by Michael Maciel
Why should we concern ourselves with “spiritual development”? Isn’t it better to let our spirituality unfold naturally?
I think the word “unfold” implies a natural process, whereas the word “develop” implies taking something natural and changing it into something new, whether through combining it with something it would never otherwise encounter (such as a piece of wood and a nail) or by refining it with unnatural amounts of heat.
To me, there is much about the spiritual path that is unnatural. We do things that produce effects in ourselves that would never unfold by themselves.
Flowers unfold, but they unfold into that which has been determined for them by nature. Humans have the ability to transcend nature (for good or for ill) through processes of development arrived at through trial and error.
Humans have always been at odds with the automatic mind of nature, because we are self-conscious. We have the ability to take what nature has given us and create with it something entirely new.
Nature does that too, through the processes of evolution, but it does so out of adaptation. We do it, not necessarily to adapt, but because we can.
Some of the things we create have no practical use at all in terms of evolutionary adaptation, but we create them nonetheless. Art is a good example.
This is why I think the distinction between unfolding and development is so important. They are two very different things.
When did the term “spiritual development” fall into disfavor? Is it because it implies that some people are more “developed” than others, and that that would lead to abuse of power?
I know that many have been victimized by unscrupulous spiritual teachers, but does this mean that all spiritual teachers are unscrupulous? Or is it because everyone is already spiritual and therefore no “development” is needed? But wouldn’t that be like saying that everyone already has an inner concert pianist and therefore doesn’t need piano lessons?
If that’s the case, then there would be nothing to work towards, nothing to aspire to, and nothing to overcome, which implies that our current state of consciousness is as good as it gets. Such an assumption would not only be narcissistic but nihilistic as well. That might not be the intention, but that’s how it plays out, because if everyone is the same (not just inherently but performatively, too) then no one is anywhere. There would be nowhere to go or grow into.
Advice by pop-spiritual teachers to “just be” can be misleading and even injurious to one’s spiritual health, because it can be misconstrued as meaning that there is nothing you have to “do,” nor is there any such thing as “progress” on the spiritual path. I know of no legitimate guru, shaman, priest, or teacher who says that.
And while it’s true that we all have a “spark of divinity” within us, it’s still just a spark. It hasn’t yet ignited the whole being. Doing that takes work; letting the fire spread takes faith.
There should be no more urgent task to one whose intention is to find God than to devote as much time and willpower as necessary to find the God Self within them.
Concentration, meditation, contemplation – these are the tools. Spiritual development is the goal.
One of the reasons that some people don’t like to use the word “development” and the word “spiritual” together in the same sentence is because of a man named Pelagius. Pelagius was a theologian who believed that Christians by their own efforts without grace could choose the good and be saved or spiritually illumined by their own will or development. Pelagius taught that human beings were not controlled by original sin or weakness but were, by nature, good. The concern in general by Augustine and the Church was narcissism—seekers who believe they can achieve salvation and sanctity without Christ.
But growth of any kind is impossible without grace. I had never heard of Pelagius until recently, so I will take this description of Pelagius as it’s presented above as more or less accurate. If he really said that we don’t need grace, then that, in my experience, is demonstrably false.
There is a lot of misunderstanding around words like “grace” and “works” and “development,” mostly because theology does such a lousy job at explaining what they are and what they mean. If the theologians really want to know, they should ask a dancer, an artist, a boxer, or a writer — they could tell them what these words mean and by what processes they work.
Every athlete knows (just like every musician) that “practice makes perfect.” But they know something else, too. They know that perfection is something that happens; it’s not something you can produce. Perfection (as anyone who has ever experienced a life-changing breakthrough in their art knows) is not the sum of one’s efforts. Practice makes perfection possible; it does not cause it.
A dancer once said, “There was a moment when I wasn’t dancing — I was dance!”
Grace is a brush with the Divine. But the encounter only happens when we have surrendered to that which is greater than ourselves. If the above assessment of Pelagius is correct, then he could never have experienced grace, because in his mind there would have been nothing greater than he. Any kind of flow would have been impossible.
Grace may be free, but perfection is not. Perfection only comes to those who sweat blood for it. Believing otherwise is truly narcissistic. But the perfect know that it’s not THEM. They know that the only reason they breathe pure air is because they slogged their way up the mountain. They didn’t make the air, nor was it “given” to them. They received it because they put in the work to get where the air is.
Those who believe that grace comes without effort are delusional. Even those who were healed by Christ were told, “Go forth and sin no more.” Expecting God to do everything for us is the mentality of a child, not a spiritual adult. Spiritual adults pray, they fast, they meditate, they do good works, not to make themselves perfect, but to put themselves in a position where they can receive the necessary grace to achieve it.
No one “gets” holy. Instead, they work to quiet their minds, they temper their desires so that they can be still enough emotionally to hear the still, small voice within. They pray for those who hate them, not to make those who hate them better, but to cleanse their own hearts of hatred. This is work. This is development. And there is no shortcut for it.