Sometimes in a dialogue with even the greatest of theologians, there comes a time when one needs to stop and say, ‘Hang on I do not fully agree with you there!’ Such was my recent experience reading Henri Nouwen. He says in his book Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit:
“Many great saints have described their religious experiences, and many lesser saints have systematized them into different phases, levels and stages. These distinctions may be helpful for those who write books on instruction, but it is of great importance that we leave the world of measurements behind when we speak about the life of the Spirit. Spiritual formation, I have come to believe, is not about steps and stages on the way to perfection. It is about movements from the mind to the heart through prayer in its many forms that reunite us with God, each other, and our truest self.”
Well, Henri, I do not agree with you. First of all, what do you mean exactly by ‘greater and lesser saints?’ I do not get this; how have you measured them? You clearly have measured them in some degree, to place such labels on them. How do you determine who is a greater and who is a smaller saint?
But personally, I believe you can measure spiritual growth. There was a time when I did not think it is possible. I thought of my spiritual growth as too vague, too ‘spiritual’, to fit into some sort of mathematical measurements (and I never liked maths anyway). But now I look back at my life and I believe I have grown. I have changed.
I can measure it; my prayers are less selfish, and the list of those I am praying for is longer; I read the Bible not only for information but also for relationship; I have learned to worship in other ways than only singing songs; my solitude is no longer a time of being alone but rather a time of being alone with Him; I am quicker at recognizing the evil thought or attitude that needs to be changed… These are just few examples. I know I am not the person I used to be. I have grown, and growth is always measurable, whether physical or spiritual.
There must be a way to measure spiritual growth, like you measure the progress of a house that is being built on strong foundations… like the way you know your muscles are getting stronger because the weight you can now carry is heavier… like the water in which you stood got deeper… first ankle deep, knee deep, waist deep, until you could not swim.
The movement Henri Nouwen mentions is important: ‘from mind to heart’, but also may I add from heart to mind. Upwards and outwards, and always on an ‘ascending plane’, not on flat land. From strength to strength as we continue to live in Him.
Joanna has a passion for mentoring female leaders to become mentors for a new generation. She is a founding director of One Rock, a board member of Renovare UK, and an associate lecturer at Oasis College. In her spare time she loves taking photographs of nature, and playing with her cat Chester.