Lately I’ve been reading, thinking and writing about the spiritual maturation process in the second half of life (SHOL). Underneath the discussion lies a fundamental question: why make the effort?
If you’ve walked with the Lord for a while, your spiritual journey has a rhythm. Like the basketball player who unconsciously dribbles down the court, your habits are second-nature. Likely they include weekly attendance at a worship service, bi-weekly small group meeting, devotions, prayer, and Christian books on the nightstand. Throw in a service project, a retreat, a Christian concert or two, and the rhythm deepens like ice on a pond.
Such was my rhythm until David Benner in The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery, and M. Robert Mulholland, Jr. in The Deeper Journey: The Spirituality of Discovering Your True Self, and Saint John of the Cross in his “The Dark Night of the Soul” poem disrupted it.
My habits were scripturally based: Jesus taught his disciples to pray, Psalm 119:11 said that knowing God’s word would prevent sin, and James admonished his readers to prove their faith through actions and words. But when calamity came, suffering struck, and disappointments mounted, like many SHOL’ers, I found my rhythm was missing a beat.
These authors and other early mystics and current contemplatives like Teresa of Avila, Thomas Merton, Richard Foster, Thomas Keating, Henri Nouwen, Richard Rohr, and Dallas Willard want to draw Christians into a rich relationship with God. For each of them, this came as their understanding of the riches of God’s love deepened and swelled.
Brenner concludes that the Christian’s security and significance comes from an abiding awareness that they are “someone who is deeply loved by God” (49), and sanctification is a lifelong process of “coming to know and trust God’s love” (51). Mulholland surmises that when we understand our true selves, the person God created us to be, we will find that self “clasped in God’s love” (73-74).
The path to this deeper union with and awareness of God “passes through some pretty rough territory” even jungles, writes Mulholland. It will take one through dark forests like those Anodos travels in George MacDonald’s fairy novel, Phantastes, or on roads like Christian travels in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. It’s a process of discovering and shedding the personas we’ve created to protect ourselves (Rohr), of releasing what we have, what we can do and what others think of us (Brenner) to be free to “know and rely on the love God has for us” (I John 4:16).
The few who’ve choose this route glow with an inner peace like saints in an icon and exude calm like a sleeping infant. They have surrendered in “loving abandonment to God” and have “a hungering and thirsting for the things of God” (Mulholland). Their lack of pretension and God-centered focus are off-putting due to their scarcity, yet magnetic. To paraphrase Calvin, these are people who know who they are because they know God, and who know God because they know themselves.
Such are the riches that await the experienced travel willing to put more miles on their treads. Worth the effort? Try it and see.
Benner, David G. The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2004.
Keating, Thomas. Invitation to Love: The Way of Christian Contemplation. New York: Continuum, 2010.
Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation. Shambhala Library. Boston: Shambhala, 2003.
Mulholland, M. Robert. The Deeper Journey: The Spirituality of Discovering Your True Self. Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Books, 2006.
Nouwen, Henri J. M. The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
Rohr, Richard. Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. 1st ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011.