Spiritual Growth Through Trauma

Before I include my own insights into my own personal faith and spiritual growth journey, I feel I need to give some context and general information about the stages of faith:

“It is important to remember that such developmental “stages” or types are descriptive, not prescriptive.  In other words, they attempt to describe the way faith generally develops, but do not prescribe how faith must or should develop in any individual.  The descriptions do not suggest that one stage or kind of faith is better than another, only that how individuals or communities understand faith may differ from each other.

Stage One: Primal Faith
[Dominant in Infants from Birth to Age 3]

This stage in a young child’s faith formation sets the foundation for what will later develop as a conscious, intentional and personal faith. A very young child cannot be said to have any conscious faith at all, but he or she is unconsciously developing a basic attitude about reality — a perception about whether the world and the people in it are basically friendly or dangerous, pleasant or painful, trustworthy or capricious.
• This stage establishes a fundamental but pre-conscious disposition which will eventually enable the child to believe that there is a God who loves and cares for them.

•   •   •

Stage Two: Imaginative Faith
[Dominant in Children Ages 4 to 8]

At this stage faith has a magical or imaginary quality, marked by the child’s ability to believe almost anything.  It is essentially intuitive, non-rational and non-conceptual.  It is based on what the child feels rather than on what the child thinks or “knows.”  It is, in a sense, “borrowed” from adults whom the child trusts to be knowing and truthful.  This stage sets the foundation for the child’s eventual ability to believe in nonmaterial realities and sacred mysteries which cannot be seen or “proven.”  Imaginative faith is almost entirely non-critical or naive, in the sense that children for the most part lack the knowledge, experience and insight to evaluate or judge the content of faith against objective criteria.
• In this stage the child’s image of God depends primarily on what parents do and say.  If parents are loving, kind and forgiving, the child assumes that God, who is like a cosmic parent or grandparent, is also loving, kind and forgiving.

•   •   •

Stage Three: Literal Faith
[Dominant in Children Ages 6 to 12]

During this stage the child is gradually developing the ability to think for her or him self and beginning to ask questions about things which earlier they took for granted, including their parents’ faith.  At this stage, children develop an intense desire and need to know how things really are.  They are fascinated by stories, rituals and traditions which show real people living out their faith in concrete ways.  They depend on authority figures, rules and structure to assure them that reality is ordered and safe. Literal faith is the first step toward a less naive and more critical attitude toward faith, although the older child’s ability to subject the content of faith to critical standards is still limited.
• In this stage, the child is like to imagine God as something like a divine superhero who uses his power and authority to create order and justice by rewarding good and punishing evil.

•   •   •

Stage Four: Conventional Faith
[Dominant in Young Adults and Adults Age 13 and Older]

During this stage faith is shaped by the individual’s growing ability and desire to participate in the wider world beyond parents and family.  There is developing need to belong and be accepted by peers and friends who share the individual’s interests and values.  Faith is highly inter-personal, institutional, and communal; like the older child, it is rooted in the group and is shaped by the conventions, traditions, rules and habits of the group or faith community to which he or she belongs.  Conventional faith may incorporate critical and non-critical attitudes toward faith.  Young and early adults develop the ability to evaluate faith-claims by more objective standards, but may suppress critical questions out of fear, or for the sake of the security and acceptance provided by the group.
• In this stage the older child, young adults and many adults image God as an authority figure who holds the group — and the world — together by enforcing order — a kind of cosmic “Godfather” with whom one exchanges “favors,” who rewards loyalty and punishes disloyalty.  In this sense, God may be loving and merciful, but never at the expense of justice. 

•   •   •

Stage Five: Personal Faith
[Dominant in Adults Age 20 and Older]

This stage is sometimes characterized as a period of rebellion or withdrawal, a kind of spiritual adolescence.  In this stage individuals are rethinking the conventions and convictions of the group as they search for a personal faith, independent of the individuals and groups they relied upon as children and young adults.  This stage may be marked by a certain amount of ambivalence and confusion — both a desire to belong and a need to be independent. Personal faith represents the individual’s transition from a primarily pre-critical to a post-critical faith. It is a highly critical stage in which individuals evaluate faith-claims against personal experience, “common sense,” rational and scientific criteria.
• In this stage an individual’s relationship to God may be very personal and private, but nonetheless real and intense.  Some individuals in this stage express a desire to be “spiritual but not religious.”

•   •   •

Stage Six: Conjunctive or Mystical Faith
[Possible in Adults in Their 30s or Older; Rarely Before Middle Age]

In this stage an individual adult become more aware of the presence of the Divine Mystery in all of life.  This awareness produces a deep sense of sufficiency, wholeness and peace, which enables the individual to accept and believe what cannot be fully understood or explained.  Faith now includes a sense of solidarity and compassion, which allows the individual to reconnect with the faith community and to live comfortably with contradictions and shortcomings within the self and the faith community.  Mystical Faith is the first stage in a post-critical attitude about faith.  Adults in this stage reject the literalism of early stages not because it is untrue, but because it is not true enough; they have discovered that there are truths (or mysteries) embedded in reality which do not conflict with, and can not be judged by, entirely rational or scientific standards.
• In this stage an individual experiences God’s presence in the deepest levels of oneself, others and creation, transcending superficial differences.  The human analogy would be to the deep interpersonal connection which spouses sometimes feel. This awareness of God as the Holy Spirit leads to an abiding conviction that all will be well because God wills it.

•   •   •

Stage Seven: Universal Faith
[Rare in a Few Adults During or After Middle Age]

In this stage an individual’s faith is shaped by an intense awareness of the unity of all living things and the oneness of God’s creation.  A vision of the Kingdom of God breaking into everyday reality frees the individual to be both radically detached from self and passionately committed to living a life of self-sacrificing love marked by transcendent values like truth, justice and love and devoted to overcoming division, oppression and violence of every kind. Universal faith is the ultimate stage in the development of a post-critical attitude toward faith.  Adults in this stage realize that the truths embedded in faith are ultimately more important and helpful than those which emerge from rational or scientific inquiry.
• In this stage an individual’s image of God defies words or images. The individual’s life and faith center on an awareness of God’s transforming presence.  The rare individuals who reach this level live lives of totally self-less love, uncompromised by concerns for personal status, comfort or security.” (1)

•   •   •

The stages faith based on Hagberg and Guelich:

God’s grace and the stages of faith

As an example of the different way in which we experience God and God’s involvement in our lives, depending on our home stage of faith, I’ve taken just one of the categories I address in this chapter and pulled all the stage examples together here. The category is God’s grace or unconditional love, which is the same, no matter what, but which seems so different depending on what we are experiencing in our lives. I list one word first and then the description that is in each stage.

Stage One: Awe, Relief (Faith is…Recognizing God)

God’s love and acceptance comes through mostly in the miraculous experiences at this stage. We may experience relief from pain, release of guilt, a sense of being heard for the first time. We are awed by God’s love, and overwhelmed by the miracles of beauty, the mystery of new life, and gifts of time and goodness.

Stage Two: Forgiveness (Faith is…Learning about God)

Our experience of God’s love at this stage is being forgiven. We are freed from our initial load of guilt and depravity. We can now grow in our path, our program. It is just beginning for us, but we feel as if we’ve reached a summit already. We are grateful

Stage Three: Empowerment (Faith is…Working for God)

God’s love allows us to feel good about the gifts God has given us, allowing us to use those gifts for the good of others. This empowers our work. We extend that empowerment to others.

Stage Four: Faithfulness (Faith is…Re-discovering God)

God’s unconditional love for us slowly emerges as a dimension of this stage that we were not expecting. So often when we feel we are losing our faith or struggling, we think that those in authority will be displeased. If, at these times, we can take in God’s love, we find God’s grace and love are abundant. What a discovery. God’s grace also allows us to discover new elements in our relationship with God that we never knew were there.

The Wall: Transformation (The Place of Inner Choices)

Grace appears in unusual ways and when we least expect it. We may lose a job, for instance, and find out that this was the only way in which we could take the risk to change careers or to get into work that is more suited to us. God brings us through the depths to a place that is better, even if we don’t earn as much money or have as much power as we did before. Our hope at the Wall is that we will move forward one day at a time and receive enough of God’s love to carry on.

Stage Five: Acceptance (Faith is…surrendering to God)

Acceptance of self and others

Stage Six: Life as Grace (Faith is…reflecting God)

As Frederich Buechner says, “All moments are key moments and life itself is grace.”

•   •   •

The following is my analysis of my spiritual journey. It was in response to questions posed and assignments due in my Spiritual Development course at Phillips Seminary last September 2020.

Prior to May 2017, although unaware of what stages of faith I was in or going through, I existed in my faith journey as an adult for many years in stages 3 and 4 (sometimes between the two). Fowler writes, “In many ways religious institutions ‘work best’ if they are people with a majority of committed folk best described by Stage 3” (Fowler, 164) and at times I have leaned into my Catholic faith for all the answers. But I also had a keen interest in engaging with other cultures, exploring other faiths and interfaith dialogue. So, I could see outside of my own “fish bowl” and had some features of stage 4.

On 16th May 2017, my whole life changed, I almost died in a house fire that destroyed my home, my car, and all my belongings in addition to killing my 12-year-old beloved fur-girl kitty Livia. I literally had nothing except a pair of leggings and a t-shirt I had been sleeping in and a pair of singed garden shoes on my feet, I was suffering from smoke inhalation and severe anxiety, but was still grateful that I had home and car insurance and was put up in a motel and received aid from The Salvation Army, The Red Cross, my neighbors and my cousin Christina.

This experience of losing everything propelled me into the wall spiritually. I was living in survival mode. At no time did my belief system tell me that God would protect me from having trauma in my life, so I did not blame God. But I did enter a time of deep reflection. Once my insurance settled with me and spent time in counsel for a few weeks in Missouri with my cousin Theresa and her husband Russ (who are co-ministers of a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ and work as chaplains) who have years of experience with dealing with those that are dealing with loss and trauma, then lived with family in NW Arizona for 3 weeks before I moved into a very small place I bought on 1.5 acres. I should point out that my neighbor was responsible for the fire by leaving a fire unattended smoldering in his back yard for 2 days, so I wanted no neighbors near me and space around me. It wasn’t until I was living alone again and was alone with my thoughts, and pondering my faith, that post traumatic stress disorder set in and I spent almost 2 years with serious sleep issues and waking up in the middle of an anxiety attack 1-2 times every time I slept — I would awake feeling sheer terror and not knowing where I was. (I still experience these attacks and sleep disturbances at times and am still left with some insomnia issues, especially in times of great stress, it just no longer happens every time I sleep).

Most people — their religious beliefs do not change after a trauma. “The reviewed literature suggests that most people do not change their religious beliefs after a trauma, but significant changes occur for a smaller proportion of people—either increasing or decreasing their religious beliefs. These effects are greatest for people who develop PTSD.” (2)
I am part of the smaller proportion of people, my faith did change, not the core of my religious beliefs, but the stages of my faith.

I will say that at times in my journey the last few years, that I felt that living in an anchorhold like Julian of Norwich, or wandering the earth like Caine in Kung Fu sounded quite pleasing to me! (Actually neither of those paths would be easy, but it was more of a fantasy version in my own head).

I no longer am attached to things. The loss of everything has changed my perspective. Yes, I occasionally miss items that were sentimental from my childhood, photos that no longer exist, etc… But I have discovered, what you need is very different from what you think you need.

I identify with a quote of Quaker George Fox, “There is that of God in every man.” I have Quaker ancestors on both sides of my family tree and have found some precious nuggets from studying their faith.

Hagberg and Guelich describe Stage 4 as a journey inward and Stage 5 is a journey outward (from my inner life). Fowler calls Stage 5 Conjunctive Faith but I have seen it also called Mystical Faith, a term I much prefer. My awareness and faith, in several ways, now mirror many of the tenants of Stage 5 described in the next paragraph.

In the Mystical Faith stage the person is “aware of the presence of the Divine Mystery in all of life. This awareness produces a deep sense of sufficiency, wholeness, and peace, which enable the individual to accept and believe what cannot be fully understood or explained. Faith now includes a sense of solidarity and compassion, which allows the individual to reconnect with the faith community and to live comfortably with contradictions and shortcomings within the self and the faith community.” (1)

I do not know if I have completely moved into Stage 5 – Mystical Faith. But in the last 3+ years, I have gone through the wall and come out the other side.

“For the soul’s sense is love; by love it perceives whatever it perceives; alike when it is pleased and when it is offended. When the soul reaches out in love to anything, a certain change takes place in it by which it is transmuted into the object loved; it does not become of the same nature as that object, but by its affection it is conformed to what it loves.”

— William of Saint-Thierry

Update: Only in the last few months, now into 2021, have begun to have some good nights of sleep and sometimes am able to go to sleep at a time considered more normal. It’s a process, and it is precarious at best, but I remain hopeful.

Praise You in This Storm

This song is very fitting for my spiritual journey. Originally a song by Casting Crowns, this rendition by Natalie Grant speaks to me.

Lyrics:

Praise You in This Storm

I was sure by now
God, You would have reached down
And wiped our tears away
Stepped in and saved the day
But once again, I say, “Amen” and it’s still rainin’

Well, as the thunder rolls
I barely hear Your whisper through the rain
“I’m with you”
And as Your mercy falls
I’ll raise my hands and praise the God who gives
And takes away

And I’ll praise You in this storm
And I will lift my hands
For You are who You are
No matter where I am
And every tear I’ve cried
You hold in Your hand
You never left my side
And though my heart is torn
I will praise You in this storm

I remember when
I stumbled in the wind
You heard my cry to You
And raised me up again
But my strength is almost gone
How can I carry on
If I can’t find You?

But as the thunder rolls
I barely hear Your whisper through the rain
“I’m with you”
And as You mercy falls
I’ll raise my hands and praise the God who gives
And takes away

And I’ll praise You in this storm
And I will lift my hands
For You are who You are
No matter where I am
And every tear I’ve cried
You hold in Your hand
You never left my side
And though my heart is torn
I will praise You in this storm

I lift my eyes unto the hills
Where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord
The Maker of Heaven and Earth
I lift my eyes unto the hills
Where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord
The Maker of Heaven and Earth
(I lift my eyes unto the hills)
(Where does my help come from?)

And I’ll praise You in this storm
And I will lift my hands
For You are who You are
No matter where I am
Every tear I’ve cried
You hold in Your hand
You never left my side
And though my heart is torn
I will praise You in this storm
And though my heart is torn (Though my heart is torn)
I’ll praise You in this storm (Praise you in this storm)

Songwriters: Bernie Herms, John Mark Mark Hall

•   •   •

References:

Texts required and used for course:

Fowler, James W. 1995 (Revised edition). Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. San Francisco, CA: HarperOne.

Tenny-Brittian, William Rev. 2005. Prayer for People Who Can’t Sit Still. Nashville, TN: Chalice Press.

Tenny-Brittian, William Rev. 2006. High-Voltage Spirituality. Nashville, TN: Chalice Press.

Hagberg, Janet O. & Guelich, Robert A. 2004 (2nd edition). The Critical Journey: Stages in the life of faith. Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing Company.

Also:

Stages of Faith Descriptions – An Oasis of Beauty, Hope, and Healing (janethagberg.com)

Additional Resources Used:

  1. Stages in Faith Development – on Waterloo Catholics website (based on Fowler). Stages in Faith Development | Waterloo Catholic Faith Formation | Waterloo, IA (waterloocatholics.org)
  2. The Effect of Trauma on Religious Beliefs: A Structured Literature Review and Meta-Analysis by Darius Leo, Zahra Izadikhah, Erich C. Fein, Sayedhabibollah Ahmadi Forooshani. The Effect of Trauma on Religious Beliefs: A Structured Literature Review and Meta-Analysis – Darius Leo, Zahra Izadikhah, Erich C. Fein, Sayedhabibollah Ahmadi Forooshani, 2021 (sagepub.com)

If you use any information from my blog posts as a reference or source, please give credit and provide a link back to my work that you are referencing. Unless otherwise noted, my work is © Anna A. Kasper 2011-2022. All rights reserved. Thank you.

About Anna Kasper, ACDP

I am an avid Genealogist. I am currently a student at Phillips Theological Seminary (one of the few Catholics!). I am an ACDP - Associate of the Congregation of Divine Providence (Sisters of Divine Providence of Texas). If you are unfamiliar with what a Religious Associate (also called an Affiliate, Consociate, Oblate, Companion) is exactly, visit my about me page for more information. In community college, I majored in American Sign Language/Deaf Studies, and Interdisciplinary Studies when at university.
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