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The Learning Process in Spiritual Direction
Dr Alex Tang

INTRODUCTION
The New Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality defined spiritual direction as “an ascetical practice in which one person serves as a guide, conversation partner, and co-discerner with another who seeks to explore, reflect on, and grow in his/her spiritual life” (Sheldrake 2005, 243). There are two main dynamic components in spiritual direction; the process of learning and the process of spiritual growth. Spiritual directors must be mindful of these dynamic components if they are to help their directees. Why do spiritual directors need to know about learning processes? Can modern learning theory help them to understand, inform and transform spiritual growth? These questions can be answered in many ways. Some may hold to the conviction that spiritual growth has nothing to do with learning theory. Their contention is that the Holy Spirit as our teacher is more than enough for our spiritual development. Others view ‘secular’ learning theory with suspicion. This is the legacy of a dualistic neo-platonic view of spirituality that the Church has inherited. Yet there are others who will welcome the input of learning theories, educational and developmental psychology to help them be better spiritual directors. The first aim of this paper is to show that modern learning theory can help us to be better spiritual directors, and secondly, that modern learning theory does help us to understand, inform and transform spiritual growth. There are many ways to describe spiritual growth. In this paper, we shall limit the discussion of spiritual growth to the Three Ways or Stages (purgative, illuminative, unitive). The reason is that the Three Ways is the most commonly accepted description of spiritual growth for a greater part of Church history and also the foundations on which other descriptions of spiritual growth are based upon. In modern learning theories, we shall examine the works of Chris Argyris and Donald Schön. Working alone and in collaboration, their studies in learning such as single and double-loop learning, espoused and theory-in-action, the reflective practitioner and frame reflection gave important insights on how we learn. We shall examine how these learning theories help us to better understand the ways of purgative, illuminative and unitive. It is hoped that in understanding the learning processes in each of these stages, we shall be able to develop some curriculum of andragogy that helps in our ministry of spiritual direction.

SPIRITUAL DEVELOPMENT AND THE THREE WAYS
Spiritual growth and development are essential part of the Christian life. John Calvin regarded justification by faith as the start of the spiritual life which should be followed by the process of sanctification (Alexander 1988; McNeil MCMLX). Spiritual life is often likened as a journey (McGrath 1999). Conversion is the starting point. The end of the journey are described as when the traveller becomes mature in Christ (Ep 4:13), be like Christ (Ga 4:19; Ro 8:29; 2 Co 3:18), achieve union with God (2 Pt 1:4; 1 Jn 3:2) or theosis (divinisation). Throughout the 2,000 years of Christian history, many people had tried to describe this spiritual journey. The Desert Fathers and Mothers, the early Church Fathers and Doctors of the Church all described it as the Three Ways: purgative, illuminative and purgative. Later teachers describe this journey by using metaphors of stages, ladders, scales, rooms in a mansions, and mountain climbing . In the 19th and 20th Century, it is described in terms of psychology, psychotherapy and developmental sciences . The reason that the spiritual journey is described in so many ways is because it is difficult concept to put into words. Various theologians and spiritual writers had tried to describe it in the context of their time, level of knowledge and culture. However there are certain common features in all these descriptions of the spiritual journey:
1. They start at conversion. Conversion is when there is repentance and acceptance of Jesus as Lord and saviour. It may be an instantaneous epiphany or a gradual process.
2. The journey is a choice. One can choose to grow or remain stagnant. Growth occurs when we choose to obey God.
3. The ways forward is often accompanied by setbacks. It is possible to slip backward or remain stagnant.
4. The journey may not be completed at the time of death.
5. The Holy Spirit is the transformative agent and the means of grace for progress are given by God.

The spiritual life is a life of growth or development of the spiritual life of the Christian convert. It is a learning process which results in one being informed, conformed and transformed.


THE THREE WAYS
The three ways was the description of the spiritual journey that was widely accepted and helped the Church for more than a thousand years. Origen was the first to set forth a three stage developmental model. However he spoke of them as the moral (based on Proverbs), natural (based on Ecclesiastes) and contemplative (allegorical Songs of Solomon) stages (Holt 1993, 36). Later under the influence of neo-Platonism, Pseudo-Dionysius was the one who formalised the stages into the stages (or ways) of purgative, illuminative and unitive (Dionysus 1987). Conversion is the important starting point before moving into the first stage.

The first stage of purgation is associated with deepening knowledge of self and of God. It is in this stage that one becomes aware of one’s sinfulness; one’s helpless to redeem oneself and the need for God’s intervention in one’s life. With these internal processes, one develops moral integration, maturing faith and trust in the faithfulness of God. This stage is often associated with struggles with temptations, trials and sometimes spiritual darkness. However if one persists in trusting God and developing faith in Him, then one will move on to the next stage.

The second stage is the stage of illumination. In this stage, one becomes more aware of the presence of God in one’s life. There is greater clarity and zeal for the Kingdom of God. Joy and peace is often associated with this stage. Initially there may be more struggles but these decreases with understanding and more yielding to the Lord. “Let go and let God” becomes one’s philosophy of life. There is more reflection on life in the light of Biblical and church tradition and more seeking to apply what one knows into one’s lifestyle. The attractions of worldly pleasure became less attractive.

The third stage is the stage of union with God. Most of the writers state that not every Christian will experience this stage. In this stage, surprisingly one first experiences the darkness of God. Here Saint John of the Cross’ description of the dark night of the senses and dark night of the soul is most helpful in understanding this stage (May 2004). Only when one move through the dark night of the soul does true union with God occurs (Groseschel 1983). Others, however, consider that no one in this stage moves out of the dark night of the soul until death (Green 1991, 1998). Saint Teresa of Avila regarded it as a momentary glimpse of heaven (Teresa 1964) while Thomas Merton considered it as infused contemplation (Merton 1961).

In this brief survey of the stages of purgation, illumination and union, we can note that there are both cognitive and experiential elements in all the stages of spiritual growth. It is in the cognitive aspect of the process that we, as spiritual directors can help.


ACTION SCIENCE, THE REFLECTIVE PRACTITIONER AND FRAME REFLECTION
These are learning theories developed by Chris Argyris and Donald Schön. Argyris’ main research interest was:
(1) The impact of organization structures, control systems and management on individuals.
(2) Organizational changes involving top executives.
(3) role of social scientist as both researcher and actor which was also called action science (What is action science? 2005),
(4) individual and organizational learning - single and double-loop learning; espoused theory and theory-in action (M.K.Smith 2001).
He did most of his research in Yale and Harvard. It is in the last two areas of research that he collaborated with Schön. Schön was the first to postulate that change is constant and society need to become a learning society to keep up. His other area of research, aside from developing the double-loop learning with Argyris, is about the reflective practitioner especially in reflection-in and reflection–on-action and later in collaboration with Martin Rein, on frame reflection (M.K.Smith 2005). All these are learning theories.

1. Espoused and Theory-in-action
From the results of the collaborative research of Argyris and Schön, they postulated that human beings are idealistic and have a sense of right and wrong. They have a preconceived idea of the goodness they are capable of and this is what they termed the espoused theory. Unknown to them, there is a ‘master program’ which everyone was born with which seeks to:
(1) Remain in unilateral control of any situation
(2) maximise “winning” and minimize “losing”.
(3) Suppress negative feelings.
(4) Be rational in their thinking (Argyris 2004).
The ‘master program’ takes over whenever the person wants to do anything and will take defensive action when the status quo is disturbed. Argyris and Schön called this theory-in-action. Argyris described theory-in-action behavior as Model 1 thinking.

He wants to move people from Model 1 thinking to Model 2 thinking. Model 2 characteristics include:
(1) Reviewing valid information,
(2) Making free and informed choices,
(3) Developing internal commitment to this way of thinking (Argyris 2004; M.K.Smith 2001).
The way to develop Model 2 thinking is by double-loop thinking. This theory explains why people claim one belief structure but often acts contrary to their belief structure. It can also be applied to spiritual formation. Moving from Model 1 to Model 2 thinking may be considered metanoia.

2. Single and Double-Loop Thinking
Argyris has a favourite illustration for single loop thinking. He noted, “Single-loop learning asks a one-dimensional question to elicit a one-dimensional answer. My favorite example is a thermostat, which measures ambient temperature against a standard setting and turns the heat source on and off accordingly. The whole transaction is binary.” (Argyris 1994)

However for double-loop thinking, he wrote,
“Double-loop learning takes an additional step or, more often than not, several additional steps. It turns the question back on the questioner. It asks what the media call follow-ups. In the case of the thermostat, for instance, double-loop learning would wonder whether the current setting was actually the most effective temperature at which to keep the room and, if so, whether the present heat source was the most effective means of achieving it. A double-loop process might also ask why the current setting was chosen in the first place. In other words, double-loop learning asks questions not only about objective facts but also about the reasons and motives behind these facts."(p.64-65). This double-looping thinking is reflective thinking.


3. The Reflective Practitioner
Schön continued from there and developed his theories of the reflective practitioner. He was interested in reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action. His main target study groups are professionals especially managers because he was interested to learn about “thinking on their feet”(M.K.Smith 2005). This has led to the concept of “framing” which is building a correct perspective with available data. Frame reflection occurs when one re-examine available data and forms new perspective or “reframes” in which subsequent changes to thinking or decision making will be made.

UNDERSTANDING THE THREE WAYS BY WAY OF LEARNING THEORIES.
The Three Ways are descriptive stages or ways of the development of the spiritual life. An individual moves through the ways by the grace of the Holy Spirit and the cooperation of the individual concerned. Therefore we can study these Ways in the way an individual learns. Learning is both cognitive and affective. The purgative way is where single and double-loop learning; the espoused theory and theory in action are relevant. The reflective practitioner is the way of illumination. And frame reflection is important in the unitive way.

1. The Purgative Way and Espoused Theory and Theory in Action
The purgative way starts after conversion. Arthur Devine writes, “The purgative way is the way, or state, of those who are beginners, that is, those who have obtained justification, but have not their passions and evil inclinations in such a state of subjugation that they can easily overcome temptations, and who, in order to preserve and exercise charity and the other virtues have to keep up a continual warfare within themselves. It is so called because the chief concern of the soul in this state is to resist and to overcome the passions by nourishing, strengthening, and cherishing the virtue of charity” (Devine 2003).


Paul described these as the struggle between the two natures (Old man and new creation) in the Biblical book of Romans 7:14-25. There were some controversies as to whether Paul was describing a person before conversion (unregenerate) or after (regenerate). Douglas Moo has given both sides of the controversy based on his expert word-exegesis, grammatical and logical hermeneutic study of Ro 7:14-25 (Moo 1996) . However looking at the flow of argument of Romans; in chapters 6-8, Paul was writing about sanctification (righteousness imparted). Chapter 6 deals with being freed from sin’s tyranny. Paul then wrote of freedom from the law’s condemnation (chapter 7) before concluding in chapter 8 about life in the power of the Holy Spirit. Sanctification implied a regenerate person. In the earlier chapters, Paul has dealt with justification through Christ. Hence Ro 7: 14-25 refers to a regenerate man. Paul detailed in these verses ‘his post-conversion perception of what had previously occurred, or more likely, is a description of the struggle he continued to experience as a Christian between his old and new natures’ (Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard 1993)

Calvin notes, “I do not so strictly demand evangelical perfection that I would not acknowledge as a Christian one who has not attained yet attain it. For thus all would be excluded from the church, since no one is found who is not far removed from it, while many have advanced a little toward it whom it would nevertheless be unjust to cast away”(McNeil MCMLX). This emphasis on the unregenerate and regenerate man or nature is similar to espoused theory and theory-in-action. The espoused theory is the perfection in spiritual life that the new convert wants. Often it forms the ideal for the spiritual life.
A good example of the components of an espoused theory is the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5,6,7). During the sermon Jesus explained what a Christian life should be. There are teachers who teach that this perfection has already been achieved. But in reality, the new convert finds that his theory-in-action does not reflect his espoused theory. In the gospel narratives, Peter was a good example of how his theory-in-action did not fit his espoused theory. Peter was so sure that he would not deny Jesus even if all the other disciples would. His espoused theory of himself is that he will be faithful to the end. Unfortunately, when Jesus was caught, Peter in self-preservation did deny Jesus. Only then was Peter aware of how strong is his theory-in-action and Model 1 thinking. (Mt 26: 31-35, 69-75). All new converts exhibit Model 1 thinking. It is during the way of purgative that one develops Model 2 thinking. This is done through prayers, study of the Word, fellowship, worship, practicing the spiritual disciplines and making choices for God. However it must be recognised that these spiritual disciplines can be single-loop learning. For example, in some churches, a new convert are taught to give 10% of their income as tithe. If the new convert accepts this and follow it religiously, single-loop learning is said to have taken place. If the new convert begin to question the 10%.; Why 10%? Where in the Bible does it teach that Christians have to give 10%? Why not more? Then double-looped learning would have said to have taken place. Acts 17:11 described the Bereans as an example of a community that practises double-loop thinking. It is through these learning processes that a new convert learns to develop new habits of thinking, both cognitively and affectively.

Another way to look at this is what modern spiritual writers called the true and false self (Mulholland Jr 2006; Pennington 2000; Shannon, Boshen, and O'Connell 2002). Mulholland describes the false self as fearful, protective of itself, possessive, manipulative, destructive, self-promoting, indulgent and a distinction making self (2006, 29-42). It is exactly how Argyris described theory-in-action. The false self is theory-in-action while the true self is espoused theory. It is through spiritual learning of prayer, Bible study, meditation, reflection, solitude, fellowship, worship and the work of the Holy Spirit that one moves from the false self to become our true self.

It can be argued that the action science theory are developed in an organisational setting and are mainly concerned with interpersonal relationships and hence has no relevance in studying spiritual growth. However it must be noted that all spiritual growth develops in a community (organisation) and is about relationships. These are relationships between man and God, and man and man (Buber 1970). Hence it is applicable to the study of the spiritual life.

In spiritual direction, the first task of is to discover who we are. It is only when we know who we are then we shall discover who God is. This is the principle of double knowledge (McNeil MCMLX). In discovering who they really are, spiritual directors are to help their directees learn about their two natures (false/true self; espoused theory/theory-in-action). As an individual discover her false self or theory-in-action, she will begin to understand why she behaves the way she does. It is this period of self-discovery that is the beginning of growth in the purgative way. A spiritual director helps by explaining the existence of the false self/theory-in-action and then directing his directee to different ways of moving from Method 1 to Method 2 thinking. It is also useful for the directee to understand single and double-loop thinking. The directee is then encouraged to use double-loop thinking in discovering herself. This may involve looking back in her life and discovering significant moments that molded her. It may involve reviving painful and traumatic memories that determine how she acts now. With a better understanding of herself, a directee can now be guided by the spiritual director through prayers, the practicing of spiritual disciplines, forgiveness (given or received), inner healing or meditation to become her true self. The process is not easy. It often is uncomfortable. The purgative way means purging away our delusions and false self so that our true self can emerge. Argyris’ learning theory is a way of learning that spiritual directors can use to help their directees in the beginning of their spiritual journey.

2. The Illuminative Way and the Reflective Practitioner
The next stage is the way of illuminative way. Enough learning has been done that the new convert is now utilizing Model 2 thinking. In the illuminative stage or way, “The fundamental virtue of this state is recollection, that is, a constant attention of the mind and of the affections of the heart to thoughts and sentiments which elevate the soul to God -- exterior recollection which consists in the love of silence and retirement, interior recollection in simplicity of spirit and a right intention, as well as attention to God in all our actions” (Devine 2003). This stage is often referred to as the stage of contemplation and meditation.

Growth in this stage is by reflection on our spiritual journey and in deepening our relationship with God. Its experiential element is zeal for the presence of God. Saint Ignatius of Loyola taught about the examen of consciousness; reflecting on our daily life at the end of each day and examining how we behave and look for the presence of God (Ignatius 1964).

This is similar to what Schön described as the reflective practitioner. His emphasis was on how professionals “think on their feet.” He studied designers, psychotherapist, town designers and managers. These studies were on how these professionals cope with their professions and how they learn by reflection-before-action, reflection-in-action and reflection-after-action (Schön 1983). Again, there are similarities here with the illuminative way. Spiritual persons are also reflective practitioners.

Spiritual persons grow in their spiritual life by learning by reflection-before-action, reflection-in-action and reflection-after-action. Training in how to reflect effectively is important (Barns 2002; Schön 1987). This is what Schön call a reflective practicum, “a practicum aimed at helping students acquire the kind of artistry essential to competence in the indeterminate zones of practice.” (1987, 18). Life is messy. Spiritual practitioners also need a curriculum to learn to master their artistry, which is to experience the presence of God in their daily life.

The apostle Paul is a good example of the spiritual reflective practitioner. Throughout the book of Acts, there is evidence that he was reflecting on his actions and learning from his mistakes. His approach to preach the gospel is different in Thessalonica and in Athens. In Thessalonica, he approached the Jews through Old Testament messianic history and in Athens; his approach was through Greek philosophy and “the unknown God”. (Acts 17:1-34).

In this stage, spiritual directors often act as a mirror to their directees as they wrestle with issues of being their true self in an imperfect world. They guide their directees to reflect on who they are in reference to their relationships with God, their families, their friends, their community and their society. This is also a period of triumph and failures. Spiritual directors affirm the triumphs that occur when upon reflection, their directees choose to be obedient to God and in distancing themselves from worldly attractions. Failures are also common. Here directors help their directees reflect on the reasons for their failures and help them to move forward. The illuminative way is the way of reflection of making the right choice and living the right way.


3. The Unitive Way and Frame Reflection
The final stage is the unitive way. The three ways are not always linear. One can move forward or drift backwards. “The unitive way is the way of those who are in the state of the perfect, that is, those who have their minds so drawn away from all temporal things that they enjoy great peace, who are neither agitated by various desires nor moved by any great extent by passion, and who have their minds chiefly fixed on God and their attention turned, either always or very frequently, to Him. It is the union with God by love and the actual experience and exercise of that love.” (Devine 2003).

Many spiritual writers wrote that not many Christians will enter this stage. There is a total mindset change here that the spiritual practitioners become one with God. This will be what Schön will call framing and reframing (Schön and Rein 1994). Although Schön wrote about framing and reframing in the context of the approach of practitioners dealing with intractable public policies, I believe there is relevance to our discussion on the unitive way.

Our being in the world and carrying the original sin, though forgiven are in a way caught in a fallen-world intractable public policy. This policy is anti-God and keeps everyone in bondage to the evil one out of fear and temptations. There is this constant conflict between the Christian spiritual practitioners and the world. The unitive way is breaking free of this world’s policies and uniting with the Kingdom of God’s policies and become one with God. Schön’s approach to frame reflection consists of identifying the problem (cavitas), developing mutual trust, putting yourself in the other’s shoes, double vision (seeing both side of the coin), knowing the necessity of the policy and inventing new policy modification and resolving frame conflicts (1994, 207) . This has certain resonance to spiritual practitioners.

As part of the policy change, the spiritual practitioner moves through the dark night of the senses and the dark night of the soul. It is in these powerful spiritual experiences, that the spiritual practitioner comes to identify and understand the delusions of the world, understand self, know God better and reframe the world’s policy. The new frame is the Kingdom of God. Paul’s Damascus experience in Acts 9:1-19 is a good example of frame reflection. This personal experience of meeting Jesus Himself changed his frame of reference and helped him to reframe himself as the apostle to the gentile.

However, there are limitations to Schön’s frame reflection. This model will work only in the first stage of the unitive way. As we move deeper into the unitive way, we find that there is less and less need for us to act because God takes a more active role as He draws us into union with Himself. In the final stage, we do not need to do anything. In this stage, even the theologians and spiritual writers are at a loss for words because they are describing the indescribable. Saint Teresa of Avila writes, “One can say no more-insofar as can be understood-than that the soul, I mean the spirit, is made one with God.”(Teresa 1961).

This is a difficult but rewarding stage in spiritual direction. In the beginning of this unitive way, the directees will experience the dark night of the senses and the dark night of the soul. Spiritual directors must be well versed with these experiences if they are to help their directees through these spiritual experiences. Spiritual directors who have not experienced this may be well advised to refer their directees to others who have. Often, what is required of the director is to be present to his directee as he goes through this experience. This is more of a process of journeying together and offering encouraging and understanding. The directee is undergoing the process of framing of her worldview and then reframing into the Kingdom of God viewpoint. Most directees may not come out of this “dry well experience” (Green 1998). Some, by the grace of God may experience a “unitive” spiritual experience.

CONCLUSION
Modern learning theory does help spiritual directors to better understand the dynamics of their interactions and do inform and transform spiritual growth. We have seen how the learning theory of Argyris and Schön can be used to understand the learning process underlying the spiritual ways of purgative, illuminative and unitive. The purgative way is when the directee learning the difference between espoused theory and theory-in-action. He uses the learning process of double-loop learning. In the process, he is purged of his false delusions and embraces a Method 2 thinking of identifying with his true self. The illuminative way is where the directee develops reflective thinking and right decision making. She makes progress in her spiritual life when she becomes a spiritual reflective practitioner. In the unitive way, a directee experiences the dark nights. It is in these experiences that he frames and reframes his worldview.

It is beyond to scope of this paper to design or suggest a learning curriculum for the Three Ways. However, learning theory has helped us to understand the process and it would not be too difficult to think of such a curriculum. This will be especially important for spiritual directors and Christian educators to consider especially when they design learning programs for their faith communities. One such example was an attempt to design the training of spiritual directors in the Archdiocese of Louisville (Wirth 1995) and another was in the college classroom setting (Brown 2005) using the learning theories of Argyris . It must be acknowledged that finally all spiritual growth comes from God who is the author and finisher of our faith.
Soli Deo Gloria

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|10 July 2006|



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