The Abba Ah Beng
Spiritual Formation Institute
The Learning Process in Spiritual
Dr Alex Tang
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
(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
(1) Reviewing valid information,
(2) Making free and informed choices,
(3) Developing internal commitment to this way of thinking (Argyris 2004;
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
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
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
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.
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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