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Spiritual Development

Thomas Keating: The Secret Embrace, Part Two

Spiritual Development
Sunday, October 25, 2020

Before we continue exploring Thomas Keating’s poems from The Secret Embrace under the helpful guidance of Cynthia Bourgeault, I want to offer a basic overview of the stages of spiritual development that I have used for years with spiritual directees and in teaching settings. I believe Thomas modeled all these stages, which are not as easy to see in most of our lives.

1. My body and self-image are who I am.

At the most basic level, this is what Thomas Keating called our “programs for happiness.”  These are the needs for security and survival, esteem and affection, and power and control. Though we may “transcend” to other levels, our egoic selves will always “include” these impulses, particularly under stress.

2. My external behavior is who I am.

We need to look good from the outside and to hide any “contrary evidence” from others, and eventually from ourselves. The ego’s “shadow” begins to emerge at this time.

3. My thoughts and feelings are who I am.

We begin to take pride in our “better” thoughts and feelings and learn to control them, so much so that we do not even see their self-serving nature. For nearly all of us, a major defeat, shock, or humiliation must be suffered and passed through to go beyond this stage.

4. My deeper intuitions and felt knowledge in my body are who I am.

This is such a breakthrough and so helpful that many of us are content to stay here, but to remain at this level may lead to inner work or body work as a substitute for any real encounter with, or sacrifice for, the “other.”

5. My shadow self is who I am.

This is the first “dark night of the senses”—when our weakness overwhelms us, and we finally face ourselves in our unvarnished and uncivilized state. The false self has failed to bring us all the way to God or the Oneness we seek. Without guidance, grace, and prayer, most of us go running back to previous identities.

6. I am empty and powerless.

Some call this sitting in “God’s Waiting Room,” but is more often known as “the dark night of the soul.” Almost any attempt at this point to save ourselves by any superior behavior, morality, or prayer technique will fail us. All we can do is to ask, wait, and trust. God is about to become real. The ego, or separate self, is dying in a major way.

7. I am much more than who I thought I was.

We experience the permanent waning of the false self and the ascent of the True Self as the center of our being. It feels like an absence or void, even if a wonderful void. John of the Cross calls this “Luminous Darkness.” We grow not by knowing or understanding, but only by loving and trusting.

8. “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30).

Here, there is only God. There is nothing we need to protect, promote, or prove to anyone, especially ourselves. Our false self no longer guides the ship. We have learned to let Grace and Mystery guide us—still without full (if any) comprehension.

9. I am who I am.

I’m “just me,” warts and all. It is enough to be human without any window dressing. We are now fully detached from our own self-image and living in God’s image of us—which includes and loves both the good and the bad. We experience true serenity and freedom, but it is quite ordinary and also quite sufficient. This is the peace the world cannot give (see John 14:27) and full resting in God. “To know oneself in God and to know God in oneself,” as both Julian of Norwich and Teresa of Ávila put it.

References:
Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 2009), 164–166.

Image credit: Alta Pink (detail), James Turrell, 1968, installation.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: To be nothing / Is to consent to being a simple creature. / This is the place of encounter with / “I AM that I Am.” / When there is no more “me, myself, or mine,” / Only “I AM” remains. / Then the “I” may fall away, / Leaving just the AM. . . . —Thomas Keating, “Out of Nothing”
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