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Center for Action and Contemplation

Stages of Life

Wednesday, August 15, 2018


Stages of Life
Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Beginning with Jesus’ four kinds of soil and receptivity (Matthew 13:4-9), to John of the Cross’ “dark nights” and Teresa of Ávila’s “interior mansions,” through the modern schemas of Jean Piaget, James Fowler, Lawrence Kohlberg, Eric Erikson, Abraham Maslow, Carol Gilligan, and others, each clarify that there is a clear direction and staging to maturity and therefore to human life.

Unless we can somehow chart this trajectory, we have no way to discern growth and what might be a full, fuller, or fullest human response. Neither do we have any criteria for discerning an immature, regressive, or even sick response. When pluralism itself becomes the goal, a postmodern dilemma is created. There must be a direction to ripening, but we must also recognize that any steps toward maturity are by necessity immature. An understanding of ripening teaches us the wisdom of timing, love, and patience, and allows us to be wise instead of judgmental.

Hinduism teaches that there are four major stages of life: (1) the student, (2) the householder, (3) the forest dweller or hermit (the “retiree” from business as usual), and (4) the beggar or wanderer (the wise or fully enlightened person who is not overly attached to anything and is detached from everything and thus ready for death). I once saw these four stages represented in four stained glass windows in a Catholic church in Bangalore, showing how central this cultural paradigm is to the wider Indian culture, not just practicing Hindus.

Western cultures tend to recognize and honor only the first two stages at best. We are an adolescent culture. Seeing these missing pieces in our societies, I helped develop men’s initiation rites and have explored later stages of life. [1] My experience tells me that when we do not intentionally cultivate the third and fourth stages, we lose their skills and fail to create the elders needed to understand the first and second stages and guide us through and beyond them.

This is foundational to the spiritual problems we are experiencing in Western religion and culture today, and probably why we now seem to have an epidemic of mental and emotional illness. It seems so many people are angry and afraid, especially at religion itself. I hope they do not waste too many years there because reactivism is an early-stage response. They are angry because we do not honor variety, staging, interiority, or depth in most of organized Christianity; but their attachment to that very anger becomes a hindrance.

Becoming a “forest dweller” and “beggar” is a slow, patient learning and letting go. This ripening is a seeming emptying out to create readiness for a new kind of fullness, about which we are never sure. If we do not allow our own ripening, resistance and denial set in. Yet when we surrender to our own natural journey, we find authentic hope, hope that is not identified with outcomes or goals.

[1] See Richard Rohr, Adam’s Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 2004) and Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (Jossey-Bass: 2011).

Adapted from Richard Rohr, “Introduction,” “Ripening,” Oneing, vol. 1 no. 2 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2013), 11-12.

Image Credit: A Hindu Woman in Yoga Asana Meditation (detail), Lucia Puertas, 2010, river Ganges, Varanasi, India.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: The Bhagavad Gita does not counsel that we all become monks or solitaries. Rather, the true synthesis is found in a life-long purification of motive, intention, and focus in our world of action. The Gita calls the active person to a life of interiority and soul discovery. How can we do “pure action”? Only by gradually detaching from all the fruits of action and doing everything purely for the love of God. —Richard Rohr
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