Some traditions within Christianity insist that the spiritual journey is about breaking even at best – in fact, they would claim it isn’t even a journey because a journey implies progress, which they believe is impossible because of Total Depravity – and don’t even get me started on total depravity because just talking about it is bound to make someone want to jump off a bridge.
But I digress.
My point is that, with the exception of Christians who are bound and determined to jump off a bridge, most people see the spiritual life is a journey. Like almost any other journey, we make progress on the spiritual journey. You might say we progress and mature, though I now recognize that we only see our need for growth in a given area after the fact. What I mean is that while we may recognize our need for maturation in some areas of our life, we generally don’t recognize our specific deficits in the spiritual journey until after we have resolved them.
Perhaps an example from my own experience would help explain the sort of thing I am trying to describe. When I ordain a new priest – and, for that matter, when I was newly ordained – I have noticed they are often very concerned about external signs of priesthood. In my tradition, we wear shirts with clerical collars, and new priests often buy enough to last two or more weeks of daily wear without ever doing laundry – even though they only wear them one or two days a week. They serve small, family size congregations and spend thousands of dollars on vestments (okay, I never did that, or the next one, but only because I couldn’t afford it). They buy their vestments from the most expensive vestment house in America – or, even more costly, from Rome.
Now, don’t misunderstand, I am not anti-clericals or anti-vestment. In fact, I think clericals are an important part of my practice of radical availability and vestments serve an important function in a worship experience that touches all five senses. That having been said, as the years have passed I have felt much better about, when possible, buying more of my vestments from fair trade shops that help women in the developing world start a business that feeds their family. I also patronize a woman here in America who runs Carrot Top Studios, a small business that does some really admittedly non-traditional things with fabrics and layering that I really enjoy. I don’t care that some people think what I wear looks silly, because what I wear has more meaning for me than any mass-produced, Pope-wannabe shop would produce. The funny thing is that fifteen years ago I, too, would have thought what I wear now looked ugly and foolish. Something within me has changed, I would daresay matured. That doesn’t mean that I was in a wrong place or had the wrong view fifteen years ago – I had the view that I should have had at that point in my journey.
If you’re not an ordained person, you still have spiritual maturation that occurs. In fact, ordained or not, I believe that we grow and evolve over the course of our life in spiritual and other ways and that process is essentially the same regardless of ordination status. However, such growth is not inevitable – we can steadfastly refuse to grow, or we can engage (or fail to engage) in habits or practices that either hasten our growth or slow it to a snail’s pace. The self-help industry would seek to jump in at this point and write a book about how to best achieve this growth. Such a book would be fairly useless, in my view, because maturation isn’t a matter of baking a cake but rather a matter of a generalized practice that allows us to learn from and work with life’s experiences as they arise.
This all means that it would be relatively futile for those of us who now find ourselves holding a different perspective on some areas of life than we used to hold to set out in an attempt to spare others the developmental journey. We all have to do the work, and even after we have done some of the work there still remains more to be done. We “arrive” in increments, and more of the journey lies always lies ahead. What can be said about those of us who find ourselves in the position of being elders of one sort or another is that we can do what many before us never did – we can serve as mentors. As I said above, we can’t do the work for others, but we can guide them as they do the work. We can be there for support, to listen to those traversing ground we have already trod, to encourage, and to offer suggestions – always recognizing that the solutions we found that fit us may not fit everyone, or anyone, else. Life’s journey is not a one size fits all proposition, but I believe we are called to engage and support one another along the way.
In fact, as we learn to support and engage one another along the way we may well find that we don’t need to have that much in common in terms of external life experience in order to be companions on the way. The details of the journey – ethnicity, spiritual affiliation, nationality, gender, economic status, and all the others – matter less than the commonality of our humanity. Just as there are plenty of people needing a mentor, there are plenty of us who need to serve as mentors in order to take the next step in our maturation. Refusing to engage is actually detrimental to us – no matter our stage in life!