Fervor in the Process of Spiritual Growth
Several years ago, I read through all seven volumes of Thomas Merton's journals as they were published. I have always been quite drawn to the fervent novice of Merton's early writing, but in reading all his journals, I began to wonder what happened to this fervor in Merton's later years. And when I look at my own practice, I find something similar: the enthusiasm I felt when I was first a student of Tibetan Buddhism is completely gone, and whatever has replaced it is much harder for me to understand or evaluate. That discovery has made me wonder what has happened and whether or not something of great value has been lost.
What happens in the process of spiritual growth? In youth there are enthusiasm and fervor – determined practice and renunciation; then in middle-age, two possible directions become apparent: either the loss of youthful fervor and descent into rather ordinary living, or else growth into the spontaneous embodiment of youth's ideals. I can see where fervor goes in the former path, but what happens to it in the latter? Is the process of spiritual development such that fervor can not be sustained beyond the early period?
When people are new to a religion, their values are usually received ones: concepts from religious teachers, from scripture, from their own ruminations. This is clearly Merton's stage in Seven Storey Mountain and the Sign of Jonas. At this stage, values can only be superficial and exterior, but in time they may evolve through personal commitment and practice into mature, lived, ideals. It is practice that drives this transformation, which in turn, transforms practice.
At the beginning, a newcomer's practice involves exercises aimed at analyzing and understanding external concepts and principles. It usually includes prayers and meditations that focus her awareness on the outer, accessible aspects of divinity that she has learned about from someone else's words and thoughts. As these exercises have their effect, practice becomes an inner attention to, and awareness of, that other mode of reality to which these practices have opened her mind. This is the growth from faith to knowledge – the movement from exterior exercises to simply resting in the presence of what is known.
This process explains, to me at least, why youthful fervor can not survive. Like an infatuation, it has an almost romantic intensity that is rooted in distance and projection, both of which are diminished by experience and spiritual practice. So the foundation of fervor is worn away by the very actions it supports. I can only mourn the loss of fervor if I expected it to last forever and interpret its loss as a diminishment of my spiritual life. But it is not necessarily that – it can be a mark of growth and of increasing closeness to, and integration with, that which I experience as my goal.
The loss of fervor, then, can be a positive sign. But how can I tell if it really is in my own life? How can I distinguish between growth and mere laxity? The one thing I can say for certain is that my loss of fervor is not the result of an honest change of purpose - because my conscious purpose has not changed since I became a Buddhist, though it has been refined and clarified. When I was a beginner, my values and my enthusiasm felt as though they validated my life. Now, that enthusiasm is gone, and I have moved past the time - allowed to neophytes and youngsters in general - when my potential was my justification. Now a different task emerges for me: to examine the gap between my actions and my ideals. What I have to ask myself is whether and to what extent I really embody my values – and how I can improve that ethical ratio. Such self-examination may be the critical task of spiritual middle age, and it is this ratio that measures my real position.
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