The First Letter from a Spiritual Director: Ears to Hear. By Paul Engler
I have been providing some spiritual direction in the Christian Contemplative Tradition to a few people from my church. One of my directees really wanted me to write some of my lessons to him in a letter. He thought it would be a good exercise for me, and hopefully useful for others who can not see me face to face. I thought that I have little new to say, but the feedback from my directees has been overwhelmingly positive, so I thought I would oblige.
I do not know where to start other than to be led by the Spirit, as is the foundation of all good direction. I do not know what to say until I speak to you without all the attachments of a friendship, especially one I esteem as high as ours. What a wonderful invitation to be asked to write to another.
To begin, I will say this path is not for everyone, or rather it is for everyone, but not everyone is able to walk it. Not everyone is ready. It might be frustrating that truths from our masters are specifically geared to the ears of the disciples – that truth is not so universal. Jesus, like many mystical masters, says seemingly contradictory things. They may seem confusing because they are geared to dramatically different needs of many different listeners. People might need to hear exactly the opposite things depending on where they are at in their journey. For example, Jesus might say to one, obey the commandments and with it “Honor your father and your mother.” (Matthew 19:17-19, Mark 10:17-19, Luke 8:18-21) And for another “For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household.” (Matthew 10:34) He knows just what to say to move one to greater faith.
In my spiritual direction, I try to speak not just from one relative place but rather to evoke the whole journey — to orient the listener for all their travels but also light their way home after a night of drinking. It is one of the great problems to be open to the truth of direction even with ears that are not ready to listen. So, please listen so truths can be absorbed and stored into the recesses of memory. Your spirit will use the truths you hear in the moment they are needed.
I write principles that dramatically change as one grows in consciousness, from baby to adolescent, to old man. As our body matures so too does our mind, our heart, and our faith. One of the first great child psychologists, Piaget, proved in amazing experiments that a child’s entire worldviews change dramatically every few years. The basic concepts of our reality cannot be taught until a certain age or predictable stage of development is reached. Now there are scores of developmental psychologists that have scientifically proven through so many experiments the reality of this developmental progression and complexity that emerges over time in our cognitive ability as well as our faith. We do not have to be scared of this science of the mind— I assure you it only makes the gospel and the word of Christ come alive with greater depths. Our great teachings also have stages of development, which are actually in many ways more advanced than that of the relatively new fields of psychology and neuroscience. Our great teachers, our mystics, and of course Christ has much to teach these scientists, especially about the higher stages of development.
So there are stages of growth on this journey, call them what you will— growing discipleship, living more fully in Christ, growing in faith, stages of prayer. And among many of the great psychological masters of our tradition, I must give great gratitude for the experience of Saint John of the Cross and Saint Theresa de Avila for one of the most complex and clear explanations of these stages of prayer.
In a nut shell, if you really want God, you can always go deeper. There is always more to give God; there is always more to die too. There is always more humility and receptivity, until we are like Saint Paul— “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.”( Galatians 2:20) But, in all honesty, the level of purification of this stage where we are led entirely by the spirit and not our own will, thoughts, and intentions is not fit for the beginner. We all must start from a place where almost everything we do is of our own making—our own will—even if that too is directed by God without our knowing. We are still really led by our own selfish desires. Here too Saint Paul is so clear in stating, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15) We are powerless over most of ourselves. But what we do have the power to direct our will to is itself of immense importance. Through some effort we can receive so much from outside of ourselves. And hence this is the one of the greatest of all the contradictions of our tradition.
Our growth is not directed by us; it is by grace that we receive it. It is a sheer gift not at all proportional to our effort. Yet, it is only by tremendous effort that most of can receive it. It is by single-pointed effort that grace is received, by the incredible focus of our faith. As Jesus said in the greatest commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37) The experience of all the great saints, disciples, and of Saint Paul will attest that grace and salvation in this world is received not all at once (no matter how powerful our initial conversion) but time and again if we are ready to receive. Being ready to receive is a moment to moment practice of surrender like that of an alert newly-wed wife waiting for her bridegroom on the wedding night (Matthew 25:1-7) — or a servant waiting attentively for their master to return (Luke 12:37). It is a prayer practice like that which Saint Paul describes in his admonition to “pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:17)
This effort might seem unbearable to surrender every second all day long, to wait moment to moment while the rest shall be added — it seems like an unbearable focus to the exclusion of everything else. For beginners, it is hard to believe it is even possible that our interior lives can be solely focused on God, with little or no compulsive thought. But I assure you there are practices and disciplines which will make these ideals real within years — wherever you are at you can begin daily prayer practice and move toward un-ceasing prayer. But this we will explore later.
The gist of what I am saying here in this first letter is that most all of us can go so much deeper. A whole new world of faith is there. I believe sainthood is available, and now more than ever –we can be these disciples, these divine beings in Christ. We can experience the fruits of the Spirit, more than we have already in glimpses, temporary states of consciousness, and spiritual experiences. And with the fruits of the Spirit also come a variety of supernatural powers, which we are not to speak too much to avoid creating too much selfish attachment and pride in them. There are some that can speak of these stages of contemplation, of being that is led more than most can imagine by the inspiration of the Spirit and without the attachment to our selves in the flesh.
Great is the time that has allowed the great Christian mystical traditions to be revived – and reconfirmed with knowledge of modern science and psychology. This high state of consciousness that is living in Christ is now something we can measure and test and speak of clearly—it is a state with little or no compulsive thought, of fear, or selfish attachment, a state of living in an interior silent place led by the Spirit. Then we shall know what it is to be the mystical body of Christ experientially. But is not to be understood intellectually— in fact it cannot be known through the mind; it must be experienced. And the only way to teach it is through articulation of ones own experience, for which the tradition can give language.
Although there are exceptions, few that I know are able to reach these stages without the intense sustained practice of contemplative prayer. These are technologies of sorts, very powerful methods, which have very specific effects on consciousness. These disciplines have been refined over thousands of years with an understanding of the unfolding of the experience. Even in my own limited practice and spiritual direction, I have seen dozens and dozens respond to Centering Prayer, constant petition, welcoming prayer, active prayer sentence, and other prayer forms from the contemplative tradition. This has formed so many patterns for growth, so many insights that are practical as well as theological.
Regular church folk, in standard and contemporary prayer and worship practices of the Christian tradition, whether Evangelical prayer or the mass of “high church”, may get glimpses of these stages of development — but there is little comparison to the felt experience received through a committed contemplative practice. The common activities of church worship have their own benefits, but the journey of one that engages in prolonged contemplative prayer and silence is different, and it is deeper. If you choose to commit to this journey, you will experience very concrete growth through stages in your faith, your consciousness will change, and the mystics of our tradition will come alive to you. You will taste the spirit, instead of trying to understand it. But it is a commitment and a daily practice that not everyone is ready for.
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