Discipleship and the Stages of Our Lives
What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm
we would become strong too, and not need names.
—Rainer Maria Rilke, “The Man Watching”
The Seasons of Our Life and Their Interface with Spirituality
The human soul is like a fine wine that needs to ferment in various barrels as it ages and mellows. The wisdom for this is written everywhere, in nature, in scripture, in spiritual traditions, and in what is best in human science. And that wisdom is generally learned in the crucible of struggle. Growing up and maturing is precisely a process of fermentation. It does not happen easily, without effort and without breakdown. But it happens almost despite us, because such is the effect of a conspiracy between God and nature to mellow the soul.
How does it happen? What are the various barrels within which we find ourselves fermenting? How is the soul mellowed within the crucible of struggle? We mature by meeting life, just as God and nature designed it, and accepting there the invitations that beckon us ever deeper into the heart of life itself. But that is a simple cliché, more easily said than done, because as we go through the seasons of our lives the challenges we meet there can just as easily embitter and harden the soul as mellow it.
So we need to be patient with one another and with ourselves. Maturation is a lifelong journey with different phases, human and spiritual. And it has many setbacks. What can be helpful is to have a grasp of the natural seasons of our lives and how these interface with a vision of Christian discipleship and its particular stages. What are the seasons of life and what are the stages of discipleship?
A parable might help set the stage: in his autobiography, the renowned writer Nikos Kazantzakis shares a conversation he once had with an old monk named Father Makários. Sitting with the saintly old man, Kazantzakis asked him: “Do you still wrestle with the devil, Father Makários?” The old monk reflected for a while and then replied: “Not any longer, my child. I have grown old now, and he has grown old with me. He doesn’t have the strength .?.?. . I wrestle with God.” “With God!” exclaimed the astonished young writer. “And you hope to win?” “I hope to lose, my child,” replied the old ascetic. “My bones remain with me still, and they continue to resist.”
The lesson here is that we struggle with different forces at various times in our lives. We are always struggling and doing battle with something, but the forces that beset us change with the years. When we are young and still trying to establish an identity, these forces are very much embedded in the chaotic, fiery energies of restlessness, wanderlust, sexuality, the quest for freedom, and the sheer hunger for experience. The struggle with these energies can be disorienting and overpowering, even though they are the engines that drive us and propel us into adult life. The process of growing up is rarely serene. It is a struggle, a wrestling match with every kind of untamed energy. Everyone has his or her own tale, usually involving a lot of painful restlessness and a few shameful humiliations, of the not-so-gentle passage from childhood to adulthood.
Moreover, it is not that these energies ever go dormant or disappear from inside us; other struggles just set in and begin to eclipse them. As we sort out more who we are, make permanent commitments, and take on more and more responsibilities, we soon find ourselves beset by a new set of struggles: disappointment, tiredness, boredom, frustration, resentment. Consciously and unconsciously, we begin to sense that the big dream for our lives is over, without its ever paying the huge dividends we expected. We become disappointed that there is not more, that we have not achieved more, and that we ourselves are not more, as we sense ourselves stuck with second best, reluctant to make our peace there. All those grandiose dreams, all that potential, all that energy, and what have we achieved? Most all of us can relate to Henry David Thoreau’s famous line: “The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon, or, perchance, a palace or temple on the earth, and, at length, the middle-aged man concludes to build a woodshed with them.”And that is a comedown that is not easily digested.
Moreover, once the sheer pulse of life, so strong in us during our youth, begins to be tempered by the weight of our commitments and the grind of the years, more of our sensitivities begin to break through, and we sense more and more how we have been wounded and how life has not been fair to us. New demons then emerge: bitterness, anger, jealousy, and a sense of having been cheated. Disappointment cools the fiery energies of our youth, and our enthusiasm for life begins to be tempered by bitterness and anger as we struggle to accept our limits and make peace with a life that now seems too small and unfair. Where we once struggled to properly control our energies, we now struggle to access them. Where we once struggled not to fall apart, we now struggle not to petrify. Where we once struggled with Eros, the god of passion, we now struggle with Lyssa, the goddess of anger. And where our sympathies once were with the prodigal son, they now are more with his older brother. As we age we begin more and more to struggle with God.
Someone once quipped that we spend the first half of our lives struggling with the sixth commandment (Thou shalt not commit adultery) and the second half of our lives struggling with the fifth commandment (Thou shalt not kill). That may be a simplification, but it is a fertile image. Indeed the famous parable of the prodigal son and his older brother can serve as a paradigm for this: the prodigal son, illustrating the first half of life, is very much caught up in the fiery energies of youth and is, metaphorically, struggling with the devil; the older brother, illustrating the second half of life, struggling instead with resentment, anger, and jealousy, is, metaphorically and in reality, wrestling with God.
The point of the example is not so much to name or pinpoint what particular things we need to struggle with during the different seasons of our lives, but that there are precisely different seasons in our lives, each with distinct challenges.
This has huge implications in terms of how we understand what Christian discipleship asks of us. Simply put, the invitations that come to us from scripture, particularly from Jesus, meet us in very different ways at different times in our lives. We hear them in one way when we are young, in another in midlife, and in still quite a different way when we are old and facing death. Moreover, not all of Jesus’ invitations ask for the same level of response at a given time in our lives. Some of his challenges are meant to help bring us to basic conversion, some are meant to deepen that conversion, and still others are meant to take that conversion to its full term and make us full saints. At one stage of our lives, Jesus calls us to give up something for God, at another stage he calls us to give up everything. Sometimes Jesus invites us to small conversions, and sometimes he invites us to martyrdom. Looking at the challenges of Jesus, we see that one size does not fit all!
For example, take Jesus’ parable of the talents: in essence, that parable warns that if we do not use our natural talents to achieve something and accomplish something in this world, we will be punished, and punished to the exact extent of what we have wasted or left unused. That warning clearly applies to us more during the first half of our lives, when we are more fragile in terms of our self-worth, are still struggling for an identity, and are still at a stage in life where success and achievement can help establish a healthy sense of self-worth, than during our later years when the human and the spiritual task is much more to let go, especially of the sense of self-worth we get through success and achievement. Success has little to teach us during the second half of life. It continues to feel good, but now it is often more an obstacle to maturity than a positive stimulus toward it. Why?
How can it be that something that once was healthy for us now is unhealthy? Because the feeling of success that earlier helped positively to ground our sense of self-worth becomes, at a later stage of life, when meaning needs to be grounded in something less ephemeral, more like a narcotic keeping us from health than a medicine aiding our health. There comes a point in our lives when meaning must be predicated on something beyond the feeling we get from success and achievement. While that is ultimately true too for young people, they too may not ground their self-image on success, Jesus’ parable of the talents suggests that using one’s talents to the optimum can be an important part of discipleship when we are young, but should become less and less the case as we move into midlife and beyond.
There are some real dangers in not making this distinction. When we fail to distinguish among the different seasons of our lives and how these interface with the challenges and invitations that God and life send us, we are in danger of hurting ourselves in two ways: first, by trying to take on too much when we are not ready for it, and second, by not taking on enough when we are ready for it. To try to make an invitation of Jesus apply in the same way, to both halves of our lives, risks ruining its proper challenge for both halves. Let me cite just one example, a personal one:
Several years ago, I was preaching in a church on a Sunday. The gospel that day was the famous story of Jesus at the home of Martha and Mary, and Martha’s infamous complaint that she was left to do the work alone, in this case the business of preparing a meal, while Mary sat idly at the feet of Jesus. Jesus’ reply to Martha’s complaint suggests not just that Mary had chosen more wisely than Martha, but that Martha’s busyness itself is something Martha should critically examine. In preaching my homily I talked about the difference between being and doing and emphasized the importance of taking our sense of worth from who we are rather than from what we do. I made the point that if we take our sense of self-worth from what we do, our successes and achievements, this eventually becomes a cancer wherein we have to keep achieving success over and over again in order to feel good about ourselves and how, when we ground our identity on our achievements, our sense of self-worth drains whenever we cannot do things that make us feel worthwhile.
To bolster that idea, I quoted Mother Teresa and Henri Nouwen, both of whom spoke and wrote eloquently on exactly this point. The substance of my message and my sources both seemed sound until, at the church door, a man, gracious and honest, gave me pause to reflect. After thanking me for the homily, he asked me this question: “Have you ever wondered at the fact that it is invariably very successful people and high achievers who, after they have achieved a lot, tell you that it isn’t important to achieve anything? I think of Mother Teresa, a household name for the whole world, carrying the Nobel Prize, stepping off a plane somewhere and telling a large, adoring audience that it isn’t important to achieve anything. Just be faithful. Or Henri Nouwen, after he had written fifty books and turned down teaching jobs at Harvard and Yale, telling us that it isn’t important to be a success, that being is more important than doing. True, no doubt, but tell me this: from where do you get a good sense of self-worth if you are a big, fat nobody?”
His question is not facetious. It is honest and penetrating, and it highlights the importance of distinction between the different seasons of our lives. Jesus’ challenge to Martha to move more from activity to contemplation, from doing to being, applies more to someone who is already established in life than to someone who is young and still struggling to establish herself. When we do not make that kind of distinction, we can lay false guilt trips on the young because we are, in fact, misusing the gospel.
We must be prudent in assigning biblical challenges and invitations. When people who are too young, or too immature, or for whatever reason are not ready to roll the dice for God try to do so, the result is invariably one of two things: depression or grandiosity, both of which initially can mask themselves as depth in the spiritual life. Of course we must be careful in discerning this. God does not call and process us generically on a conveyor belt. As already stated, one size does not fit all! Spiritual writers, beginning in scripture, have always pointed out that sometimes God can and does call very young people to the depths of maturity and the radical extremes of discipleship and service. We can think, for example, of Thérèse of Lisieux who was a doctor of the soul at age twenty-four. But that is the exception. The more general experience is that when you see someone trying to be a doctor of the soul at a very young age, you are most often seeing a neophyte in first fervor rather than a truly mature man or woman who has surrendered his or her life to God at a deep level. As well, more often than not, the fervor you see will be embedded in either grandiosity or depression. This must be gently said, rather than judgmentally stated, since the feelings of fervor that fill us when we are neophytes in the spiritual journey are a good thing, a gift from God inviting and seducing us to something deeper. But even though the feelings are good and helpful, they must be taken for what they are, not more, and not confused with full maturity, lest the gospel parable about building our house on something less than solid rock catch us full force.