Like other spiritual traditions, mystical and otherwise, Christian mysticism is chock full of highly prescriptive goal-oriented approaches to spiritual development. Whether we are speaking of purification, sanctification, illumination, holiness, righteousness, or what have you, one very common thread is to begin with a fairly detailed vision of what we presumably can and should become; in other words, we establish specific goals for how we intend to think, behave, and appear to others. Typically this vision is largely defined by religious doctrines about right beliefs and virtuous behaviors, and is usually illustrated by reference to certain historical figures as exemplars. Even those in rebellion against tradition may simply work up a kind of anti-traditionalist vision to idolize. In any case, once the vision is crafted, we then strive to manifest it in ourselves. Even most teachers and preachers who claim that only God actually creates the changes in our lives nonetheless challenge us to constantly work at fulfilling specific goals. The work may take many forms, including every kind of spiritual discipline – prayer, scriptural study, fasting, almsgiving, confession and penance, worship, abstaining from sins and vices, and so on. Such approaches have value, and the present intention is not to categorically denounce them, but rather to consider why and how we might also take another path in spiritual development.
One of the reasons for taking another path is that an approach based on attaining specific character outcomes can too easily become about reworking the persona, changing the mask of public identity each of us wears, rather than actually transforming the soul at deeper levels. In other words, the energy we give to our spiritual disciplines is essentially devoted to pretending as much as possible that we are the vision we have idolized. One danger here is simply in misrepresenting the truth of ourselves to others, encouraging others to believe we are more pure, holy, illuminated, etc., than we actually are. We might even secretly enjoy the deception and the esteem and favor of others we gain by it. In the worst cases, we may slip into psychological denial of our whole humanity and fool ourselves into believing we have become the idol, all the while struggling to conceal a host of vices, including false humility, spiritual pride, and spiritual materialism. There should be no need to go further into how unwise such circumstances are, and the unhealthy effects they can have on our souls, other people, and the world around us. Sooner or later, these idols, these masks, are bound to crack and reveal the ordinary human soul within. The guilt and shame in inevitably realizing our deceptions and our failures to live up to such visions can be miserable and counterproductive. On the other hand, and speaking from personal experience, sometimes the toppling of these towers of illusion can be among the most transformative and truly illuminating experiences of our lives, despite how painful they are. To some extent, such moments of disillusionment may be unavoidable for most of us. Even so, there are other ways of spiritual development that can be less fraught with these particular challenges, and it may well be worthwhile to engage them.
Taking a less goal-oriented approach to spiritual development doesn’t mean forgoing spiritual practices or disciplines; the difference is in the mental framework by which we engage them. We can begin by reminding ourselves that the self, our whole being, is more than our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and that there are aspects of us beyond the awareness and control of our conscious minds. Furthermore, as mystical Christians we believe there are mysterious dimensions of the soul that are superior to our conscious minds in some ways. It therefore follows that we must acknowledge the conscious mind’s inability to micromanage our spiritual development. The conscious mind isn’t fully equipped to predetermine what all our outcomes should actually be, let alone precisely how we should attain them. At this point we may once again see the real value of an unassuming faith and hope, and leaning upon them we can begin giving up some of our presumptions about the changes in our being that might result from a practice or discipline. In this way we can take an experimental approach to spiritual practice, like a scientist performing an operation to observe what happens and learn from it. There obviously still is a goal, which is simply to learn, yet it isn’t prescriptive of specific results that we might fool ourselves into believing have happened when they haven’t.
It may be worthwhile to consider the prayer of silence as a practice especially fitting to a less goal-oriented path of spiritual development. In the prayer of silence we aren’t asking anything from God, or telling God anything, we are simply sitting as quietly as possible in openness to the presence of God. We also let go, as best we can, of any expectations for how God is or might be present to us. Similarly, we are open to the immediate actuality of ourselves, neither trying to filter out what we deem undesirable nor attaching our minds to thoughts of who or what we desire to be. We simply abide in acceptance of the present moment as it actually is, faithful that we are communing with God in ways beyond our awareness, understanding, and control. We do not even assume that any effects of such communion will be noticeable to us or anyone else, let alone that they will conform to preconceived notions of what spiritual development should produce. The prayer of silence is thus a very deep practice of accepting the presence of God, ourselves, and everything else; it is an act of all-embracing unconditional love.