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Spiritual Growth Through Prayer of the Heart

Lighting the Spiritual Fire

"If you gaze upon yourself attentive that will adequately lead you to knowledge of God."

–– St. Basil the Great

All the great world religions direct us to contemplative paths to develop the spirit. Ken Wilbur’s detailed examination of “integral psychology” relates meditative disciplines in spirituality and psychology from cultures both ancient and modern, both Eastern and Western, as roads for transformation. He found that all people who openly travelled contemplative paths demonstrated parallels in spiritual experiences. The similarity among saints and those pursuing spirituality confirms the immeasurable applicability of the saints’ experiences. Thus, the lives of saints, historically remote as they may seem, apply to our contemporary experiences.

While I studied the spiritual and psychological growth in spiritual literature, I examined the individual processes of several saints and found that although they described their own experiences with God, in their own terms, the following five distinct stages of spiritual growth emerged among them with consistency:

1. Image –– Personhood or Potentiality

2. Conversion –– Metanoia

3. Purification –– Transformation

4. Illumination –– Light

5. UnionTheosis

1. Image, Personhood, or Potentiality refers to the natural state in which we accept and cherish the qualities of the True Self (our unique human gifts of spontaneity, reasoning, creativity, free will, discernment, spirituality, and love). Thus, at birth, we begin having the potential to develop these innate qualities—our unique qualities of personhood—that form our True Self.

2. Conversion or metanoia refers to making a commitment to God or our spiritual vision over the multiplicity of competing attractions. Conversion is commitment to claim our compass. We recognize the commitment through our relationships to self, others, and God. Our commitment determines our destination.

3. Purification or transformation refers to spiritual exercises to loosen attachment to things and distractions from our goal, recognizing that living consistently with our principles and beliefs leads to the sustaining resource for a meaningful life.

4. Illumination or Light refers to an outcome of enlightenment through faith. It seems to resonate with what quantum physicists reference as high frequency people. Those who are illumined reflect a transforming fequency or light that is both spiritual and physical: they are lightening rods. St. Gregory of Nazianzus explains that alone we are like iron, cold and hard, but when brought before the fire of God’s light the iron glows, we are illuminated. Likewise, when we are illumined in Light, we are enlightened body, mind, and soul.

5. Union or theosis refers to a state of communion, participation, and intermingling with God. St. Gregory of Nyssa, another fourth century saint, explained that in our higher spiritual growth we progress not to theosis, deification and union with God not as an end-state but as a continuous process of growing “from glory to glory.” Engagement with God is not static, but, as St. Gregory of Nyssa describes, a continuously dynamic process of development.

Saints find fulfillment when they are sanctified—by life lived in their True Self and in connection with self, other, and God. Thus, the means are available for anone to become a saint through pursuing spiritual development. This requires looking within, as described in all the great spiritual traditions of world religions. The lessons these saints (and Holy people from other traditions) teach us are cross-cultural and universally applicable.

Through a theology of silence, contemplation, we communicate with God in prayer and meditation, clarifying our identity –– the True Self. Saint Isaac the Syrian suggests:

"Enter early into this treasure-house that lies within you, and so you will see the treasure-house of heaven, for the two are the same, and there is but one single entry to them both. This ladder that leads you to the Kingdom is hidden within you, and is found in your soul. Dive into yourself, and in your soul you will discover the rungs by which to ascend."

Authentic spiritual progression begins from within, attunement to both our own psychological processes and our spiritual objectives. This is to say, while the Spirit works within each of us uniquely, the effect of the Spirit unites us and fills us in a greater union--communion: this reflects both unity and diversity, a recognition of a universal truth acquired through individual processes and expression.

John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D. is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of True Coming of Age: A Dynamic Process That Leads to Emotional Stability, Spiritual Growth, and Meaningful Relationships. For more information please visit, and

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