I once knew a monk named Ambrose. He lived in Georgia. Ambrose would sit in his cell each morning before dawn writing a daily journal of thoughts to God. Sometimes he would mail me copies of stuff he thought I'd find meaningful. He was always right on the mark.
In one of these journal entries, Ambrose wrote: "After more than fifty years in the monastery, the questions seem even greater, and the answers, mostly more tentative. Life, I've discovered, is fascinating but coquettish. Still, my fascination tempts me and draws me on like the rueful, ever hopeful, lover, longing to know and despairing to understand my Beloved more deeply."
I carried that note from Ambrose around with me for years, tucked in a pocket of the satchel that accompanies me whenever I leave home. I referred to it often.
Ambrose knew me well. He knew that what he wrote about himself also expressed my heart's own longing.
When I mention this "longing to know and despairing to understand" to friends, they often seem to immediately, intuitively, understand, as well. Ambrose's words have come to symbolize a trajectory of life on the spiritual path -- a way of understanding how we sometimes move from one way of engaging with God to another and another. They are each important. They are all good.
In fact, I have come to conclude that for some people there are four stages on a spiritual pilgrimage. At least, I believe there have been four for me so far.
Stage one I would call the received tradition. I received the Word and what it said. I studied it. I did not challenge it. Simultaneously, I was the son of good parents and was taught, as most kids are, to obey mom and dad, to do what they say. For the most part, I did and that was good. Some people probably remain at this sort of stage for their entire lives and that's okay.
But I would call stage two the rebel stage. Another contemplative monk told me once that spiritual maturity is impossible for a man without first rebelling against his father. Think of that rebellion literally or more figuratively. Either way it works. And I would imagine it is the same way for daughters and mothers as it is for sons and fathers. This was true for me. My rebellions were relatively mild compared to those of many of my friends, but still, I was determined to distinguish myself from my father in important ways. I challenged the Word, calling it nonsense at times, and I left the church, wandering around through other traditions and figuring that I knew what was right. Again, some people probably remain at this stage for their entire lives. But that would be unfortunate.
Stage three is the one that I'm mostly in right now, I think. I would call it the spirituality stage, when practice and ritual have become vital in my life, and I have rewoven connections to the religion of my youth as well as to some religious practices that were never a part of my youth but that I've decided are important. The patchwork I've been creating makes a different pattern from the received tradition of my first stage, and I think, it makes a better one.
But stage four is where I have been led by monks. It is where they are and where I try to be when I can. At the fourth stage, I am moving beyond spirituality and its program of self by becoming more contemplative. The questions and issues of my earlier rebellions are not answered any more than they were when I was in stage two, but I also don't fight them as much anymore. The answer to many of the questions of life comes when the questions themselves fade away as less important. In this contemplative stage, I also find myself feeling more profoundly connected to those around me: I want to be near strangers and I want more connections with those who are already friends. I'm more interested in spiritual practice than I am in what I believe. I judge less than I ever have before. I try to listen carefully.
I can honestly say that I have loved this journey at every stage, and more and more every year that I grow older. If you find yourself on a similar pilgrimage, I would love to hear from you.
Jon M. Sweeney is an author and editor living in Vermont.