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Four Stages of Life

I’m reading Hermits; The Insights of Solitude and appreciating what it offers, including a lot of the quotes it presents.

In a book focusing mainly on solitude in the Christian tradition, I was taken by the chapter on Ramakrishna in which it reminded me that life, for a Hindu, is divided into four stages: bramacarya (apprenticeship/student); garhastha (householder); vanaprastha (forest dweller/ascetic); sanyasa (renunciation).

It made me think of the four stages in Christian life, called rungs on a ladder, presented by Guigo II. Guigo wrote The Ladder of Four Rungs. We regularly talk about these four rungs (lectio; meditatio; oratio; contemplatio) to provide a frame for lectio divina. I’ve rendered the rungs as read, reflect, respond, rest.

But Guigo also sees these rungs as stages:

The first degree is for beginners, the second for those profiting from it, the third for those who are devout, the fourth for those who are holy and blessed of God.

I am not wanting to equate the four stages described in the Hindu Upanishads as if they are exactly identical with Guigo’s four stages (and also as if these are the only way of delineating or numbering stages). What I want to underscore in this post is that we do have different stages in our individual life and, as well as there being a variety of different lifestyles that complement each other in our human experience, each individual going through life stages can see these as different, complementing lifestyles.

I am passionate about the Desert Tradition, its embodiment in monasticism, and the value of translating this tradition into the context of life beyond monastery walls. I network with many, many others who share this passion. One of the ways that people attempt to live out this passion is by trying to clone, to replicate monastic life outside the monastery context – praying the same offices at the same time as monks, etc. Although this may be possible at some stages in our life, for most of us, for a lot of our life, I am suggesting that this is inappropriate, and possibly harmful.

If your current vocation is a bramacarya (apprenticeship/student) – that is where your focus is to be. If your current vocation is a garhastha (householder) – that is where your focus is to be – home; partner; family; work… I am not suggesting that you can’t pray (some of the) offices (eg. Morning Prayer, Midday Prayer, Evening Prayer, Night Prayer) – but they might be adapted, abbreviated so you do not neglect your primary vocation at this stage in your life. Wasting time (some TV, some internet) may be reduced to make way for such disciplines (but time-wasting, blobbing out, also has its own value). Lectio Divina might be once a week, rather than the hours daily of a monastic. Silent Prayer may be reduced, or less frequent.

The flip side to my highlighting that we should not play monk when our primary vocation is home, partner, family, friends, work: there comes a time in the life of many people, particularly as they grow older (vanaprastha, sanyasa) that they can actually give more time and energy, appropriately, to the Desert Tradition, to the monastic disciplines, to a contemplative life. And so related questions are: What is the church doing to form people so that at those more mature stages of life they realise their value as contemplatives within the church and the world?

Live the vocation of your own current stage, not that of another person or another of your own stages.

What do you think? What do you do? What do you find helpful?

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