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Seasons of the Soul: Stages of Spiritual Development by Bruce Demarest [Book Note]

Fascinating. It is. Seasons of the Soul is another book out there that links us to the old writings in history about the soul, movements of the Spirit, and paying attention to God. The exception is that the author uses a modern perception of soul seasons borrowed from Walter Bruggemann: Orientation, Disorientation, and Reorientation. 

This three fold path makes sense. It’s also similar to the classic (Awakening) Illumination, Purgation, and Union. It makes sense because it’s something we can start to see in hindsight in our own lives – even if we haven’t crossed major bridges of disorientation, for example. We can look back and see small seasons of sensing orientation, disorientation, and reorientation to God and the ways of God revealed in Jesus. That said, Demarest’s book is more about the major seasons and transitions as God renovates our souls back toward the original intent he’s had for us. That image of restoration is really Christ within us as we’re shaped to walk as he walked.

Here’s a quick run down of the seasons:

Orientation. As you can imagine, this is the starting line. Demarest’s perspective slants more toward the experience of someone who comes to faith later in life or experiences a re-kindling of a dormant faith.

Orientation is a season of excitement and joy where nearly everything in the Christian spiritual experience is exciting and fueling for the soul. There’s often a large passion to know anything and everything you can know about God. Books and classes and retreats are devoured. There’s an awakening struggle against destructive habits and thoughts (touching on the classic purgation stage).

However, being similar to St. John of the Cross in the early pages of The Dark Night of the Soul, the season of orientation can be entrenched in the desire for the desires of God and, using our modern world as an example, can become quite consumeristic. There might be an impulse to try to purchase the next sensation of God through a book, experience, or some other product. Here, there might be a confusion between the person of God and the experience of God. From there, we enter the next stage.

Disorientation. Disorientation is a painful separation of those old feelings of being able to sense God’s presence. Maybe it feels like the newness of the spiritual / religious experience has worn off or maybe we’re entering a new phase in life and feel a sense of isolation and darkness. Whatever is going on, there’s an awareness that things are not as they once were in the Christian walk and not as they should be. Hope feels potentially challenged, joy at times seems like a distant companion. St. John of the Cross titled this stage the Dark Night of the Soul.

Demarast encourages us, like the Scriptures do, that God is with us even when we don’t sense it. This season, echoing St. John of the Cross, is meant for our shaping and spiritual maturity – to learn to be with God with and without the sensations or consumer-driven intents.

Disorientation is sometimes accompanied by suffering. Disorientation might cause suffering or suffering might cause disorientation. Disorientation might also resemble depression, but it is different. A person can experience a sense of disorientation and confusion in their spiritual life yet still be experiencing a healthy mental disposition.

The point of this season is to intentionally drive the soul toward union and absolute reliance upon God. It’s a season of letting go, a season of dying to self, a season of repentance and reliance.

A question to insert here is how in the world we’re brought from this valley to the place of restoration. It’s hard not to try to slip into some kind of purchase agreement here (leaning back on an orientation stage trait) and think that if I only did this or that, then God would heal me. Again, this stage needs to be seen in the light of good. It’s a pruning (John 15) and exercise of the soul to be present to God as he is present at all times to us – beyond our control or sensation of it.

In this valley, God shapes us through having a community of believers who are there for encouragement and shaping. The encouragement we receive is not that we’ll get out of this slump soon but that God is forming something new from this experience. Persistence in prayer and Scripture is a nourishment through this winter. Serving others here becomes central as the soul learns to look beyond itself and toward God and neighbor.

Reorientation. It’s almost like a snap of the finger or a hindsight realization. All of a sudden, you realize that you’re no longer in the old valley but emerging into a new way of life. Union with God is more naturally realized and the awareness of it comes with and without the sensations we enjoyed in the first stage. We also start to see that the awareness of the promises of God and living out those promises feels more natural in our life rhythms. Decisions made are becoming more altruistic, perhaps, and you’re seeing an ability to pay attention to God and others more than your own inner drives. You’re becoming aware that this is what God has desired for you and for all creation all along.

Demarest’s book is a fairly quick read. I think a book like this serves us well. Having an awareness of spiritual seasons is permission giving and especially alleviates anxieties associated with the movement from orientation to disorientation. Knowing that the spiritual walk is not about those high moments but about being shaped into Christlikeness brings fresh air to the current state and an awareness that things are not yet as God intends them to be. We shall wait on the Lord.