Christian Formation – A call to Love

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because I see everything by it .
– C S Lewis

st. thomas Perhaps you may not find many priests and religious in international seminars on eradication of poverty or alleviation of human suffering. But if you walk amidst the poor and the sufferings humans on the margins of the society, you are more likely to find a nun or a missionary working among them. In fact, most religious congregations were born during difficult times in history to respond to the deep hunger of humans for God and to alleviate the suffering of fellow humans. The first international congress on Consecrated life held in Rome in 2004 chose the title “passion for Christ and passion for humanity” to better express the identity of the religious and took two biblical icons, the Samaritan woman and the Good Samaritan, to depict the motivational dynamics of consecrated life. The interior journey to the center and the reaching out to the needy are two simultaneous movements of the Spirit of Jesus at work in the heart of every believer and especially the religious who are called to follow Jesus of the Gospels more closely.

In this article we shall explore these two-fold directions of growth process as a person encounters Christ and follows him. Studies in human development and formation of selfhood shed light on both the flowering of vocational life as the visibility of God’s love or as stagnation of life caused by vocational inconsistency in some people. The flowering of Christian life is effected by Grace working in human nature through manifold mediations.

1.Mediations and formation of identity

We experience ourselves in our “flesh” which is mediated through the “flesh” of our parents. We are also formed by the environment and cultural conditioning from the outset of our journey of life. Within the complex interaction of nature and nurture, our sense of self and self-esteem get shaped enabling or impoverishing our capacity to transcend ourselves to reach God. We can speak of different levels of identity and sense of self along the growth process.

Personal identity refers to the sense of who one is and what one is called to become. It includes the sense of sameness across time (personal continuity) and the self concepts that constitute the sense of being oneself. It is basically the “picture of oneself” or what one believes to be true about oneself. These concepts about oneself get hierarchically organized as a person grows in maturity. The structure of our self consists of our actual self (who we are) and the ideal self (what we aspire to become). Hence our sense of identity has to do with the life actually lived here and now, and what we are called to become. Vocation and mission in life are integral part of the formation of a solid personal identity.

Self-esteem refers to the overall evaluation of one’s worth. “Where your heart is there your treasure is”. For our purpose we shall see the different levels of identity based on what is considered fundamental to the sense of self and self-worth.

 2.The various levels of Identity

2.1. Corporeal level of identity

At this level you define yourself in terms of what you have- your physical endowments and possessions. They become the source of your esteem. Physical beauty, wealth and possessions enhance a person’s importance in the society. You have value because you have wealth and beauty. Conversely you feel insignificant when you do not have wealth or physical health and beauty. At this level there is exaggerated worry that the body be healthy, beautiful, strong, young, and there will be great intolerance towards eventual aesthetic defect and old age. The craze for possessions and physical prowess arises from identification of oneself to what one has. The more you have, the more you consider yourself important. Likewise you may consider yourself unfortunate because you have less possessions. A consumer society mediates and promotes a corporeal level of identity.

When a person identifies with his possessions, he becomes slaves to them.

 The beatitudes proclaim another level of identity when blessedness is attributed to the poor. Jesus unveils the foolishness of those who put their trust in their wealth (Lk 12.16-21) and invites an attitude of stewardship towards material goods (Mt 25.14-30). They are instruments to do good. You can never live consecrated life meaningfully at the level of corporeal identity.

2.2. Psychic level of identity

 At this level you find your value and worth in your abilities, performance, status and roles. You define yourself in terms of your capabilities and status in the society. The identification with what you do makes you to depend on success in order to feel good about yourself. Criticism, failure and loss of name are taken as heart breaking events. Imperfections and limitations are denied in oneself and decried in others. Though this level is superior to the previous level, one remains very fragile easily distressed by the possibility of failures, loss of reputation or criticism . An active mission life with the demands on activities and the popularity it offers can be tempting for a religious to get stuck at his level. In fact, a good number of religious seem to remain at this level of identity.

Jesus gives a very different criteria for greatness and leadership. The first among the disciples is one who is willing to be the last and servant of all (Mk 9.35; Mt 20.26) and power positions are at the service of the brothers (Lk 22.26)

2.3.  Ontological level of identity

At this level you begin to discover your true self, the unrepeatable and unique mystery that your are and what you are called to be. You discover that your deepest truth is much more than what you possess and what you perform. There is gratitude and joy for the gift of self. A person at this level is able to appreciate the strengths and accept the limitations in his personality without undue stress. The two previous levels are integrated into this level and instead of being defined by what one has and what one does, the person defines how he uses his possessions and positions of power at the service of the goal of life. All the riches of the previous levels are no longer properties but gifts and are integrated harmoniously.

The society that we live in mediates the first two levels of identity. Our society appreciates and rewards those who are rich, beautiful and talented. It is the Gospel love that mediates the discovery of the ontological level of one’s identity. A person who discovers himself as a child of God loved and willed for who he/she is and is called to the fullness of the freedom of the children of God makes an about turn in his/her life. The craving for possessions and positions of power loses its grip on the human heart. There are numerous biblical accounts such as that of Zaccheus (Lk.19. 1-10), woman caught in adultery (Jn 8.1-11) which portray a deeper level of self-discovery through an encounter with Jesus. Christian Faith is not a set of beliefs to be held, rather it is an encounter with the person of Christ in whom one discovers oneself as a new creation (2 Cor 5.17). Consecrated life finds its meaning and fulfillment in the new life Jesus introduced into human life.

3. Stages of growth

Just as there is an inward journey of self-discovery, there is a corresponding horizontal expansion of consciousness as progressive movement away from self-centeredness. Developmental psychology has delineated different rungs in the ladder of personal growth. We shall take a simplified version of the stages of growth as presented by Ken Wilber. Ken presents the stages of growth in to basically three progressive stages of consciousness. Ego centric, ethnocentric and world centric.

  1. Ego-centric (“body” stage): At ego centric stage a person’s awareness largely self-absorbed. The preoccupation is to protect one’s own interests even at the cost of the good of others. A child’s consciousness is mostly at this range. It is a stage when one is dominated by gross physical reality, the “body” stage where the physical dynamisms and survival drives dominate the scene.
  2. b.Ethnocentric (“mind” stage): As a person’s horizon is broadened with socialization and learning of rules and norms of the society, there is greater openness to include the interests of a particular group, tribe, clan, or na­tion, and, therefore, it tends to exclude those not of its group. Defending the interests of “your group” your own needs are also taken care of. This is the “mind” stage, where identity expands from“me” to share relationships withmany others, based perhaps on shared values, mutual inter­ests, common ideals, or shared dreams. There is thus a movement from “me” to “us”, from ego centric to ethnocentric.
  3. World-Centric (“spirit” stage): There is greater self-transcendence when a person discovers universal values and the individual’s identity expands once again, this time to include care and concern for all peoples,regardless of race, color, sex, or creed. This stage is called world-centric, and from a Christian perspective we can call it Christo-centric or Theo-centric. The movement is from “us” to all of us. “Discovering the commonwealth of all beings is the move from ethnocentric to Theo-centric, and is “spiri­tual”. This openness reminds us of the Kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus.

Thus human growth process is an unfolding from body to mindto spirit, where each of them is considered as a level of unfolding care and consciousness, moving from egocentric to ethnocentric to Theo-centric (Christo-centric). At a higher level the needs of the lower levels are better taken care of than when it is isolated from the rest.

 At least a minimum of awareness into the unfolding of the self helps you to be open to the mysterious inner journey towards the goal of life. Often it is failures and brokenness, not achievement and success that break open up the best of humanity in you.

There are also other descriptions of the stages of spiritual transformation which can be roughly placed into 4 progressive stages. Here is a simple presentation.

  1. Victim stage. At this stage you live passively as the victim of circumstances, ill treatment of others, or even slave to your own impulses. You will have hundreds of reasons to complain and blame others for your predicament. You naturally feel entitled to better treatment from life. Many people seem to spend good part of their lives at this stage.
  2. Empowement : A spiritual awakening takes us to the second stage when you begin to own up responsibility for your own situation and assume tasks freely and work towards your own selfYou are now more confident, poised and committed especially to achieve self enhancing goals. But you are still at an egoistic level. You slowly discover limitations and that you are not in charge of everything. The ego trip has to give way to grace.
  3. Surrender. A further awakening in the self leads you to self-surrender. You are now able to relinquish the need to be in control. You can let go. Humility is the prevalent virtue. You can’t control your own life, nor that of others. There is something more powerful than us that guides us. You are able to say, “not my will, but thy will be done”. You are aware that you have a particular role to play, a mission to accomplish. You allow space to the divine. You are a drop in the ocean of God. But, you can block or say veto to the action of the spirit. When you surrender to the power of God and to His grace, a new horizon opens up.
  4. Union. This is the highest stage where the person sees the unity of all creation grounded in the mystery of God. In the personal life, there is identification with the God of love. “It is no longer I, but Jesus Christ who lives in me”. From a Christian perspective, this stage of communion in love with the Lord and His people can also involve the mystery of the cross (suffering), but with peace and Joy at the deepest realm. Many saints attest to their sharing in the suffering of Christ and at the same time live in the light of resurrection.

A better description of spiritual journey is given by Theresa of Avila and John of the cross. We can think of this progression in any number of rungs in the spiritual ladder. Theresa of Avila speaks of seven mansions. The classical spiritual journey is described as one from purification, illumination towards union. This journey seems to be unique to each person. That is why you have to be aware of your own inner movements. Personal transformation is not an automatic process, but rather the fruit of the working of Grace in a cooperating human being. As one progresses spiritually there is greater self-acceptance, interior freedom, peace, transcendence and joy even amidst sufferings. There is greater urge to give oneself to give life to others.

 4.The process of breaking and building, dying and rising to life

 Christian vocation is a progressive inward journey into the mystery of oneself and an outward journey to embrace all God’s creatures. In Jesus Christ you discover the harmonious integration of the polarities of life- the immanent and the transcendent, the finite and infinite, the human and the divine. It is in him that the paradoxes of human life are resolved and the beatitudes come alive visibly in the lives of consecrated persons who are poor, chaste and obedient. The drama of human unfolding is most effectively manifested in the Pasqual mystery. Death is condition for resurrection. We grow into freedom and Christian maturity in the measure the Pasqual mystery is enacted in our lives.

Bernadett Roberts, a contemporary mystic gives an account of the process of our Christian journey. In a spiritual itinerary, there are two crucial moments of falling away of one’s identity and emergence of something deeper and truer about oneself. The first falling away is that of ego, the false, apparent sense of self which consists of identification of the person with external realities. Hard realities of life often force people to break off from this identification. Every loss of possessions name, or power positions are heart breaking during this stage, and with the falling off of ego, the self emerges. Many of our hurt feelings are the birth pangs of the self. At the level of self there is greater sense of freedom, courage, energy and sense of direction.

When this stage matures, there is yet another painful breaking off, this time it is the falling off of self. It is a period of excruciating spiritual agony, a dark night of the soul. This falling away of self gives room for a new reality when God is all in all. What St. Paul attests become real in the life of a person, “it is no longer I but Jesus Christ who lives in me”.

 5.Christian Formation in Consecrated life

The dynamics of growth at the level of identity and consciousness are to be given due attention in the formation programs of religious. Richard Rohr speaks of the two halves of life. We need a very strong container in the first half of life to hold the contents and contradictions that arrive later in life. Hence the task of the first half is to prepare the container, a strong ego structure which can let go of itself, to “die to oneself” as Jesus invites. The task of the second half is to find the content, the treasure of one’s own true self. A good formation program needs to attend to both the tasks: constructing the container and breaking it to find the content.

Often the pains breaking as preparation for building take place outside the ambit of the programs of formation, after the initial stage of formation. It is then that a young religious needs apt mediations to assist the discovery of the treasures of the Gospel. Such opportunities surface as personal conflicts in community, affective crisis, misunderstanding with superiors or at times through physical or psychological ailments. Christian faith comes alive when you are willing and capable of giving “flesh” to the Word to dwell amidst us so that the world can behold His Glory.

 “God is love. Therefore love. Without distinction, without calculation, without procrastination, love.” – Henry Drummond

Suggested Readings:

Bernadette Roberts, What is Self, A study of the Spiritual Journey in Terms of Consciousness, Sentient Publications, 2005.

Cencini Amadeo, You shall Love the Lord your God , Psychology of Encountering God, St. Paul Publications, Bombay, 1992.

Ken Wilber, The Integral Vision, Shambala, Boston, 2007.

Richard Rohr, Upward Falling, a spirituality for the two halves of life, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2011.

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