so i've been noticing a couple of stages on the way to where i am. (if i knew what the next stages were i wouldn't be stuck where i am now would i?) and i think they explain a lot of irritating behavior and i think that you can dispell a lot of panic if we just name them and move on.
1) fairy tale faith. this is the first one. people tell you what to believe and you just sort of go along with it. this is where you start as a child. God-- the One, the Infinite-- shares a category with the tooth fairy and the stork and santa and elves and dragons and all sorts of other things you have no direct experience of but that people assure you are real and true and meaningful. some people stay here. they are not very interesting to talk to, but neither are they particularly irritating. when you disagree with them, they are bewildered but can't really engage in a dynamic discussion with you about what is and isn't actually true. they haven't really thought about the difference between what they profess and what they believe. they are comfortable and happy. the rituals of religion are for them.
2) intensifying faith. this is where people start exploring their faith, learning more about it. it is an active phase. people read a lot and go to groups and hang out in places of worship and with co-religionists. they are more interesting to talk to because they are more knowlegable, but when you disagree with them they will draw on their holy book(s) and will have nothing of themselves to add to the discussion. it is a crucial step, without which i don't know how you can go any further.
3) clash. in the process of examining one's own religion, one comes across aspects that clash with one's own inner sense of morality. you begin to notice that there is a difference between what you are professing and what you actually think is real. this is the first part that is really painful, and this is where religious people become nearly unbearable to be around. there is no retreat from this step. once you realize that you and your faith are clashing there is no putting the genie back in the bottle. and it is terrifying. to admit that there are parts of your faith that are dead wrong is to be forced to confront your faith on all its levels, to start a painful process of spiritual house-cleaning. if you refuse to clean your spiritual house, you will remain on this level, professing, usually loudly, things you don't actually think are true. you may be spotted because you will, when confronted with your own internal inconsistencies, point to your holy book and say with increasing frustration that it alone is the source of all truth and that you really need nothing more.
4) house-cleaning. here you start to arrange the things you believe and the things you're going to set aside-- "not part of my practice." it is a time of honesty, and a good stopping place. if you stay here, you will be reasonable, easy to live with. you will be pluralistic and will be able to accept people on the fringes of your religion and even outside your religion as probably having a reasonable point of view. this is an optional step and might not be present for everyone. at this point, a lot of the comfort of religion may be stripped from you. depending on your temperment, ritual practice may be less comforting now, less meaningful-- what comfort and meaning it holds may stem more from familiarity than from an honest belief that you are interacting deeply with the Divine.
5) the slope. if your housecleaning persists, if you are diligent and careful and ruthless, you may begin to question whether the God you are praying to is God or some sort of reflection/distortion of God. clearly it is the latter. as you search your heart for what you actually think is true you may find yourself fuming at the things people are saying about God-- the God you are seeking couldn't possibly be the puny/petty "god" these people are talking about. it becomes hard to hear people talk about God. it becomes unbearable to go to group worship. you can feel yourself clutching at the last remnants of the fairy tale God you've known since childhood whom you've been unknowingly unmasking as an illusion, as no one, as offensive and impossible and blasphemous. but you're clutching because you can feel the emptiness opening up around you. you can't stay here. you must either go back to loudly defending a faith that is yours in name only or slide further in.
6) the abyss. emptiness. your prayers are shouted into an uncaring void. it is very, very hard to pray. the straws you were grasping at disintegrate, as does everything you ever thought of as your faith. you are alone in a meaningless universe. to truly enter this place, you will have to renounce your faith. you will have to let go of the little "god" you were clutching all this time. it is an idol and you have to smash it. you may stay here, an atheist, an agnostic. when asked "what religion are you?" you will answer along the lines of "i was raised ______" your parents will be freaking out. those people you used to hang out with at your place of worship will no longer be your friends, but some of them will pray for you to "find your way" meaning "find your way back to them". but it's too late to go back. it is a fairly comfortable place. you are reasonable. you alternately pity and envy religious people, but you can't be one of them. they look backward and ignorant to you, but they also look happy-- irrational, unreasonable, and smug, but cozy. you are above all that.
7) the desert. to be in the abyss and look for God is painful, painful. you are a miserable, groveling, sniveling thing, fervently, snot-nosedly begging God to come back. you look for Him everywhere and see only a bunch of stuff. you are God's jilted lover, leaving a thousand messages on his cell phone. you can't figure out exactly what it is you believe in. prayer is like night in the desert-- impossibly empty, desolate, cruel. but if you sit in your desert long enough, your eyes adjust. you hear the little night animals scrabbling about, you see the infinite stars bathing the place in gentle light, you being to notice the wind, the plants, the glittering sand... the night is impossibly full, impossibly rich. you have fallen through a trap door and emerged into something you can sink your teeth into. your little "god" is gone, and what has taken its place can only be met with bewilderment. you start to get that look on your face that means you have spent a lot of time staring at God. you are open and easy to talk to, and the world looks very, very different to you.
*) not sure where this fits in with the numbering system, but you may have a mystical experience. you may have a couple of them or a lot of them. they may take different forms at different places on your journey. you are not in control of these experiences-- they overtake you. like a victorian maiden, you swoon. they are powerful, they shake you to your core. you sound stupid when you talk about them. once you see heaven/God/Reality or whatever you want to call it and the world closes back in on you you will miss heaven and hate it here. prayer will become a desperate attempt to return, to experience God in that way, to at least touch the edges of it. you will fail.
8) wandering. driven by curiosity, by instinct, by the depth of your longing for God-- which, if you've gotten this far, is pretty deep-- you begin to look for other people who are searching. you read again, but widely now. you read heretics and mystics and you from people outside your religious starting point. as the curtain parts, you see a transcendent unity of faiths-- we are, after all, in the same universe with the same underlying Truth. the differences between faiths start to look uninteresting, their similarities and the way they fit into each other fascinating. you have stopped trying to convert people. you have stopped thinking of yourself as holding the only Truth. you listen. you pray. your prayer becomes more open, more accepting. you stop judging your performance, you stop looking for signs that you are going the right way. you trust God to take care of you. you trust that He knows what He is doing. you begin to look for more idols to smash, for trap doors to fall into, for more and bigger and emptier voids to be lost in. you let go of the wheel and let God drive. your ritual practice becomes curious, mindful, aware-- it becomes an act of trust, a secret between you and God.
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