September 2009 – Abundant Life IX

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

September 2009

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

May the Lord give you Peace!

In the spiritual life, abundance needs maturity. To bear fruit, the tree of life must grow through stages. Abundant life, with our identity and giftedness in full bloom—as Christ proposes—is the culmination of personal development. It is not innate but the product of grace that grows in ground made fertile by healthy reflection on our life experience.

In an interview last year with the editors of U.S. Catholic Magazine, Franciscan author Richard Rohr spoke of a spirituality that is appropriate to the second half of life and characterized that phase in these terms:

The second half of life is love, joy, peace, and the Holy Spirit. You’ve experienced the death of the need to be right, to think well of yourself, to think you’re superior to and more moral than other people. It’s a tremendous peace. You don’t have anything to prove anymore. You don’t have to live up to or to live down to your reputation, you just are who you are. You have met the enemy and the only enemy is you, not any other group, religion, nation, or race. People in the second half of life are not rebels. If you’re a rebel, you’re still trapped in the first half. That’s not wisdom yet. At the wisdom stage, you don’t need to rebel or hate or oppose.

There is nothing automatic about this attitude. Some people who are well advanced in age lack it and some people in early adulthood have it already. There is no rule that says that you have to wait for your 40s, 50s, and 60s to enjoy the freedom of this more mature outlook. This is not to say that we should skip over the phase of personal discipline at the beginning of our spiritual journey. The first half of life has its purpose. Society has to transmit to us its values and code of conduct. In faith and religion, as well as any other area of human development, a solid foundation must first be built. Rohr adds, “If you don’t get it when you’re young, it’s a problem. You end up needing rigid rules and superiority systems in your 30s and 40s.”

Maturity in Christ is a topic rarely raised in sermons. We tend to stick to the basics because the church has a pedagogical duty to make sure that the basics are known and understood. (Even at that, our definition of what is basic is often very limited. Is justice a basic tenet of our faith? Is charity toward the poor? These certainly ought to be if they are not, judging from the words of Jesus found in the Gospels.) Eventually, though, our life knowledge outreaches our understanding. It is then time to grow in wisdom, often at the price of certitude.

The tragedy is that spiritual growth is stunted if we never graduate from the level of doctrine. Simple doctrine is the milk of spiritual infancy. To it are added heartier nutrients in adolescence, mixed with the solid food of good works in early adulthood. But this remains a very basic diet. It usually proves to be quite inadequate when we are challenged by more demanding events, such as physical or emotional suffering. That is when we must rethink our spiritual diet in order to access true joy that is the prize of authentic faith—life so abundant that it is not smothered by doubt or paralysed by tragedy.

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.

1 Cor. 13: 11

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The social sciences can help shed light on the dynamics of our spiritual journey. For instance, some theories of human development align reasonably well with our contemporary understanding of scripture. One such theorist is Lawrence Kolhberg, a psychologist whose field research has provided useful information regarding the stages of moral development. He identifies six of these, ranging from the obedience and punishment orientation, typically experienced at infancy, to motivations of universal justice and the common good, which one would expect to be associated with late adulthood.

Progress across the spectrum of styles in moral attitude and activity is not a function of heredity or socialization but of reflection and careful thinking about moral problems—ours and those of others. Kolhberg suggests that development occurs when our reflection is the result of frank and democratic discussion with others whose viewpoints are different from our own.

What is especially interesting about Kolhberg’s research is that most people never make it past stages three and four, which has a real bearing on the question of spiritual maturity or authentic and abundant living. Fully two thirds of the population sampled were found to live at the third and fourth stages of moral development. These are the stages at which the priority is the maintenance of good interpersonal relationships and of social order, respectively. A more nuanced and complex approach to interpersonal and social relationships comes later, if at all.

At stages three and four, which should occur during teen years and early adulthood, there are many barriers to living abundantly. There is, for instance, an underdeveloped respect for the inherent dignity of the human person. Ultimately, the barrier that separates people at this level from abundant living is the fear—an often subconscious fear—that betrays the freedom that we so desperately seek.

It is only in the later stages that we learn that systems are meant to be at the service of people and not the other way around, and that the public good is not antithetical to individual rights. W.C. Crain provides a good example in Theories of Development, “Martin Luther King argued that laws are only valid insofar as they are grounded in justice, and that a commitment to justice carries with it an obligation to disobey unjust laws. King also recognized the general need for laws and democratic processes, and he was therefore willing to accept the penalties for his actions. Nevertheless, he believed that the higher principle of justice required civil disobedience.” Value trumps satisfaction.

Moral development is tied to abundant life inasmuch as it enables us to discern the meaning and purpose of God’s word in our life. It is the path by which we advance toward intimacy with God and—with his help—the serene actualization of our full potential.

May grace and peace be yours in abundance.
1 Peter 1: 2b

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Finally, let’s look at abundant life in relation to stages of faith. James Fowler, an associate of Lawrence Kohlberg, developed a psychology of human development with a special focus on the universal quest for meaning. Not surprisingly, he proposes six stages as well: intuitive-projective faith, mythic-literal faith, synthetic-conventional faith, individuative-reflective faith, conjunctive faith and universalizing faith.

Again, it is only a rare person who reaches the ultimate level, which is not to say that it is impossible. It does, however, require effort and determination to sift through the materials of our lives authentically and unselfishly. Foster does not see the progress of faith as movement along degrees of perfection or even the eradication of neurotic behaviour. It primarily concerns perspective: “Greatness of commitment and vision often coexist with great blind spots and limitations.”

Both stages five and six are marked by an acute awareness of other people, their intrinsic dignity as well as their worldviews. But whereas stage five is a time of “sometimes painful disruption of deeply held but unexamined world view or belief systems,” stage six is a time of reconciliation between paradoxes and acceptance of attendant tensions. The social perspective, which has broadened progressively from the egocentrism of infancy, has been “drawn beyond itself into a new quality of participation and grounding in God, or the Principle of Being.”

Indeed, the true spiritual joy of abundant life is most directly linked to stages five and six, which Foster termed post-conventional: “We are tracing the path by which persons in community become subjects before God and increase in their capacities for self-aware, self-critical, and responsible partnership with God.”

But lest we fall prey to a fantasy of omnipotence, let us not loose sight of God’s effort in relation to our own, and the need for us to let God be God just as God lets us be us. God’s provision includes grace that is built into the process of birth, of parental care and into the orders our species has evolved for the maintenance of life. Grace that comes as part of creation can be called ordinary grace. Kohlberg writes, “In insisting upon the radical freedom of God, we must also take account of what might be called extraordinary grace—the unexpected manifestations of God’s care.”

Indeed we also work, but are only collaborating with God who works, for his mercy has gone before us. It has gone before us so that we may be healed, and follows us so that once healed, we may be given life.

St. Augustine, On Nature and Grace

Fraternally in joy and hope


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