Ronald Rolheiser has done a great job translating the wisdom of the Christian mystical tradition to a modern and non-monastic setting. He divides the spiritual journey into three stages, corresponding to the three great struggles in our lives. His book The Holy Longing details the first stage, while Sacred Fire focuses on the second (an upcoming book, possibly titled Insane for the Light, will detail the final stage). Here is his summary of the three stages of discipleship from Sacred Fire.

Essential Discipleship: The Struggle To Get Our Lives Together

Our first real struggle in life is the struggle to get our lives together. From our first breath onward we begin to struggle to find our own identity and to find fulfillment and peace there. But this struggle takes on its real poignancy only at puberty. Prior to puberty, unless our lives have been unnaturally traumatized or we have suffered serious neglect, our lives are essentially together. We are born in a hospital and soon taken home to a place where we have parents, elders, a family of some kind that is our own, and a place that is ours. This period of our lives, childhood, is intended by God and by nature to be a secure time. We are home, secure, safe! Our huge anthropological and spiritual struggles have not yet begun. But that will change, and change dramatically, at puberty.

Simply put, puberty is designed by God and nature to drive us out of our homes. And puberty generally does its job, sometimes too well! It hits us with a tumult and violence that overthrows our childhood and sends us out, restless, sexually driven, full of grandiose dreams, but confused and insecure, in search of a new home, one that we build for ourselves. And this is a time of much longing and searching: searching for an identity, searching for acceptance, searching for a circle of friends, searching for intimacy, searching for someone to marry, searching for a vocation, searching for a career, searching for the right place to live, searching for financial security, and searching for something to give us substance and meaning—in a word, searching for a home. Expressions of this longing and search are what make up the meat of popular music, literature, and movies. Invariably, the motifs and refrains that abound there will revolve around questions like: Who am I? Where do I find meaning? Who will love me? How do I find love in a world full of infidelity and false promises? Countless expressions of longing, of heartache, of searching; but, in the end, one focus: a burning desire for a home we once had, somehow lost, and are looking for again.

The struggle from being restlessly driven out of our first home to finding a state and a place to call home again is the journey of Essential Discipleship.

And normally we do find our way home again. It might take ten, fifteen, twenty, or more years, but, at a certain point, we land. We find ourselves “at home” again, namely, with a place to live that is our own, a job, a career, a spouse, a vocation, perhaps children, a mortgage, a series of responsibilities, and a certain status and identity. At that point, the fundamental struggle in our life changes, even though it may take years for us to consciously realize and accept this. Our question then is no longer: How do I get my life together? Rather, it becomes: How do I give my life away more deeply, more generously, and more meaningfully? At that stage, we enter the second phase of discipleship.

Mature Discipleship: The Struggle to Give Our Lives Away

Most people reach this second stage sometime during their twenties or thirties, though some of us might be in our forties, fifties, or even sixties before we cross the threshold between struggling to get our lives together as opposed to struggling to give our lives away. Moreover, for all of us, the crossover is never pure and complete. The struggle for self-identity and private fulfillment never completely goes away; we are always somewhat haunted by the restlessness of our youth and our own idiosyncratic needs, but the essential default line shifts. At a certain point, we are more fundamentally concerned with life beyond us than with ourselves.

Mature Discipleship begins, whether we are explicitly conscious of this or not, when we begin living more for others than for ourselves. For most of us this will constitute the longest period of our lives, the adult years. Imagine, for instance, someone, at age thirty, having established a career, gotten married or made a commitment to a religious or humanitarian vocation, perhaps having children, having acquired a house, and having taken on a whole series of family, community, and religious responsibilities. For him, whatever the burden, the next forty to fifty years will be fairly clear; that is, the duties and responsibilities he has taken on will pretty much dictate his life. His anthropological and spiritual task will be clear: How do I give my life away more purely and more generously? Living out that struggle is what constitutes Mature Discipleship.

But this stage of raising and teaching children, running our communities and churches, and being generous adults still is not the final stage of our lives. We still have to die, and that is not a minor anthropological or spiritual task. It is the most daunting task of all. And none of us is exempt. Thus, our default line must shift yet one more time, and radically so. Henri Nouwen suggests that at a certain point of our lives, the real question is no longer: What can I still do so that my life makes a contribution? Rather, the question becomes: How can I now live so that my death will be an optimal blessing for my family, my church, and the world? We must leave home a second time, and this time we face a much larger unknown.

Radical Discipleship: The Struggle to Give Our Deaths Away

Like Jesus, we too are meant to give our lives away in generosity and selflessness, but we are also meant to give our deaths away, not just at the moment of our deaths, but in a whole process of leaving this planet in such a way that our diminishment and death is our final, and perhaps greatest, gift to the world. Needless to say, this is not easy. Walking in discipleship behind the master will require that we too sweat blood and feel “a stone’s throw” from everybody. This struggle, to give our deaths away, constitutes Radical Discipleship.

The English word passion takes its root in the Latin passio, meaning “passivity,” and the passion narratives describe for us is Jesus’ passivity. He gives his death to us through his passivity, just as he had previously given his life to us through his activity. Up until his arrest, the Gospels describe Jesus as active, as doing things, in charge, preaching, teaching, performing miracles, consoling people. Then, after his arrest, all the verbs become passive: he is led away, manhandled by the authorities, whipped, helped in carrying his cross, and ultimately nailed to the cross. After his arrest, like a patient in palliative care, he no longer does anything; others do it for him and to him. He is passive, a patient. This then becomes the paradigm for how we are meant to give our own deaths away.

Palliative care awaits us all, and palliative care is a one-way ticket. We can enter it on our own, on purpose, or we can wait to be eventually taken there against our will. Either way, we will now stand before the same choice that Jesus had to make in the Garden of Gethsemane: How am I going to give my death over? In freedom or in clinging? In graciousness or in bitterness? In anger or in forgiveness? The particular spirit that our death leaves behind, our final gift to the ones left behind, will be determined on how and what we choose in our dying.

It was Jesus’ attitude in accepting the death that was imposed on him that made his death redemptive. The same can be true for us. How we accept our death is important. We can even voluntarily enter into a metaphorical palliative journey late in life – what John of the Cross calls the dark night of the spirit. Perhaps this means giving up our house and car and moving into an assisted-living center. Whatever we choose must displace us from our normal securities in a radical way. It needs to be a journey into palliative care, not just a trimming down, no matter how radical, of our lifestyle.

Entering into this dark night intentionally will be hard to do in our culture because we have little vision of what life might mean beyond generativity [productivity]. We are left too much alone when trying to discern what we might do in our final years so as to give our deaths away more deliberately, without a community vision and without real menors. The result is that many seniors feel a vague nagging inside of them, gently pushing them beyond the golf course and the bridge table to something deeper, but they are unable to respond to that voice because they have no idea of where to go with it. So they keep doing what they are doing and hang on to generativity as long as they can. We go through years of training to prepare us for our careers, but we have no schools to prepare us for our post-career lives.