes of personal and spiritual development, two vectors of human potential that intersect deep in our hearts, tracing an outline of Christianity’s most sacred symbol with each and every breath.
Here we will explore this notion of states and stages of consciousness by taking a closer look at two of the world’s foremost Christian thinkers, theologian James Fowler and mystical writer Evelyn Underhill, exploring ways to integrate these two pioneers into a more comprehensive view of the Christian experience.
Fully Human: James Fowler’s Stages of Faith
Dr. James W. Fowler III is Professor of Theology and Human Development at Emory University, and was director of both the Center for Research on Faith and Moral Development and the Center for Ethics until he retired in 2005. He is a minister in the United Methodist Church, and is best known for his book Stages of Faith, published in 1981, in which he sought to develop the idea of a developmental process in faith.
“Faith may be characterized as an integral, centering process underlying the formation of beliefs, values and meanings that (1) gives coherence and direction to persons’ lives, (2) links them in shared trusts and loyalties with others, (3) grounds their personal stances and communal loyalties in the sense of relatedness to a larger frame of reference, and (4) enables them to face and deal with the limit conditions of human life, relying upon that which has the quality of ultimacy in their lives . . .The stages aim to describe patterned operations of knowing and valuing that underlie our consciousness.” – James Fowler
Here is a synopsis of Fowler’s stages of faith, in his own words:
• Primal Faith (stage 0): “If we start with infancy-the time from birth to two years-we have what we call undifferentiated faith. It’s a time before language and conceptual thought are possible. The infant is forming a basic sense of trust, of being at home in the world. The infant is also forming what I call pre-images of God or the Holy, and of the kind of world we live in. On this foundation of basic trust or mistrust is built all that comes later in terms of faith. Future religious experience will either have to confirm or reground that basic trust.”
• Intuitive-Projective Faith: “The first stage we call intuitive/projective faith. It characterizes the child of two to six or seven. It’s a changing and growing and dynamic faith. It’s marked by the rise of imagination. The child doesn’t have the kind of logic that makes possible or necessary the questioning of perceptions or fantasies. Therefore the child’s mind is “religiously pregnant,” one might say. It is striking how many times in our interviews we find that experiences and images that occur and take form before the child is six have powerful and long-lasting effects on the life of faith both positive and negative.”
• Mythic-Literal Faith: “The second stage we call mythic/literal faith. Here the child develops a way of dealing with the world and making meaning that now criticizes and evaluates the previous stage of imagination and fantasy. The gift of this stage is narrative. The child now can really form and re-tell powerful stories that grasp his or her experiences of meaning. There is a quality of literalness about this. The child is not yet ready to step outside the stories and reflect upon their meanings. The child takes symbols and myths at pretty much face value, though they may touch or move him or her at a deeper level.”
• Synthetic-Conventional Faith: “There is a third stage we call synthetic/conventional faith which typically has its rise beginning around age 12 or 13. It’s marked by the beginning of what Piaget calls formal operational thinking. That simply means that we now can think about our own thinking. It’s a time when a person is typically concerned about forming an identity, and is deeply concerned about the evaluations and feedback from significant other people in his or her life. We call this a synthetic/conventional stage; synthetic, not in the sense that it’s artificial, but in the sense that it’s a pulling together of one’s valued images and values, the pulling together of a sense of self or identity.
One of the hallmarks of this stage is that it tends to compose its images of God as extensions of interpersonal relationships. God is often experienced as Friend, Companion, and Personal Reality, in relationship to which I’m known deeply and valued. I think the true religious hunger of adolescence is to have a God who knows me and values me deeply, and can be a kind of guarantor of my identity and worth in a world where I’m struggling to find who I can be.
At any of the stages from two on you can find adults who are best described by these stages. Stage Three, thus, can be an adult stage. We do find many persons, in churches and out, who are best described by faith that essentially took form when they were adolescents.”
• Individuative-Reflective Faith: “Stage Four, for those who develop it, is a time in which the person is pushed out of, or steps out of, the circle of interpersonal relationships that have sustained his life to that point. Now comes the burden of reflecting upon the self as separate from the groups and the shared world that defines one’s life. I sometimes quote Santayana who said that we don’t know who discovered water but we know it wasn’t fish. The person in Stage Three is like the fish sustained by the water. To enter Stage Four means to spring out of the fish tank and to begin to reflect upon the water. Many people don’t complete this transition, but get caught between three and four. The transition to Stage Four can begin as early as 17, but it’s usually not completed until the mid-20s, and often doesn’t even begin until around 20. It comes most naturally in young adulthood. Some people, however, don’t make the transition until their late 30s. It becomes a more traumatic thing then, because they have already built an adult life. Their relationships have to be reworked in light of the stage change.
Stage Four is concerned about boundaries: where I stop and you begin; where the group that I can belong to with conviction and authenticity ends and other groups begin. It’s very much concerned about authenticity and a fit between the self I feel myself to be in a group and the ideological commitments that I’m attached to.”
• Conjunctive Faith: “Sometime around 35 or 40 or beyond some people undergo a change to what we call conjunctive faith, which is a kind of midlife way of being in faith. What Stage Four works so hard to get clear and clean in terms of boundaries and identity, Stage Five makes more permeable and more porous. As one moves into Stage Five one begins to recognize that the conscious self is not all there is of me. I have an unconscious. Much of my behavior and response to things is shaped by dimensions of self that I’m not fully aware of. There is a deepened readiness for a relationship to God that includes God’s mystery and unavailability and strangeness as well as God’s closeness and clarity.
Stage Five is a time when a person is also ready to look deeply into the social unconscious—those myths and taboos and standards that we took in with our mother’s milk and that powerfully shape our behavior and responses. We really do examine those, which means we’re ready for a new kind of intimacy with persons and groups that are different from ourselves. We are ready for allegiances beyond our tribal gods and our tribal taboos. Stage Five is a period when one is alive to paradox. One understands that truth has many dimensions which have to be held together in paradoxical tension.”
• Universalizing Faith: “Some few persons we find move into Stage Six, which we call universalizing faith. In a sense I think we can describe this stage as one in which persons begin radically to live as though what Christians and Jews call the “kingdom of God” were already a fact. I don’t want to confine it to Christian and Jewish images of the kingdom. It’s more than that. I’m saying these people experience a shift from the self as the center of experience. Now their center becomes a participation in God or ultimate reality. There’s a reversal of figure and ground. They’re at home with what I call a commonwealth of being. We experience these people on the one hand as being more lucid and simple than we are, and on the other hand as intensely liberating people, sometimes even subversive in their liberating qualities. I think of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the last years of his life. I think of Thomas Merton. I think of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. I think of Dag Hammerskjold and Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the last years of his imprisonment. These are persons who in a sense have negated the self for the sake of affirming God. And yet in affirming God they became vibrant and powerful selves in our experience. They have a quality of what I call relevant irrelevance. Their ‘subversiveness’ makes our compromises show up as what they are.”
These stages of faith map quite well against the many other models of human development suggested by the great developmental psychologists of the world, including Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg, Abraham Maslow, Clare Graves, Jean Gebser, etc. Each of these models focus upon a particular aspect of intelligence or psychological growth (e.g. cognition, values, drives, emotional and psychosexual development, etc.) and unfold in a strictly sequential fashion—meaning that while an individual can be “higher” in some developmental lines and “lower” in others, he or she needs to progress through one stage before moving on to the next. In other words, there is no skipping of developmental stages—you cannot, for example, move from Fowler’s stage 2 (Mythic-Literal Faith) to stage 6 (Universalizing faith) without first developing through the three major stages that lie between them—a process that can often take adults years, if not decades, to accomplish.
Taken together, these psychological models offer a comprehensive map of human growth and development in all its multifarious dimensions. Each successive stage of consciousness adds more complexity and more understanding of the world around us, as well as more capacity for love, compassion, and connection. By ascending the spire of psychological development to higher and higher altitudes of consciousness, humanity becomes increasingly more human with each and every step.
Fully Divine: Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism
Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) was an Anglican writer known for her numerous works on religion and spiritual practice, drawing upon hundreds of different sources to formulate her own version of a universal scheme of spiritual experience. Her groundbreaking book Mysticism (a term defined by Underhill as “the direct intuition or experience of God”) is still held as a classic treatise exploring the individual’s journey to God, second only to Aldous Huxley’s 1946 classic The Perennial Philosophy in terms of its impact and influence upon early 20th-century thinkers.
Underhill characterizes the spiritual path as unfolding through five broad states of consciousness—awakening, purgation/purification, illumination, dark night, and unification:
• Awakening: One begins to have some consciousness of absolute or divine reality for the first time and the spiritual identity begins to emerge. This experience is often abrupt and fairly dramatic, and is typically preceded by a period of existential crisis or sense of longing.
“That which the Servitor saw had no form neither any manner of being; yet he had of it a joy such as he might have known in the seeing of shapes and substances of all joyful things. His heart was hungry, yet satisfied, his soul was full of contentment and joy: his prayers and his hopes were fulfilled.” – Henry Suso (disciple of Meister Eckhart)
• Purgation: Conscious for the first time of the Divine reality and the immeasurable distance separating it from finite existence, one attempts to bridge the gap with focused discipline and practice—purifying the mortal self to prepare for the emergence of the spiritual Self.
“We must cast all things from us and strip ourselves of them and refrain from claiming anything for our own.” - Theologia Germanica (14th-century mystical treatise, often attributed to Meister Eckhart)
• Illumination: Intimate knowledge of Reality, a certain apprehension of the Absolute—but not a true union with it; awareness of a transcendent order and a vision of a universe infused with the love of God.
“Everything in temporal nature is descended out that which is eternal, and stands as a palpable visible outbirth of it, so when we know how to separate out the grossness, death, and darkness of time from it, we find what it is it in its eternal state…. In Eternal Nature, or the Kingdom of Heaven, materiality stands in life and light; it is the light’s glorious Body, or that garment wherewith light is clothed, and therefore has all the properties of light in it, and only differs from light as it is its brightness and beauty, as the holder and displayer of all its colours, powers, and virtues.” – William Law (English cleric and theologian)
• Dark Night of the Soul: Borrowing the language of John of the Cross, this state is one of final and complete purification and is often marked by confusion, helplessness, stagnation of the will, and a sense of the withdrawal of God’s presence. It is the period of final “unselfing” and the surrender to the hidden purposes of the divine will.
“Lord, since Thou hast taken from me all that I had of Thee, yet of Thy grace leave me the gift which every dog has by nature: that of being true to Thee in my distress, when I am deprived of all consolation. This I desire more fervently than Thy heavenly Kingdom.” Mechthild of Magdeburg (medieval mystic and Cistercian nun)
• Unification: Nondual union with God, the timeless beloved, Absolute Reality—the spiritual Self has been permanently realized, and the finite self liberated for a new purpose. Filled with the Divine Will, it immerses itself in the world of appearances in order to incarnate the eternal within time, becoming the mediator between humanity and eternity.
“When love has carried us above all things into the Divine Dark, there we are transformed by the Eternal Word Who is the image of the Father; and as the air is penetrated by the sun, thus we receive in peace the Incomprehensible Light, enfolding us, and penetrating us.” – John of Ruysbroeck (13th-century Flemish mystic)
“Further, these mystics see in the historic life of Christ an epitome—or if you will, an exhibition—of the essentials of all spiritual life. There they see dramatized not only the cosmic process of the Divine Wisdom, but also the inward experience of every soul on her way to union with that Absolute ‘to which the whole Creation moves.’ This is why the expressions which they use to describe the evolution of the mystical consciousness from the birth of the divine in the spark of the soul to its final unification with the Absolute Life are so constantly chosen from the Drama of Faith. In this drama they see described under the veils the necessary adventures of the spirit. Its obscure and humble birth, its education in poverty, its temptation, mortification and solitude, its ‘illuminated life‘ of service and contemplation, the desolation of that ‘dark night of the soul‘ in which it seems abandoned by the Divine: the painful death of the self, its resurrection to the glorified existence of the Unitive Way, its final re-absorption in its Source – all these, they say, were lived once in a supreme degree in the flesh. Moreover, the degree of closeness with which the individual experience adheres to this Pattern is always taken by them as a standard of the healthiness, ardor, and success of its transcendental activities.” -Evelyn Underhill
A remarkable synthesis of almost two thousand years of Christian mysticism, Underhill’s classification of awakened spiritual states can be seen reflected in the esoteric teachings of almost all the world’s religious traditions. There is an abundance of deep-rooted similarities found in the writings and teachings of history’s most profoundly realized mystics, East and West. Though the texture, tone, symbolism, and general flavor of these spiritual states vary greatly from culture to culture, when these similarities are taken as a whole, they reveal a remarkable snapshot of the heavenly estate—describing spiritual realities that mirror the broad states of consciousness we experience every single day. Though we can certainly classify these states with much more granularity than we shall use here, we can group the wide variety of state experiences into a minimum of four categories:
Purgation is largely concerned with the fleshy instincts and compulsions found in gross states of everyday waking consciousness
Illumination reflects the inner light and visions found in subtle states of dreaming consciousness
The Dark Night of the Soul is a silent echo in the empty causal state of deep dreamless sleep
Unification symbolizes the somewhat more elusive—but never eclipsed—nondual state, recognizing emptiness as form, form as emptiness, and the radical “not-two-ness” of all things.
Fully Human, Fully Divine: The Wilber-Combs Lattice
Underhill continues: “The mystic cannot wholly do without symbol and image, inadequate to his vision though they must always be: for his experience must be expressed if it is to be communicated, and its actuality is inexpressible except in some hint or parallel which will stimulate the dormant intuition of the reader.”
It is not enough to have direct and immediate experiences of spiritual realities, powerful and life-changing as they are, as these experiences must then be properly interpreted and internalized before it can be communicated to the rest of the world. After all, what would Moses’ fabled encounter with the burning bush have amounted to much if he had not returned from the mountaintop with the Ten Commandments, carving the Divine Will into stone, sculpting the interpretive foundation upon which thousands of years of Western history are built? What good would St. Teresa of Avila’s experiences of the “Interior Castle” have done for the world if she hadn’t translated her transcendent visions into the viscera of language, unveiling the blueprints to the Heavenly Kingdom for all to see? Would we even be having this discussion if Christ had left his revelations in the desert, lost forever to the scorched sands, without ever coming back to the world to become one of history’s greatest exemplars of divine Love? Our interior states need to be interpreted and communicated to the rest of the world, burning in our hearts and haunting our dreams until we somehow find a way to express them—and this process of expression and communication is almost entirely determined by one’s vertical stage of consciousness
These vertical stages of development act as containers of consciousness—unseen structures that pattern our knowledge and mold our interpretations of the world around and within us. Horizontal states, on the other hand, are the stuff of experience itself—gross physical and emotional experiences; subtle visions, inspirations, and revelations; causal glimpses of transcendence, clarity, and emptiness; nondual states of radical union, flow, and Atonement.
Although spiritual practice such as meditation or contemplative prayer typically work to transform temporary states into permanent traits by stabilizing gross, subtle, causal, and nondual states in succession, we do not experience these horizontal states in a rigidly sequential way like we do vertical stages of development. States are ever-present, meaning they are accessible to all people at all times—“peak experiences” that punctuate our personal narratives with moments of catharsis, epiphany, clarity, and unity. This is true regardless of our psychological and spiritual growth—a person can experience a subtle state of divine Illumination early in life at Fowler’s stage 2 (Mythic-Literal), and then again decades later, after developing to stage 6 (Universalizing). Though the actual phenomenological state may be similar, the interpretations of the experience would differ drastically from different altitudes of consciousness, with an immense chasm of meaning, context, and sense of personal duty separating the two experiences.
Even those who have realized permanent or semi-permanent nondual awareness—the integrative dissolution of self and other, form and emptiness, the temporal and the eternal—even these people need to continue exercising their vertical growth. To be fully enlightened in today’s world is to be both fully human and fully divine, which means developing vertically through all the developmental stages currently available to us as well as mastering the many horizontal states, and continuing to inch closer and closer to the unreachable horizon of human development—or else we miss out on a substantial part of a world that remains “over our heads,” limiting the amount of reality we can become one with. While states of consciousness teach us why we should love, stages of consciousness determine who, what, where, when, and how we love, increasing the heart’s capacity for love with every stetp. Full enlightenment, of course, can never be attained, in much the same way that we could never say that we were “fully educated.” We are again asked to love beyond our means, to open our hearts as wide as we possibly can, to the point of breaking forever. We are asked to simply love, and more often than not, we simply say no. And yet we are always loved exactly as we are, broken, flawed, and perfect.
Only by taking a truly comprehensive approach to psychological and spiritual life can we begin to make sense of the full complexity of the human condition. Knee-deep in the information age, we are watching every conflicting worldview, interpretation, and experience from every possible coordinate of the Wilber-Combs lattice coming into contact for the very first time—different worlds, realities, and perspectives all struggling to coexist upon the same planet. Friction and dissonance proliferate within the developmental gaps, giving rise to just about every religious conflict we can think of: moral absolutism versus moral relativism; exoteric religion versus esoteric religion; “New Atheism” and the war against religion; culture wars between traditional, modern, and postmodern worldviews; unthinkable violence in the name of God; religious fundamentalism and persecution; terrorism and the desperation of suicide bombings, etc.
It takes this sort of comprehensive approach to appreciate the role religion has played as history’s greatest source of suffering and liberation alike, and to help us to update our spiritual traditions so that they can offer a path beyond religious fundamentalism and ideological zealotry—carrying people vertically through magic, mythic, rational, pluralistic, and integral stages of consciousness, as well as horizontally through gross, subtle, causal, and nondual states, and onward into the limitless heart of human potential.
By understanding and embodying these two directions of human growth and spiritual revelation, our mortal and immortal hearts are able to truly become one, following the path Christ laid down for us two thousand years ago, and fulfilling our evolutionary heritage, billions of years in the making—fully human, fully divine, feeling the blissful union of two hearts beating as one.
As human beings continue to evolve, so do our conceptions of God. In fact, some would go so far as to say that as human beings evolve, God evolves right along with us, and with every small step humanity takes toward wider care and deeper consciousness, God takes another step toward its own perfection and the divinization of the universe. And it is through our very conceptions of the divine that God’s voice can speak to and through us, finding more volume and resonance as the architecture of thought becomes more sophisticated and inclusive.
This is why our theoretical understanding of spirituality is just as important as our actual experiences of God, or Buddha, or Spirit of any name. There is an aspect of God, our selves, and the universe that is best described as being ultimately “One,” and there is an aspect that is best described as the “Many.” And while we may all be looking at (and as) the very same ultimate Oneness, it is our interpretations of that Oneness that determine our relationship with the Many.
Central to the discussion is the notion of panentheism as a foundation to anchor our conceptions of God. This is not to be confused with the idea of pantheism, in which the divine is completely imminent within the physical world itself, but is without transcendent qualities whatsoever. Panentheism also offers a way to step beyond merely deistic conceptions of Spirit, in which God is credited with the creation of the universe but remains eternally removed from it, with no imminent qualities whatsoever—the “great clockmaker in the sky,” as deists often describe the divine, able to be perceived only through the light of reason. Panentheism also frees us from the typically mythological conceptions of God that are found in traditional forms of theism, in which one particular group of people claim an exclusive knowledge of God’s nature—usually a single, monolithic, omniscient God who reveals himself only through faith and revelation, which more often than not resembles the “great superego in the sky.”
“I am a little concerned that so many people who have discovered the One simply eradicate their sense of the Many, or consider it unimportant….” -Brother David Steindl-Rast
Rather than saying “the universe is God,” as the pantheists would, or that “God is beyond the universe,” as the deists and even theists likely would, the panentheistic view would more likely state that “the universe is in God, and God is in everything in the universe.” In this conception, God is the universe, while being infinitely beyond the universe—that is, to borrow terms from Nagarjuna, there is a sense in which God represents Absolute unmanifest perfection, while simultaneously becoming increasingly more perfect in the relative world. It is precisely this divide between God transcendent and God imminent that, in the modern and post-modern worlds, only panentheism can seem to bridge. As American philosopher Charles Hartshorne put it, “panentheistic doctrine contains all of deism and pandeism” (the synthesis of deism and pantheism, in which God preceded the universe and created it, but is now equivalent with it), “except their arbitrary negations.”
One of the most important contributions Christianity has to offer the world’s discussion of spirituality is the idea of the Holy Trinity: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. This unique conception of God as “three persons, one substance” has been a central part of Christian doctrine since the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D. And when viewed through the lens of Integral panentheism, the Trinity truly comes alive in our minds as three very different ways of experiencing God:
- The God that is the great, unknowable, Absolute Mystery, from which we come and to which we shall return—God transcendent, or God the Father.
- The God that we recognize in everything that we see, everything that we touch, everything that is—the entire universe as the Body of Christ; God imminent; or God the Son.
- The God that exists through doing, creating, knowing, understanding—the dynamic aspects of God; God as verb; or God as Holy Spirit.
The Holy Trinity is just one of many traditional religious symbols from around the world that take on renewed life, relevance, and significance in the light of a panentheistic conception of the physical and spiritual worlds. As such, the panentheistic model is an almost ideal place to begin any Integral discussion of religion and spirituality, as it not only helps to reconcile some of the apparent contradictions within the Christian tradition (e.g. transcendence vs. immanence), but also provides a common foundation upon which we can begin a truly inter-religious discussion, revealing many of the essential similarities (and important differences) between a multitude of different religions and faiths, as well as with the secular and scientific worlds. In a panentheistic universe, there is no need for conflict between spirituality and science, between consciousness and biochemistry, or between God and evolution.
Originally published on Integral Life: Integral Christianity – Theory and Practice. Part 1: The Relationship of the One and the Many (w/ Brother David Steindl-Rast and Ken Wilber)
“Driven by the forces of love, the fragments of the world seek each other so that the world may come into being. Love alone is capable of uniting living beings in such a way as to complete and fulfill them, for it alone takes them and joins them by what is deepest in themselves.” –Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
This is all Christ, or any other enlightened master, has ever asked of us. Love fully, love freely, and love completely. Love to the bottom of our hearts, to the depths of our souls, using every moment as an opportunity to express gratitude for our blessings and our devotion to one another. It is such a deceptively simple instruction—so much so that we rarely find it being followed in a wholehearted way in our own lives or in the world around us. This is one of the central paradoxes of Christ’s message: it is so simple that almost everyone misses it. So simple that most people would have an easier time walking through the eye of a needle than they would walking the path of God’s love.
It’s hard to love so fully. Even hearing the words “simply love” can sound fairly glib and cliché—we have become habituated to our world, and when so locked into our own day-to-day habits, it can be very difficult to see the universe as a living manifestation of God’s love. But being so habituated is not itself a bad thing. It is a delicious twist of irony that, while the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the stairway to heaven ascends upon steps of habit—morphogenetic habits that constantly add new layers of depth to the universe, Kosmic tendencies that have led from inert matter to chaotic biology, to the abstractions of mind, and onward into the soul of the future. The idea is not to eliminate our habits altogether, but to bring awareness to our habits, to make subject object, and loosen the grip of the habituated mind, allowing for more spontaneous outbursts of love, clarity, and joy.
While it’s true that we are all suspended within God’s Heart, surrounded at all times by the radical Presence of His love—infinitely patient, infinitely abundant, and infinitely available—our own hearts are anything but infinite, forever incapable of reflecting the full effulgence of God’s love. The human heart is a bloody and broken thing—stippled with scars, shrouded in shadow, and horrified by its own fleshy mortality. Our hearts will inevitably fall short of our ideals, recoil at the first hint of fear, and invariably lead us astray—sometimes we even allow our hearts to wound the ones around us while recklessly pursuing some form of comfort or convenience. Our hearts are damned to disappoint us—which might explain why the notion of forgiveness plays such an important role in the Christian tradition. We are asked to love beyond our means, but we are never asked to be any more perfect than we always already are.
We are simply asked to recognize ourselves as what, in the deepest recesses of our minds, we already know ourselves to be. We know that every hardship we’ve ever suffered—every humiliation, every betrayal, every silent defeat—every pain we’ve ever felt has in some way carved into our hearts, allowing us to contain more love, more joy, and more liberation. But we also know that no matter how full our hearts may be at any given time, they can always be fuller; they can always continue to grow and strengthen, and pump more and more of God’s love into the world.
The human heart seems to be designed to grow. It is a work-in-progress (or, if you like, poetry-in-motion) and is constantly changing and evolving. We are, after all, created in the image of God, and our hearts are each a reflection of God’s own Sacred Heart. As such, our hearts continue to evolve as the rest of the universe continues to evolve, increasing the force, range, and half-life of our love to unimaginable magnitudes. As the creative force of Eros exerts its extropic pull upon the universe, so does a natural pressure build within the heart, an innate urge to expand and come ever-closer to its own limitless potential.
This is what drives us to practice.
We exercise our physical form so that we can more fully embody our love. Our bodies are both temples of worship and furnaces of will—it is within our bodies that our beliefs become our practices, our ideals interface with our behaviors, and our compassion is transformed into action. By deepening our relationship with out own bodies and striving to be as healthy as our anatomies allow us, we dramatically increase our own ability to respond to the pressures of the world with strength, courage, and kindness.
We exercise our emotions and our shadows so that we can discover all those broken pieces of ourselves we have long forgotten about—dark splinters of psyche and nerve-ridden filaments of neurosis that often remain completely hidden from us, distorting our perceptions of ourselves, of our relationships, and of the world around us, and ultimately suffocating the potency of our love.
We exercise our minds so that we can cultivate the mental clarity and sophistication required to understand God’s word and the universe around us, growing through lens after lens of cultural values and worldviews—great stained-glass mosaics with increasingly intricate patterns of magic, mythic, rational, pluralistic, and integral colors, each refracting the light of God’s love in very different ways.
And finally, we exercise our spirituality so that we can more fully realize Christ’s instruction to simply love. We intuit that this entire world—all the sin, all the suffering, and all the fragmentation—is just an illusion, a ruse to distract our attention from the one true God. And so we close our eyes to the world, sinking into the inner room at the core of our own souls, looking beyond the frenzied noise of thought to the all-pervasive silence behind all things. We are each alone in the unimaginable quiet, the only place we could ever hope to hear the seraphic whispers of God’s voice. And so, sitting right here in the center of consciousness, right now before the Throne of the Lord, here and now in the Kingdom of God, we begin to pray.
We surrender ourselves to the infinite Other, catch glimpses of our timeless Beloved dancing behind chimera clouds, and fall even deeper in love with the unmentionable Mystery. God alone is real, and we pray before Him for guidance, for inspiration, for forgiveness, and for the strength to love—and in the very act of praying, our prayers are answered. By recognizing the intrinsic Oneness of God and submitting ourselves to something so undeniably greater than ourselves, our hearts are opened even more, allowing even more of God’s love to flow through our veins.
Feeling a gentle warmth growing within us, we begin to tumble upwards through our hearts. Wiping away the already-fading memories of Theosophy, we open our freshly baptized eyes and watch the world explode into a carnival of bliss and color, the faint hum of love emanating from everything we see—God is the world. Fully human and fully divine, we feel the rhythm of two hearts beating in our chests and a palpable current of electricity flowing through our bodies, threading all of our souls together into the sweet melodies of love. Awash in the sacred Hymn of creation, we all look to each other, gazing tenderly at one another. Some faces we know as friends and family, some we recognize from the street during our daily routines, and a great many more we’ve never seen before. We look into each other’s eyes, sharing a single universal smile, and simply love—loving as fully and freely as we’ve ever loved, holding this moment as the most precious moment we’ve ever known, as if this were the only moment we will ever share again—and knowing that, in a very real sense, it is.
And there has never been anything more beautiful.
Originally published on IntegralLife.com: The Sacred Heart of Christianity. Part 2: Simply Love (w/ Rollie Stanich and Ken Wilber)