The story of Sharon Heidland is intriguing. She went to the University of Nevada on a college scholarship to play volleyball. She was attractive, had smarts, had money, and was socially popular in the party scene. Presumably, she had everything going for her including a promising career starting at a TV station. However, she dropped all of this glamour to live a simple life of a Catholic nun. When people hear this story (along with others) they either understand why she did what she did or they think she’s crazy.
More broadly speaking, when it comes to encountering the faith, some either see it or they miss it. As a Catechist, I’ve learned that you can teach people the faith until you’re blue in the face, but some will never grasp it. Consequently, they’ll continue to live as if religion is no big deal.
Why do some people perceive the faith and some people don’t? There is a famous axiom as it pertains to encountering things in the physical world -“Where you stand determines what you see.” Can we also apply this maxim to the spiritual world?
In other words, does where you are at spiritually speaking affect your ability to see or not see the truths in the mystical reality around you?
Philosophers have often spoke how people must go through periods of transitions of either an upward mobility or a downward spiral. What’s interesting is that when people move into a new “life transition,” do they recognize if they are going through an upward or downward trajectory in their life. As spiritual directors often suggest, if a person is ascending within their soul, they’ll likely be able to discern spiritual truths clearer than they did before. Conversely, if a person is going through a moral descent, they’ll be blind as a bat to the spiritual realm.
So, does where you stand spiritually determine what you can or can’t see as it relates to the faith? To know with certainty, we must explore the paths sought out in the advancement of the soul.
The philosopher Soren Kierkergaard spoke of different stages that one passes through on the way to spiritual maturity. Kierkergaard identified these stages as:
- the aesthetic
- the ethical
- the religious
During the aesthetic state, a person is fixated with sensual pleasure of bodily desires. Here, one’s goal is merely to be as comfortable as possible. Food, sex, comfort, and artistic beauty are the prevailing themes of someone in this stage of life. Picture a woman sipping wine at an upscale restaurant, or a man floating on a yacht in the Caribbean while listening to Bob Marley. These enthralling pleasures of this phase are real and penetrating on the person. For this reason, it remains difficult for one to move to the next level.
Even though the pleasures of the aesthetic life are incredibly impressionable on people, there generally remains a deeper yearning within. Just listen to the longing of the man in the U2 song. He has scaled the highest mountains, climbed the city walls, but insists, “I still haven’t found finding what I am looking for.”
Once one becomes bored and dissatisfied with the fruits of the sensual life, he or she will move up the ladder of maturity toward the second stage – the ethical. Here, a person goes beyond the preoccupation of satisfying his sensual desire and accepts a moral duty in which he uses himself to will the good of the other. In short, a person learns the art of self-sacrifice in unconditionally loving another. Picture a young man who finally forsakes his bachelor life in order to get married and start a family. We can also picture the soldier who lets go of his shallow self-interests and devotes himself to the service of his country and fellow man.
Finally, says Kierkegaard, there is a dimension of spiritual attainment that lies behind the ethical. This is the religious. The word “religion” comes from the Latin word “religare,” which means to bind or yoke yourself to a revered source. Given that God is the ultimate sacred source, the concept of religion means that you have united yourself to the highest, sacred entity – God. At this juncture of life, a person is in-tune with God. He is removed from merely seeking after self-pleasure and holds complete honor and loyalty towards God. Here, this person finds ultimate satisfaction, since he has found the infinite object that alone corresponds to the longing of his heart. As St. Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”
When it comes to the religious stage, spiritual masters indicate that a person first must receive the Holy Spirit, and then the other persons of the Trinity (Father, Son) necessarily flow from this. (cf. 1 Cor. 12:3, 2:14, Gal. 4:6, CCC 683-684)
As a person becomes united with God, both his ethical obligations and aesthetical pleasures become more in-tune and fulfilling. But when one doesn’t reach even a glimpse of the religious level, his ethics becomes clouded and eventually, he is completely consumed by the lust for personal gratification.
The reason being, if one lives as if there is no God, then one inevitably becomes his own god. In this setting, narcissism reigns supreme as the person determines the ethical on his own all the while bowing down to his self-indulgent desires. The ego has effectively deified itself in this sad, self-absorbed state. Notice in this self-absorbed setting, the three stages are reversed. The person cleverly reasons that he “should have the right” (ethical) to do whatever his self-interested desires want (sensual) all the while establishing a “religion” in which the self becomes a god-like entity. This picture reveals a downward spiral that strips away God and ushers in the death of the soul.
If, however, one goes upward in these stages, they’ll experience spiritual insight and thus contentment in all things.
Kierkegard’s ladder of upward mobility reveals that all three phases work in harmony with each other in moving a person to the climax of their journey. Notice that these three stages have a specific focal point of interest; the aesthetic emphasizes the self, the ethical focuses on the other, and the religious fixates on God. In this order, all three work to bring the person to their ultimate end (see Matt. 22: 36-40, Luke 10:17).
The goal is to participate in all three periods while viewing stage one and two through the lens of stage three. You’ll enjoy the pleasures of this world more if you know God created them to draw you closer to him. You’ll appreciate your family more once you grasp that the human family mirrors the Trinity family, and that you job is to raise you kids all the while directing them to their ultimate end – God.
However, the pop culture has trained most people to treat these three phases in competition rather than in congruence with one another.
Despite popular notions, Catholicism views the material pleasures of stage one (sex, food, drink) as good, and not evil. There is nothing wrong with eating, drinking, admiring, listening, and touching. In fact, focusing on these pleasures is of prime importance, as one of the ways the spiritual progress is interrupted is to repress, or look down upon these elemental joys. However, a problem surfaces if one over-indulges at level one and rejects moving up the ladder of mobility towards God. Imagine a man who wants to stay-put in college because he’s having too much fun and refuses to voyage out into the world of unknown challenges. This is not a picture of a mature man but of a scared boy. Here lies the person who lives between levels one and two of Kierkegaard’s ladder.
Our society has also cleverly obscured the connection between level one and level two. Instead of the Biblical notion where children and large families are a blessing, now, having kids is portrayed as a kill-joy to your financial and self-indulging pleasures.
I propose that most people who are enthralled with the pop culture are stuck at stage one. Being attached to the pop culture has caused them not to seek out the bigger questions in life. This begins a dreadful trap in which they become intellectually bankrupt and sadly live as a slave to their shallow desires. There is nothing particularly impressive or inspiring about the person who’s stuck at the aesthetic phase. They generally perform calculated “ethical” moves much more geared to promoting their self-interest rather than the other (i.e. virtue signaling). Moreover, when a disaster ensues, they’ll likely retreat into their self-focused ways. In the coronavirus crisis, you’ll find these people simply sitting on the couch, eating, drinking and binge watching on Netflix.
Even worse, one fixated at this juncture becomes religiously illiterate and blind to the realities in the spiritual world. Stuck at level one they simply do not get the faith – no matter how hard you try to give it to them.
Throughout Scripture, we read how God hides himself from some people while revealing him to others (see Acts 10:40-41) In fact, Jesus taught by using parables and riddles so that only the humble and child-like would know the truth while the proud and arrogant would routinely miss it (see Matthew 13: 9-16, 34-35, 11:25-27, John 9: 39, 10:6).
On the road to Emmaus, Jesus’ disciples were kept from seeing him precisely because they lacked the faith, as he mentioned, “O foolish men, and slow to believe” (Luke 24:25).
Some people see how God works, others do not – it all depends on where they stand on the spiritual ladder. At Fatima, the humble shepherd children saw the Blessed Virgin Mary in the sky while the crowd of over 70,000 instead saw the sun dance dramatically. In the spiritual life, to be able to climb upward and “see” more you have to be able to let go of earthly things.
If a person is glued merely at stage one, they’re likely in the state of pride, thus spiritually ignorant and blind. If, however, they are willing to become detached from sensual pleasures and rise up the ladder, they’ll have the eyes of faith to comprehend the truth.
To be sure, most people are sitting at different stages of the spiritual quest throughout their life. At times the aesthetic is front and center while at other times the ethical or the religious are the focal point. What theologians have stressed is that no matter where you are at, you always need to keep your eyes fixed on God and head in that direction. As Jacques Philippe says of this path, “To stop moving forward means to stop living.”
While it might seem scary to travel upward on the spiritual climb, know that many of the saints began this ride in the state of mind to one who’s spent several decades trapped in-between level one and level three. They were lost, anxious, confused. However, their trajectory shot upward with letting go of the self-pleasures of money, power, and comfort. They were able to allow God to correctly order their desires and talents away from the self and towards the other, and ultimately to God himself.
I should also remind you that the climb upward doesn’t require an overly intense effort on your part – all you do is focus 100% on God and he’ll do the heavy lifting for you. Peter did walk on water, but notice that Jesus did all the work for him. As long as Peter was focused on Jesus, he ascended to another level – like walking on water!
So, why do some people grasp the faith and others don’t? All depends on where they are standing. And where they are standing all depends on how much they allow God to work in their life.
Sharon Heidland did this. Now her name is Sister Miriam James Heidland. She travels the country talking about stage three – and she couldn’t be happier. She went from being blind in stage one, to now having the eyes to see in stage three. As the song, Amazing Grace declares, “I was once blind, but now I see.”