What is the purpose and process of spiritual formation? That is a question that fuels my life’s work. I am currently reading (listening to) Richard Rohr’s Book Hidden Things: Scripture as Spirituality and it has reaffirmed and contributed to my understanding of the purpose and process of spiritual formation. It has also sparked the series of illustrations below. These drawings are my attempt to visually process and synthesize Rohr’s teachings with my previous learning.

Let’s see how it goes.


Rohr identifies three phases to human development. He says,

We start with tribal thinking; (2) we gradually move toward individuation through the dialogue of election, failure and grace; (3) then there is a breakthrough to unitive consciousness by the few who are led and walk fully through those first two stages (Moses, David, many prophets, Job, Mary, the Magdalene, Jesus, Paul). We could describe it also as (1) Simple Consciousness, (2) Complex Consciousness and (3) Non-Dual Consciousness or “the unitive way.” ((Rohr. Things Hidden. P.54))

This image represents the process of growth throughout an individual’s life. Rohr would also argue that we can see all of humanity evolving through this same process. You are intended to read this as a movement from the left of the image to the right. The left side begins in a very narrow passage that is clearly marked between the light and the dark. As we progress and grow in life our world expands from black and white to a complexity of colors and cultures. Finally, we come to a place of maturity, unity, and peace.

Here’s the problem. Maturity doesn’t come easily.

We must move through the “Way of the Cross” in order to get there. This is not a merit based, you-have-to-jump-so-high kind of thing. This is just a hard reality of how growth works.

Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, no one comes to the Father except through me.” What did he mean? I believe he meant that the only way to actually have the kind of relationship with God that we were created to have—the unity and friendship with God that is the whole point—is to go through the process of death and resurrection that we are about to describe.

Let’s throw some labels on these phases that might prove helpful.

There are three basic phases of human development: childhood, adolescence, and maturity. This is the natural and healthy development of the self and its relationship with reality.

The child’s mind thinks in concrete, black and white terms. The child’s self-identity is completely enmeshed with her family of origin and/or tribal culture. A child needs rules and a fair system of reward and punishment to be trained in what is considered right and wrong by the tribe. This is good and necessary for a child.

The adolescent mind is able to process complex thought and is ready to discover that the world is not black and white. Rather, the world is a complex system with many tribes and cultures that all claim to be “the right way to do things.” The adolescent’s self-identity is found through the painful process of breaking free of the home tribe and exploring the diversity of the world.

The mature mind understands an important truth: everyone perceives reality through a particular perspective and all things are interconnected in the universe. This is a humbling realization that requires mutuality and cooperation. (This is similar to Robert Kegan’s work, but I don’t want to get too complicated. You can read about here.)

Here are some more labels…

Christian mystics have been talking about these three phases for hundreds of years. Each phase of the spiritual journey is good and necessary. Read more in this post.

The purgative way is the process of allowing the light of truth to shine into your life and purge/burn out all the negative junk that is destroying you. This is a path of obedience and discipline.

The illuminative way is a path of freedom, where we realize that God has created us to bear fruit in the world and produce good things for all people. It is a path of questioning, innovation, and productivity.

Then there is the dark night of the soul, when suddenly the fruit stops growing. The well runs dry. God seems distant. Our doubts and fears creep back in and we wonder if we ever had faith in the first place.

Then we come to the unitive way. Once we break through “the Way of the Cross” and die to our need to have all the answers or to be good and productive, then we can “wake up” to the reality that God’s grace has been present and freely given through all things, both light and dark. Our relationship with God is not based on moral correctness or innovative productivity, but simply on “knowing” God; being in relationship with God and all things unconditionally. It is in the knowing and the unknowing that we can be at peace and interact with the world in complete openness.

Here’s where Rohr’s book has added a new layer…

Rohr suggests that there are three types of literature in the scripture that each relate to a different phase of the journey.

The Law speaks to the simple, childlike consciousness. The Prophets speak to the complex, adolescent consciousness. The Wisdom literature speaks to the non-dual, mature consciousness.

The heart of the Law of Moses has always been love. Love God, Love Neighbor. The nation of Israel found that very difficult to do and almost always worshipped other gods, exalted themselves, and crushed their neighbors. In the end, they always got crushed.

The prophets spoke to the nation to show that the heart of the Law was not about blind obedience and domination, but about loving the neighbor, caring for the poor, the weak, and the resident alien.

The Wisdom literature—like the poem of Job—demonstrates that God does not operate on a reward/punishment system, but invites us into a deeper knowing and unknowing of God’s grace that transcends tribal boundaries. (learn more about Job’s message here)

This truth has always been present in the Jewish literature, and only a handful of people followed the path of wisdom.

That’s why Jesus had to come.

Jesus, Rohr says, came to fulfill all the Law and the Prophets by embodying the Wisdom literature. The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus was the Logos—the Wisdom of God—that became flesh and lived among us. Jesus came to show us the way of Wisdom and how to become mature children of God. He did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17).

Jesus came to show us that the only way to be free from the Hellish existence that humans continually create for themselves is to follow the way of the Cross and understand what the Kingdom of God is all about. Jesus took all the violence and hatred and domination power of the world onto himself at the cross. Then he forgave it, and died. His non-violent absorption and forgiveness of evil—paying back evil with good—is the way of the cross that we must follow in order to walk in the Kingdom of Heaven and grow out of Hell.

Hell? Kingdom of God? Heaven?

What do these terms mean?

I do not believe that Heaven and Hell are physical places that we go when we die. They are ways of being in the world that we move in and out of every day. We construct Hell when we fall into the trap of allowing the fear of the other to motivate hatred and violence in our lives. The gates of Hell are constructed when self-focused individuals use power to dominate and coerce others into conforming to their own personal cultural norms.

Heaven, on the other hand, is when we walk in the path of Wisdom and realize that it is God’s unconditional love that is the very animating force of the universe. We are invited to love God and love our neighbor. It really is that simple. This is the energy of grace and it is freely available for all who wish to align themselves with it.

Children learn it through obedience to the law.

Adolescents learn it through exploring the diversity of God’s amazing creation.

Ultimately, we become mature when we realize that the world is not divided between light and dark, but is a complex interdependence of all things with the love and grace of God.

Here’s a simple picture of the journey…

We wander around. We get stuck in Hell a lot and hurt each other along the way. We experience joy and think it’s the point. Then we experience pain and wonder, “What’s the point?” Then we realize that God is bigger than, and in all of it.

Oh, that’s the point.

Here is something we can’t forget…

God is in it all. God gave the Law to guide our childishness. God created all the complexity and guides us through the journey. This is the work of the Spirit in the world and in our lives. It is the spirit of wisdom and truth. It was the spirit that created. It is the spirit that convicts us, guides us, advocates for us, and empowers us to live in God’s Kingdom.

It is not a straight line.

we take three steps forward…

then two steps back…

three forward


until we get there…

for a while…

it’s a process.

Putting some things together.

May wisdom guide you on your journey today.

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