Spiritual formation is a process whereby the sentient life of the body rises into a center of self-conscious personal identity, or ego, which provides the individual with an elevated center of intention for taking in a larger perspective on life, connecting with others in meaningful ways, and contributing creatively to the wellbeing of community.
In that short summary I have identified three essential principles of consciousness: (1) a Generative principle, deep in the grounding mystery of our sentient and largely ‘unconscious’ body; (2) an Individuative principle, focusing this deep power upwards into a self-conscious center of personal awareness; and (3) a Unitive principle that amplifies outward and across the relational field, turning the many into One.
The direction of spiritual formation, as well as its facilitation under the caring guidance of a spiritual director, unfolds in that precise sequence: out of the Ground and into an Ego, then beyond the Ego and into Community.
It’s important to understand that these three principles of consciousness are not separate “types” of consciousness, or three “modes” masking the same phenomenon under different conditions, or even distinct “stages” in its linear transformation over time. Consciousness doesn’t leave its ground in the body in order to get centered in the ego, and it doesn’t abandon the ego for the sake of joining in community.
We can accurately say that consciousness proceeds from the body, through the ego, and into community. Each principle is coequal, if not simply identical, with the other two; and all three are of the same substance or nature (Greek homoousios), which is consciousness itself. They are three-in-one, a dynamic trinity.
My reader who is familiar enough with Christian orthodoxy will recognize in my characterization of consciousness a direct parallel to the theological doctrine of God-as-Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Simply substituting the terms – “Father” for body/ground/source (the generative principle), “Son” for personality/ego/identity (the individuative principle), and “Holy Spirit” for participation/inclusion/community (the unitive principle) – already throws some fresh light onto the mysterious origins of that central doctrine.
The trinitarian idea of God – our conventional nickname (with the uppercase ‘G’) for the ultimate reality and present mystery of Being – was itself derived from early Christian mythology, from the stories and other writings comprising the New Testament. It is, that is to say, a product of what’s called biblical theology – a “theory of God” drawing on the collection of stories which expressed and gave shape to a uniquely Christian perspective.
Outside this mythology, no one has ever encountered a divine being of “one nature in three coequal persons” for the simple reason that this concept of God was a later product of second-order reflection on the primary material of early Christian myth.
One critical mistake of this orthodox enterprise of doctrine-building was in its choice of defining God in absolute terms, as He is in Himself, outside of time and apart from everything else. Two further mistakes were in absolutizing the male gender reference, thus excluding women’s values and experience; and also characterizing the three principles of the Trinity as “persons,” which set the stage for two very popular “heresies,” of interpreting the three as personae or masks worn by the same actor (“modalism”), or as three separate personalities (gods?) of the same family (“tritheism”).
A fourth and final mistake was in treating God as something (a being) with objective existence – out there somewhere inside, behind, or above the world.
I know that my reader had hoped I would get to my point sooner, but the importance of rooting the trinitarian construct of God in the Bible (i.e., in Judeo-Christian mythology) is in the door it opens for us to the mythic imagination – not just of the early Christians, but the mythopoetic (storytelling) imagination of every human, including you and me.
In his study of myths from around the world, Joseph Campbell discerned a consistent and universal pattern, which he named, borrowing from James Joyce, the “monomyth.”
This pattern is ingeniously employed by the New Testament author who wrote the two-volume epic story of The Gospel According to Luke and Acts of the Apostles, likely composed sometime in the 80s and 90s of the first century. While Paul is commonly regarded as the architect of early Christian belief, it was “Luke,” writing 20-30 years after Paul and including him in his story, who constructed the grand myth that would serve to shape and orient Christian identity in the world more than anyone else.
In Luke’s story, Jesus (the hero) comes into the world by a virgin birth, sent from God (his Father) on a specific mission of redemption:
To accomplish this mission, however, Jesus must confront the dark powers of Empire (Roman oppression), Orthodoxy (Jewish fundamentalism), and Ego (personal self-interest). He goes to the stronghold of Jerusalem, and there is arrested for inciting political insurrection, condemned for breaking religious law, and finally abandoned by those who sought to save themselves as the risk grew too great. Jesus is crucified and then quickly buried, just before the Sabbath begins.
On the third day, early Sunday morning, the dead hero is miraculously brought back to life, and tells his few remaining followers to meet him later on a nearby mountain. As they are gathered in waiting for the resurrected Jesus, he appears to the small crowd of disciples, and while they watch he ascends into the sky and disappears.
(Scene. The curtain closes on Volume One.)
Fifty days later, on the Jewish festival of Pentecost, the followers of Jesus are again gathered. Suddenly a rush of wind enters the place and tongues of fire appear over each person present, giving them the spontaneous ability to speak in other languages (in a reversal of the Jewish “Tower of Babel” myth, where the world’s one language had been fractured into the confusion of many). This “gift of the Holy Spirit” is sent to empower and equip these early Christians (followers of Christ, the messianic title given to Jesus) for the work of carrying on with his original mission.
Paul had earlier – in the temporal sequence of mythological composition – identified the community of Christians as “the body of Christ,” with his resurrected spirit living now in and through them.
As Luke concludes his epic story, the Christian mission is spreading out into the farther reaches of the known world.
(The curtain closes on Volume Two.)
The monomyth of Luke’s two-part story of Jesus and his spiritual revolution follows perfectly the pattern that Campbell found across the mythologies of the world. And now we can also see that this pattern is itself constructed on the three principles of consciousness briefly defined above.
Our hero represents the Individuative principle, or Ego (the “son”), differentiating out of (“sent by”) the Generative principle (the Ground and “father”). Having fulfilled its purpose (or “mission”) of centering the personality and constructing an identity, the Ego enables consciousness to transcend or “go beyond” this identity for a transpersonal and ultimately Unitive experience of harmony, wholeness, and genuine community.
Of course, Luke arranges lots of other interesting material upon this monomyth, but his deeper logic (a mytho-logic) is evident. It was this dynamic evolution of consciousness, personified metaphorically in the Father/Ground, Son/Ego, and Spirit/Community, that Christian theologians distilled into the orthodox doctrine of God-as-Trinity. Their logical refinement of the relationships among, and deeper nature of, the three “persons” did in fact make some valuable contributions to our understanding of consciousness, despite the interpretive “mistakes” mentioned earlier.
In the end, we come back to the beginning. Each of us carries the creative energy of our soul into the heroic adventure of becoming somebody (ego), until we are ready and willing to get over ourselves in the spirit of freedom, love, and unity.
This is our spiritual direction.