Spiritual Maturity


Cork is a wonderful material, a natural product of the Quercus suba or cork oak tree. I remember in the house I grew up in, there was a cook floor in the Wtree-360dining and sitting rooms made from large squares of cork arranged in an alternating pattern of honey and coffee coloured tiles. Because the ultraviolet rays of the sun are so intense in New Zealand, after a while the contrasts faded and every so often the floors needed sanding to restore them to the colours of the original pattern. It was a very 1960’s look. Cork tile floors are ubiquitous with the great movement in design called Mid-century Modern, a style common around the Pacific Rim but which seems not to have made much inroad into New England; a style I note, that is once again the rage in design magazines like CB2.

You don’t see cork as much as you once did. Even its last great bastion, the wine cork, seems to be on its way out. More often than not wine bottles are now sealed with the easy to open screw-top, or something, which interestingly we still refer to as a plastic cork. It’s ironic how cork now refers to a function, i.e. sealing or stopping, rather than the material of the seal or stopper itself.

Cork was for centuries prized for its buoyancy making it an essential material in the traditional fishing industries. Even here, or maybe especially here, cork has now largely been replaced. Fishing buoys made from cork are now hard to find. Universally, buoys are now made from a material I call polystyrene, which translate for Americans as Styrofoam.

My cork reverie was evoked by the passage in Ephesians 4:14-16 that speaks of being tossed to and fro, an image for me of the action of swimming in the surf, of being helplessly carried upward and downward, forward and backward, propelled by the action of the waves. 

We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. 

This passage offers two intriguing contrasts.

1. Being anchored

The first contrast is between corks and buoys, whether the latter are made from the material cork or not. In the image of being tossed to and fro, in my mind’s eye I picture the contrast between the image of a cork bobbing up and down on the surface of the water, at the mercy of the ebb and flow of the currents, and that of the buoy rising and falling with the action of the waves but firmly anchored in one place.

Am I a cork or a buoy? Do I feel like a cork or a buoy? Are these even different questions? As I explored last week in the Illusoriness of Reality, these are different questions to the extent that feelings are not always an accurate indication of what is real. Yet, feeling states are what we have ready, conscious access to, so I guess there are times when I feel more or less cork-like. Yet, feelings are no indication of spiritual maturity.

There is an important distinction between spiritual and emotional states. Optimism, or pessimism, happy or sad, these are emotional states. They are not accurate indicators of spiritual vitality, because each is a reflection of circumstances in the external world. Things go well and we feel happy and optimistic. Things are tough and we feel sad and pessimistic.

Spiritual discernment has traditionally made a distinction between consolation and desolation. These are spiritual states that contradict, rather than reflect feeling states tied to external perception. For instance, things appear to going well for us. We seem to have all we could desire, and in the midst of our optimism we feel hollow and empty. This is the spiritual state of desolation and it alerts us to the illusory mistake of identifying spiritual vitality with material or emotional happiness. Correspondingly, consolation galvanizes us during tough times. When we face up against the large uncertainties of life, the seeming impossibilities that loom large before us, we experience a certainty of purpose and direction anchored by a palpable – felt but not seen – trust in God.

Spiritual states have an objective quality, i.e. an expression of something in us that is greater than we are, whereas emotional states are highly subjective, i.e. resulting only from inside ourselves. Yet, it seems both spiritual and emotional states involve maturing.Returning to my metaphor of the cork and buoy, the key spiritual question is: am I a cork cast adrift and vulnerable to the unpredictability of tide and wind, or am I a buoy, firmly anchored to the ocean floor with a cord strong and elastic enough to ride the turbulent current and hold-fast into the prevailing wind?

2.Growing up

In exploring this question I note the second contrast that Paul –whether it is actually the historical Paul or a later disciple imbued with his spirituality makes in the Ephesians passage between spiritual immaturity, the state associated with being a child and maturity.

We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro …. [But] we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ …

Here’s a nice theological question: does the soul grow up, i.e. does it grow and mature with the passage of life? Theologically, the soul has been seen as immutable or unchanging. This is somewhat the position held by transpersonal psychologies such as Psychosynthesis, which see the soul as a higher center of supraconsciousness, independent from, but contributing to our emotional development. The soul may be unchanging, but spiritual maturity, rather like emotional maturity is constantly forming.

Different languages

The theologian James Fowler, while not the only one to do so, has developed a schematic of spiritual maturity across psycho-spiritual formational stages, which he links with those of increasing emotional development. This is not the place to go into an analysis of his six stages of spiritual formation so visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_W._Fowler to explore further.

Without access to a modern psychology of psycho-spiritual formation, Paul and those speaking Paul’s message to a later generation had two core measures for individual spiritual maturity.

The first is a measure of a healthy capacity to participate in community and to strengthen the sinews that link individuals into a whole, i.e. a maturity that supports unity. The second is a measure of participation in one’s individual call. Spiritual maturity manifests differently in each of us according our discernment and acceptance of our calling, our vocation.

If the first measure of spiritual maturity is the capacity to participate in something greater than one’s self, the second measure is of a capacity to contribute our difference, something very individual to one’s self, to the building up of the greater whole. Paul often uses the metaphor of the human body to speak of this; one body, yet different organs. Ephesians takes up this metaphor and presents a process for building up the body through the promise of spiritual maturity.

Ephesians speaks of spiritual maturity, of growing up, in the language of:

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.

Fowler’s sixth stage of formation offers us a modern language for the spiritual maturation Ephesians speaks of. Spiritual maturity, while exhibiting a number of different characteristics is the capacity to treat any person with compassion, accepting them as a part of the same universal community, according to the Christ-centered principles of love, tolerance, and inclusive justice.

One image I easily have for myself is that like a cork tossed about, I feel vulnerable, at times child-like and ill equipped in the face of shifting opinions and conflicting worldviews. In the face of this turbulence, my overriding anxiety is to please, to fit in, to be included by making myself acceptable. This is an image of being adrift in a sea of fearful feelings. It’s an image for spiritual immaturity.

An alternative image is that like a buoy I ride the turbulent surface of living in the world with courage knowing that I ride the surface tempest anchored by a cord that is strong and elastic enough to hold me fast to God’s promise for me to grow into the full stature of Christ. Here, I am not afraid to express my difference and to tolerate if not embrace other’s difference as we grow together. This is an image of spiritual maturity in action. This is Christ’s promise and God’s gift.

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 

Spiritual maturity is demonstrated in our ability to discern and take up our calling, and to realize that we do not do so not in isolation, but in the company of one another. Together we use our individual gifts to built the body, helping rather than hindering one another as together we mature into the full statue of Christ.

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  1. Mid-century modern was all the rage in mid-century America, but the style changed with the times. Only a certain group of people who love it strive to keep the spirit alive. My younger sister is quite fond of that era, so I gift her a subscription to the magazine “Atomic Ranch”. Within those pages, mid-century is hale and strong. I am more of a wood and older style person, so dividing up the “stuff” when selling the house that had belonged to my parents went very smoothly.

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