Life is a journey, but towards what? Some people spend their lives chasing after wealth, or pleasure, or prestige. For some, it turns into a bit of a hamster wheel—too much is never enough, and satisfaction always seems just out of reach.
But human beings were made for a different journey—a pilgrimage of the heart and spirit. A journey towards God that gets deeper and more meaningful as we go on—and more satisfying, too.
The Christian mystics speak of this journey toward God as having four main stages:
1. Connect: It can be in church, in nature, or can come completely out of the blue, but somehow a connection with God is made. Very often, people have mystical experiences that jolt them out of their “ordinary” lives. For a brief time, they see things infused with grace, or interconnection, or power. When this happens, it causes us to go “Whoa! What was that?” and we change course. We used to be heading towards something else, but now, even though we’re a little shook up, we set off towards God instead. (This stage is sometimes called “Awakening.”)
2. Discern: Now that we’ve had a brief glimpse of the Real, it makes us ask hard questions about our lives. Like, do I really need these Pez dispensers? Why am I holding a grudge against my aunt again? We start to sort out what is Real from what is illusory. We keep the real stuff, and, as we are ready and able, let go of the unreal stuff. It’s hard, but it feels good to do it. We feel lighter, cleaner, more Real. (This stage is sometimes called “Purgation.”)
3. Grow: In this stage, finally free of a lot of baggage, we learn all we can about the spiritual life, and we start to practice being aware of God’s presence. We meditate and engage in other contemplative practices, like Lectio Divina. We see that God is in everything—not just intellectually, but experientially. Then something wonderful happens—God works a change of perspective in us, and we realize that everything is in God. (This stage is sometimes called “Illumination.”)
4. Serve: Having experienced that there is no real distinction between God’s being and ours, we become less and less attached to our individual identities. It’s like God and we get married—we become one flesh, united in body and will. Our hands become God’s hands, and what God wants to do in the world, we want to do in the world. When he reaches out in love to someone in need, it is our hands (his hands—there is no difference) doing the reaching. This is the end of Christian mysticism—allowing God to become incarnate in us, just as he was in Jesus. In essence, we are not just Christians, but Christs. (This stage is sometimes called “Union.”)
This is a life-long journey, and few of us make it all the way in this life—that’s okay. We go as far as we go here, and then we keep going. But we don’t do it alone. Christians are saved as a people, not as individuals. In community, we are surrounded by people who understand where we’re headed, and are walking beside us, encouraging us, supporting us, loving us as we walk towards God together.