We all know people whose spirits seem to remain stunted all their lives.
No matter how long they stay on this Earth, they never appear to develop beyond fretting endlessly about their own needs, hurts and jealousies. They never master the noble spiritual truths woven into the cosmos.
I’d hope most of us don’t want to end up like that. We’d prefer to develop into kinder, more balanced, farther-seeing folks. We’d hope to lay aside pettiness and self-pity and bitterness. We’d like to unchain our spirits and soar with the angels.
But how do we go about it? How do we transcend our childish, miserly selves? How do we enlarge our souls?
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After 40 years of pondering these matters, observing people’s successes and failures, interviewing seers, saints and Zen masters, reading the Bible and trying to practice Christianity myself, I’ve developed a few thoughts about spiritual development.
For whatever they’re worth, here goes:
▪ Decide that you, and you alone, are responsible for developing your spiritual life. You can’t fully pattern your own walk with God, or your relationship with the cosmos, as it were, on what anybody does. Not on the pope. Not on your mama. Not on the preacher. Not on an atheist philosopher. Not on a charismatic politician. They’re not you. You have to take ownership of your growth and be intentional about it.
▪ Be careful what you listen to, as Jesus said. And be careful how you listen. Do your spiritual due diligence. All people are flawed and silly, including you. But that includes, too, the popular gurus and pundits of our day, who might in fact be dunderheads. Or maybe they aren’t; you won’t know until you carefully listen and evaluate what they say. Then you must arrive at your own conclusions, not theirs.
▪ Question everything. Question your biases. Question your religion. Question your politics. Question all commonly accepted truths that society believes in. Sift and then sift some more.
▪ Even if you belong to specific spiritual discipline, seek out multiple viewpoints. All knowledge is valuable. If you’re a devoted Pentecostal, as I am, read what the Catholics say, and the Buddhists, and the atheists. Talk with conservatives and liberals and middle-of-the-roaders.
Don’t be imprisoned by your fear of hearing something that might undermine your beliefs. If your beliefs are that fragile, they need to be undermined. Instead, be brave.
God is big enough to help you digest contradictions. Learn and come away wiser.
▪ Remain humble and teachable. The reason you need to read and hear from many traditions is not so you can prove them wrong; it’s because you don’t know everything. Yes, other people are as flawed and silly as you are, but their insights and experiences can help you see possibilities you haven’t considered. Plus, some folks, even though flawed and silly, are just smarter than you.
▪ Be humble, yes, but simultaneously be self-confident and, when necessary, cantankerous. Don’t succumb to social pressure. Don’t cave in to whatever is popular this week on the spiritual buffet. Trust that the force is leading you in the direction that’s designed for you, even when everyone else is headed in the opposite direction. The crowd is usually wrong.
▪ Practice compassion. Make yourself act mercifully and generously even if you don’t want to. Give money to needy strangers. Get outside yourself. God manifests himself most dramatically in the forms of the poor, the sick and the obnoxious. Love them and you’ll find him.
▪ Don’t bend the facts to fit your ideology. If necessary, alter your ideology to match the facts. Remember that your emotions and your dogmas and even your prejudices might be ingrained in you, but if you’re to grow, they must bow to realities that contradict them. As a spiritual director told me, emotions are neither good nor bad; they just are. We all have nebulous, half-baked feelings. However, hard truth must reign.
▪ Accept that you can’t believe something you don’t believe. Quit faking it. Insights sometimes arrive subtly, unannounced, after a long, dry silence. In the meantime, be honest enough to say to God or the great void or your fellow agnostics, “Sorry, I just can’t accept what you want me to accept. I don’t buy it. At least not yet.”
▪ Pray regularly. Or meditate. Whatever. But set aside time to be still and contemplate the grand mystery. Tell the Lord or Ra or an igneous rock what’s on your mind. More important, listen.
▪ Be patient. As the sages have said, spiritual enlightenment usually isn’t a destination; it’s a process. Hardly anybody has arrived yet. Growth might occur in tiny increments. Sometimes improvement is visible only in hindsight. You don’t think you’ve made any headway until you recall where you were 20 years ago. Then you realize, “Wow, look how far I’ve come.”
▪ Be humble. Yes, I’ve already said that. But humility might be the most important part. None of us is perfect. None of us knows it all, and none of us ever will, not in this world. Keep that always in mind.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.