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We Do Grow, Change, and Evolve

Levels of Development: Week 1

We Do Grow, Change, and Evolve
Sunday, December 6, 2015

In the next section of my lineage, I will be discussing one of the most helpful and clarifying elements for the modern mind: understanding things in terms of developmental stages. As a preacher and teacher, I know that I can say one thing and it will be heard on as many as ten different levels, depending upon the inner psychological and spiritual maturity of the listener. Thomas Aquinas said the same in one of his foundational principles of philosophy: “Whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver.” We now call this “developmental psychology.”

I can give what I think is a lousy sermon, yet a humble woman will come to me after mass in tears of gratitude for the beauty of something that spoke to her deeply. She may not be highly educated, but she is spiritually evolved. Another “smart” but cognitively rigid person will hear the same sermon and is only convinced that I am a heretic. Mature people can make lemonade out of lemons. Immature people can turn the sweetest lemonade tart and sour. It’s always interesting after Mass to hear what people heard me say, and how different it is from what I thought I said. I’ve learned just to accept their understanding as a sign of where they are on the spiritual/human journey. [1] I am quite sure this is what the evangelists are referring to when they frequently say Jesus “knew their thoughts” (Luke 6:8; 9:47). You can actually be trained in “reading souls” and recognizing where people are coming from and headed toward. I doubt if you can be a good spiritual director or educator without some foundational knowledge of stages of consciousness and development.

Jesus clearly recognized levels of development in his parable about the four kinds of soil (Matthew 13:1-23; Mark 4:1-20; Luke 8:4-15) and how they each received the same seed differently. Teresa of Ávila’s “mansions” and John of the Cross’ “nights” of the senses and of the spirit were other clever metaphors aiming us in the same direction. Then in the last century it began to explode: Jean Piaget looked at cognitive development, Lawrence Kohlberg focused on moral development, and Abraham Maslow gave us a hierarchy of human needs. More recently, James Fowler described stages of faith, and Bill Plotkin gave us his Soulcentric Developmental Wheel which outlines the link between nature and soulful growth. Not as much attention has been given to women’s models of growth, but two excellent examples are Nicola Slee’s study, Women’s Faith Development, and Carol Gilligan’s ground-breaking work. My own attempt to correlate the various schemas of development for spiritual directors can be found in the first appendix of my book, The Naked Now.

In recent decades, building on many of these models, I have come to find great insight in the work of Clare Graves, Don Beck, Christopher Cowan, and Ken Wilber. They teach a spiraling form of development that integrates the biopsychosocial and spiritual stages, which they call Spiral Dynamics. What I find especially compelling here is that these schemas show how history itself has paralleled the levels of individual development and growth. The trajectory is the same. This gives us a kind of tool for discernment, for reading and critiquing oneself, and also for reading history and understanding how we have come to this critical and perplexing point in human existence, stage by stage. [2]

From a faith perspective, learning about levels of development can give us understanding and compassion for ourselves and for others. It can also give us hope, especially during the dark times when things seem to be falling apart, personally or globally. Between each stage there is always a necessary dying or period of darkness when the previous stage stops working. This mirrors what so many Christian mystics have taught. We need to help one another keep the soul open at such times, trusting that God and grace will move us forward when we are ready. I truly believe that consciousness is evolving toward ever deeper union and wholeness, even though it may not seem that way in the short run. As with everything, we move three steps forward and two steps backwards. [3] Some call this “Holy Affirming” and “Holy Denying” which eventually moves us to a third something at a higher level of awareness.

Gateway to Silence:
I am open to change.

[1] Adapted from Richard Rohr, Levels of Spiritual Growth (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2009), CD, MP3 download.

[2] Adapted from Richard Rohr, In the Beginning . . . Six hours with Rob Bell and Richard Rohr on Reclaiming the Original Christian Narrative (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2014), disc 2, CD, MP3 download.

[3] Adapted from Richard Rohr, Where You Are Is Where I’ll Meet You (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2009), disc 1, CD, MP3 download.

Image Credit: Insula dulcamara (detail), 1938, Paul Klee, Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, Switzerland
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