There are stages in the spiritual life.
In the beginning, in the stage of Conversion, there are piercing insights and frequent joy. Everything makes sense. We have changed our lives and consolation rains down on us.
But then, sooner or later, we start to feel bereft and and lonely and afraid. Everyone does. Our prayer life falls apart. Our old patterns of sinfulness reassert themselves, and new ones, too, and we feel powerless to escape them. The Church doesn’t add up anymore. It’s full of hypocrites. It’s medieval. We’ve gone out on a limb and now all we have is the limb.
But this isn’t a regression, really. It’s not a falling back or a failure but the next stage, an even higher and more advanced one. It’s the stage of what some spiritual writers call Purification, where we are cleansed of our spiritual pride and really opened up to the will of God.
Most of us go back and forth between this and the stage of Conversion. We alternate between joy and sorrow, consolation and desolation. But the purification is necessary. We have to get there, because until we do it’s too easy to think that the graces are happening because of how good we are. In desolation or stagnation, as St. John of the Cross puts it, God is “leading us by the hand to the place we know not how to reach.” According to St. John, “it is God who in this stage is the agent: the soul is the receiver.” That’s all we can do when we’re really down like this.
Because there’s another stage in this process, a final, still higher stage: Transformation.
It’s like Conversion, but better. Fuller. Higher. It’s the stage of of an abiding sense of the presence of God, of ecstatic joy, of the gifts and fruits of the Spirit, and even if most of us never reach that stage in our lifetimes, even if we only glimpse it, in the end, the bargain we think we’re making, we are, just not in the way we imagined it, just not in our own petty terms.
We will be rewarded.
After the cross, the resurrection. After the darkness, the light.
Standing in line for the Eucharist.
Standing in line for an Americano with cream.
The host in my palm.
The coffee in a paper cup.
With a sleeve.
Through the bedroom window one long slim branch of the maple we planted, curving out to touch the glass. So shyly.
I am walking down the road I always walk down, and something like electricity is coursing through me.
In short, I am afraid.
But what if this is You, Lord, showing me the way?
What if my nerves are singing?