This time of the Easter Season in the RCIA process is a time called “mystagogia,” meaning a time to enter into the mysteries of the faith. Without this part of the conversion process, the faith can remain a matter of knowledge of facts, teachings, and details of the commandments, the sacraments, the doctrines and the general expectations of what makes for a good Catholic.
There is so much more, however, that only comes to us after we have been baptized, and if we have been instructed in these mysteries.
As you probably know, the RCIA process is intended not only for converts to the Catholic faith, but also for the whole parish, especially through the various rites and scrutinies, in Advent and Lent. So also with the Easter season, the time of mystagogia. The invitation to the whole Church is to utilize this season so as to grow into the mystery of the faith.
So, let’s take today to look more intently into the process of spiritual development. What does it look like if we take our baptismal faith with ever greater seriousness? What are the stages of spiritual development. After going through these, let’s each of us figure out where we are in our development, and where we want to be.
There are 4 stages of spiritual development:
Stage One looks like this. The person in Stage One has not yet decided to turn his or her life around and heed the words of St. Peter in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles: “Repent, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be wiped away."
People in Stage One are narcissists. It’s all about them. All the time. They do not think that they commit sin; and therefore they have no need to repent. The truth for these folks is that they think they can do anything, can improve themselves, pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. This narcissism (we used to call it pride) fuels all the vices of greed, lust, envy, gluttony, anger and sloth. They may say that they know God, but they do not keep His commandments, “and the truth is not in them.”
The most we can do to help people in the first stage is to catechize them, teach them, warn them, in the hope that when God’s time is right, they “may turn to God and be saved,” as Scripture says. In the meantime, they tend to not need religion, the sacraments or God Himself. For these people the devil is hard at work to keep them right where they are.
And how does the Holy Spirit work in the hearts of these Stage One people? Here the Holy Spirit will allow them to suffer the absence of God and the pain of feeling alienated from God. Why does the Holy Spirit allow this? To turn them around so as to trust in God, to hope in the future, and to be persons of love, and also, sometimes, to prevent people from destroying themselves.
Entering into Stage Two is marked by people starting to realize they need God. They find themselves saying within their hearts short spontaneous prayers to the Lord: Lord, I need You. Or, Lord, I desire You. Or, Lord, I yearn for you. Or, Lord, help me. Or, Lord, turn this bad thing into something good. Or, Jesus, I trust in You. Or, Lord, save me. The life of prayer takes on a new ugency; and it's only by a devout prayer life that one will progress spiritually.
For Stage Two people, they will know they are progressing in the spiritual life if they can see that their trust in God is increasing. If they can see that their hope in the future is increasing. And if they can see that their love of others is increasing. Stage One people won’t even care about all of this. For a Stage Two person, a sign that an evil spirit is toying with them is if they see a decrease in these virtues, and if they run into discouragement. Discouragement is a sign that you’re off target and probably need to go to confession.
Stage Two people will occasionally go back to Stage One thinking, perhaps becoming negative again, maybe even falling into old sins they thought they left behind. But they still want to do God’s will in all things; and they will soon enough go to confession to let God’s grace turn their lives back to their path to "life on high with Christ Jesus."
People in the 3rd and 4th Stages will understand better than those in earlier stages the role suffering plays in the Christian’s life. They will become familiar with a spiritual dynamic called the Dark Night. That’s when a person has to be weaned off of worldly sensuality by various kinds of inner sufferings. Being as attached as we are to sin, giving up these sins is a wrenching experience. And many people, sadly, don’t want to go through the process until they face it in purgatory. It’s a process of purgation, of being set free from all of our unfreedoms and from all of our addictions, so that we can be utterly free to be in complete union with God. That complete union with God, also called the "mystical marriage" is the 4th Stage. It's like living on earth as if you were already in heaven.
Where are you in these stages of spiritual development? Where do you want to be? And where do you think God wants you to be?