Elder Sophrony teaches that there are three stages in the spiritual life for anyone embarking on the spiritual journey. While he maintains that everyone’s path is unique and each individual’s path has particular details specific to each person, still these three basic stages occur for everyone, in some way or another, because they are true to the human experience, and they are characteristic of God’s plan for mankind.
God desires for man to use his free will to seek Him, and to love Him. But in man’s fallen state, as slaves to sin, man needs God’s help and strength to achieve this. God’s grace empowers man to accomplish God’s plan for man. Without this grace man will remain a slave to sin. So it is that the first stage of the spiritual path, as described by Elder Sophrony, involves the gift of grace showered upon man. Elder Sophrony likens this first stage to the miracle of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea (Remember, 44), it is the power of God enabling us to cross over from enslavement to sin into freedom of union with God.
This first spiritual stage isn’t just metaphorical, or simply symbolic, but has a reality in time and space for each believer. Elder Sophrony says that in most cases it occurs at the time of our baptism, whether as children or as adults, and that this stage lasts from a very short period of time, to as many as about seven years, depending upon the individual and God’s plan for them. It is marked by an abundance of God’s grace in our lives, and through increased gifts of spiritual ability. It is a time when we feel His presence without difficulty and when we experience His responses to our pleas, to our prayers, in more vivid and tangible ways. This first stage is a time of encouragement to help spur us on to live the spiritual life, and to make efforts to live according to His commands. During this first stage, the believer doesn’t yet meet with many obstructions or difficulties to his spiritual progress, or if he does meet with these, God’s presence and grace give the believer extra ability to overcome and find victory. In a sense, stage one is a time when we still have our training wheels on, and this helps us from falling.
But because of God’s desire that we love him freely, and of our own accord, this first stage eventually gives way to the second stage, in which He withdraws his abundance of grace from us in order that we learn to make spiritual progress, by degrees, more through our own efforts and less through His, although we never can do this entirely without His help. According to Elder Sophrony this second stage is typically of the longest duration, often making up the bulk of our lives. It is comprised of our spiritual struggles and battles against the passions, and it is especially intended by God as the time when we must learn first-hand true and deep humility, repentance, and additionally when we practice spiritual endurance and perseverance. The second stage is the believer’s time in the wilderness when he may call upon God and not experience His answer, when he may seek the Lord and yet fail to feel His presence. It is also a dangerous time when the believer can easily fall aside into despondency or even into rebellion to some degree. Here we may find ourselves in a metaphorical desert, a spiritual dry place, and apparently dead. The second stage is a difficult period, a time of testing in which we seemingly tread forward alone, without help. Even so God does not abandon us entirely, and this time also may be marked by moments of encouragement, divine appearances, and simple miracles to help us on our way. Here the training wheels have been taken off and we can fall, we likely will from time to time, but God wants it this way, that we learn to act in our own power, using the gifts He has given us, even when there seems to be no victory in sight. In this way we slowly make the spiritual life our own, we discover depths of humility through the suffering we experience, and we develop a life of repentance, turning towards God again and again and again.
Finally, eventually the believer experiences the third stage of the spiritual life. Elder Sophrony explains that for most people this stage is encountered near, or at the end of our earthly lives. Therefore, it is a relatively short period as compared especially with the second stage. In this stage the believer experiences a return to the abundant grace he experienced in the first stage, but this time he is a full participant in his this life of the spirit whereas before, he was merely enjoying the benefits of God’s abundant mercies and the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Now, because of his trials and his perseverance through those trials as he experienced them in the second stage, he has learned humility and repentance, and the other virtues, which allow him to act freely in obedience to the commands of the Lord. He now experiences the sweetness of life in union with God, and has aligned his human will with the great will of God.
Personally, I have a vivid experience and memory of the first stage, inclusive of my baptism and lasting for about three years or so following that. Currently, I am in the midst of the second stage. And I have hope for the arrival of the third stage someday in my future. Actually, I am very grateful to Elder Sophrony for having articulated these stages, thereby helping me to understand the process, so as not to lose heart during the current time of struggle and of testing.
Baptism is an outpouring of abundant grace. I remember a tangible and overwhelming experience of the Holy Spirit during my Chrismation. Following this, my prayer life was vibrantly alive, I felt God very close to me, and out of my daily prayers I seemed to be given spiritual insights about many mysteries, and many subtle aspects of spirituality, which I wrote about in poems and in verse. For several years I was a prolific writer, sometimes writing two or three poems in a day, and it felt as if they were just given to me, that I was merely taking dictation, hardly making any revisions. I could write a fairly complex poem in ten or fifteen minutes without any changes to it. And through all of these early years I was certain that the Holy Spirit walked beside me, or lived through me, it was just a simple but tangible experience I had, which amounted to a certainty of His presence within me. During this time God did actually sometimes still abandon me for short periods of time, perhaps a day or several days, but even as this occurred I still had a strong impulse to pray and seek Him, that He still empowered me by His grace to seek Him with determination and zeal. So that even though I experienced abandonment during this first stage, it was of a different character and degree than I do now, in the midst of the second stage; I look back on those times as ‘mini-abandonments’, or ‘practice abandonments’, whereas now they appear to me to be of much longer duration and of greater depth and difficulty. And now as I live through the second stage, I don’t have as ready and easy access to the zeal and inner desire to seek God that I previously had by His grace; so that now when I can’t find him, I oftentimes stop looking for Him.
In fact, sometimes I prefer many other things to Him. I get tired of trying to search for Him and of remaining steadfast on the spiritual path. Instead, I enjoy the pleasures of the moment, the visceral and physical pleasures of a hedonistic lifestyle. Part of me feels ashamed of this, and I think how far I’ve fallen. I remember falling in the past, and how it stimulated me to get back up and try harder. That is a characteristic of the first stage I think. For me, a characteristic of the second stage is that when I have fallen, I lose interest and walk away.
I think, for many Christians who have no understanding or expectation of the arrival of this second stage they could be blindsided by it, and the subsequent confusion over their sudden lack of ‘grace’, could lead many to abandon their faith altogether, or if not that, it could at least lead them into feelings of despair or despondency over their sudden loss of God’s presence. Similarly, if they then have no expectation of finding their way to the third stage, with its renewed abundance of grace, they could lose hope altogether and also fall away from the spiritual life entirely; erroneously thinking there is ‘nothing’ to it, that life with God is a mirage, and possibly even doubting their initial experiences of God’s presence which they had felt during the period of their first stage.
Knowledge of Elder Sophrony’s three stages of the spiritual life can assist us in maintaining perspective during the inevitable dry spells in our spiritual life, and can help us persevere through these challenges and trials as we journey into deeper relationship with God. Likewise, an understanding of these stages can provide the foundation we need for counseling other believers when they encounter the difficulties inherent in the second stage, and for offering encouragement to them that there is a third stage on their horizon.