The contemplative path is both ascent and descent. It is a movement of love in our inmost self allowing us to grow in awareness of our inner egoic tendencies that keep us from manifesting divine love in the world. We usually come to a place of accepting this process after what Franciscan author Richard Rohr calls necessary suffering.
Dante’s Divine Comedy serves as a kind of image or template of the soul’s journey home to God. First, we have to wake up to our situation. Then we take the downward journey as we become more aware of tendencies of what we call the False Self, the conditioned identity we fashion from childhood. We then move into the process of illumination, or learning healthy spiritual practices, disciplines, and becoming drawn further in by the divine love.
For Christians, the figure that most clearly exemplifies this path of transformation is Jesus of Nazareth. He walks this way of the Paschal Mystery, the way of the cross, and offers us this cup of transformation through suffering in love. This is the path that opens us to the divine reality, the divine presence, to live lives of service to others and stewards of creation. This is not a prescriptive pattern, but a descriptive pattern identified among the great Christian mystics and contemplatives like John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila.
Author Evelyn Underhill describes the following stages as a useful overview of this territory, though this process is by no means directly linear:
Usually a temporary suspension in our separate self-sense, and we experience a deep but temporary oneness with God and creation with a sense of fullness and abiding in love. The traditional self we identify with no longer constitutes the totality of our felt “self.” After this experience of the absolute, we begin the more arduous process of self-emptying.
In this stage we identify and let go of attachments and illusions that keep us from the fullness of God’s love. We learn more deeply healthy disciplines, teachings, frameworks, and language to help guide us along this path. Here, we build positive habits and community.
At this stage, we have the hidden parts of our self illuminated, laid bare, our suffering, our reactionary nature, our protections, our exclusivism, our small egos, our False Selves. We draw ever closer to the divine presence through ongoing abiding and opening, through dwelling in love.
DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL
After a time in this stage, usually several years, we move to the next stage. Here, we feel all our striving has been for naught. Every attempt at self-improvement, every hidden ambition or secret striving, every attempt to make ourselves feel righteous or safe or other than or better than is laid bare. We feel stripped and exposed.
Here we become our True Self in the fullest sense, simultaneously aware of our actions and presence in the material world of form and of the transcendent divine reality beyond form.
LEVELS OF CONSCIOUSNESS
Another useful diagram for understanding the process of transformation along the contemplative path is that of the different levels of consciousness we experience as we continue in practice and consent to the divine presence within: