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Eight Steps Toward Sainthood (Wink)

These days of “do-it-yourself” improvement techniques have spawned an industry of providing sometimes simplistic solutions to life’s problems. So my title is a little tongue-in-cheek. I don’t present what follows as “dramatic truth,” or “divine revelation,” let alone “the secret”!

At the same time, I remember a friend reared as a United Methodist telling me he had never been given a spiritual path until he was introduced to The Twelve Steps. Another United Methodist—a college professor or mine—shocked everyone by candidly answering “no!” to an ordination question, “Are you on the road to perfection?”

Path or no path, I believe that integrity, not perfection, is the goal.

Henri Nouwen wrote in Reaching Out, “The really great saints of history don’t ask for imitation. Their way was unique and cannot be repeated. But they invite us into their lives and offer a hospitable space for our own search.”

So this is simply what I’ve gleaned from those we may consider saints, past or present. And you might note that every other step toward sainthood is humility!

Step 1. Awareness

Religious traditions call this by different names: awakening, conversion, enlightenment, mindfulness, transcendence, born again. It’s not so much “knowledge” as an eye-opening, perhaps heart-rending, experience. We have a taste of this when we fall in love, have a baby, or encounter injustice.

Something or someone draws us out of ourselves and our self-concerns. It might be an experience of awe—say, viewing the Milky Way in a very black sky. It might be an experience of terror, or of hitting rock-bottom, and realize our need to reach out to a Higher Power or other people.

However it comes our way, it’s an awareness that we are not alone, but not just that, that there is something greater than us, deeper than us, more vital than us. Some call this God, others call it Spirit, others simply the human community.

Many people think they have arrived, that they’ve done all that’s needful when they experience this conversion, this awakening, this awareness.

Maybe they’re right. Taking this step is a good thing in and of itself.

Step 2. Humility

Don’t think of ourselves as superior because we may be aware. This is perhaps the greatest liability of religion. Converts think they have arrived, that they have the answers, and that somehow they’re better than those who haven’t converted, sometimes even better than those who converted long ago, proving the cliché, “No one more zealous than a recent convert.” Cockiness, false-confidence, I know all there is to know, I’ve done all there is to do, and I’m saved, or enlightened, or complete—and you’re not.

True awareness makes me see my self, my experience, as only a part of the whole. True awareness makes me see “my” answer as only one among many. True awareness makes me see my lifespan here on earth as a second of eternity. This is the meaning of eternal life, that we have been given a glimpse of eternity, an eternal perspective through which to view our brief lifespans.

True awareness contextualizes my life, puts my life in its proper context, not greater than, not lesser than…

Step 3. Practice and expand awareness

Many stop at awareness, but an old awareness can become as stultifying, limiting, or paralyzing as no awareness at all, as a person who is clueless. I have been given a clue by my awareness, but it is only one clue, and does not solve the mystery of life, if solving such mystery is even desirable, let alone possible.

To practice my faith, I need to expand my awareness to avoid being entrapped. Buddhism calls it letting go of the lower rungs of the ladder. Zen Buddhism calls it “killing the Buddha.” In Christianity Jesus said he must leave for the Spirit to guide his followers into further truth.

As we deepen our faith, we may expand our awareness enough to embrace other faiths, other spiritual paths. We do this in prayer, meditation, using sacred and inspirational texts, participating in spiritual community, consulting diverse spiritual guides: those whose spiritual authority we recognize who may serve as soul friends or spiritual directors.

Step 4. Humility

I must not think I have “earned” awareness or its benefits.

The film Amadeus was about two musicians, Salieri and Mozart. Salieri thought by devoting his music to God that he would be rewarded with timeless compositions. Mozart lived a wild life, yet we are much more familiar with his name and music.

Though we practice awareness, we can’t expect, as Salieri did, that our devotion will earn us timeless illuminations. The Spirit blows where she will. We may only make ourselves available to feel it.

Step 5. Move

Much regard is given taking a spiritual stand, as in “I shall not be moved!” Yet to me, spiritual metaphors imply movement. Abraham and Sarah left Ur. The Hebrews were liberated from Egypt to search for a promised land. Christians took their gospel to the ends of the earth. The Buddha left his princely home. Think of the quest for the Holy Grail or Pilgrim’s Progress.

The spiritual quest means we are headed somewhere, if “only” spiritually.

Step 6. Humility

Don’t make a show of it.

In our recognition-hungry and drama-driven culture, I might want to make this spiritual movement a public production involving a cast of thousands. It might be valued if it makes a big splash, appears on TV, receives awards, and has a million Twitter followers.

But most spiritual quests are very personal affairs, often unseen. Jesus advised against praying on street corners, favoring going into one’s closet to pray.

Step 7. Arrive

A spiritual quest has a destination, a vision, a hope. A promised land. Peace and justice. A spiritual commonwealth, how I refer to “the kingdom of God.” Buddhahood. Nirvana. A future in which lion and lamb may lie down together.

Let’s celebrate whenever the commonwealth of God comes near or is in our midst!

Step 8. Humility

Don’t stay there. When I feel that I have arrived, that’s spiritually the most dangerous place. If I think I have no need to grow, nothing to learn, nothing to receive—well, “it’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am!”

The Bodhisattva is one who returns from Nirvana to show others the way. In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, we help others through acts of charity and justice.

“Faith without works is dead.”

A sociological axiom has it that, at an oasis in a wilderness, those who talk about where they have been rather than where they are going have been at the oasis the longest. They have contented themselves with the oasis and have an “oasis mentality.”

One Jewish tradition has it that the Israelites spent most of their forty years in the wilderness at an oasis within sight of the Promised Land!

So I think of these eight steps as a spiral of repeating cycles. I believe that, in the spiritual life, there is no “finish line.”

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