Contemporary Christianity is changing. For example, Pope Francis, head of the Roman Catholic Church, is generating worldwide headlines for articulating a version of Christian ethics and principles beyond the American norm, like his toleration of Islam, requests that consumers not support slave labor through their personal purchases, and support of gender equality.
Some Catholic officials are complaining that he’s spending more time preaching than devoting himself to critical administrative tasks. They ask, “What exactly does the Pope want us to do?”
Others within Christian circles are busy implementing their own answers, using the ancient practice of quiet contemplation to facilitate transformation in individual lives. Author and spiritual teacher Kess Frey is among the latter.
Frey works independently out of his east Anchorage home in Muldoon. He is 69 and holds a degree in psychology from the University of California at Irvine. He is active in prison ministry in Anchorage and facilitates local “centering prayer” groups and retreats. One of these prayer groups alternates between Holy Family Cathedral and the downtown transit center’s Listening Post. Frey is following a “plan and prayer” practice, originally constructed by three priests — Fathers Thomas Keating, William A. Meninger, and Basil Pennington — three decades ago. It is named “centering prayer.”
In layman’s terms, centering prayer is a prayer of listening, consent, and receptivity. It is silent. The goal is not to petition God to give you material needs or opportunities, but to permit the activity of the Spirit to develop inner qualities and outer expressions of healing and compassion within us and in our life. On his website, Father Keating waxes poetic to explain the goal of the practice:
“Centering Prayer is a method of silent prayer that prepares us to receive the gift of contemplative prayer, prayer in which we experience God’s presence within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than consciousness itself. This method of prayer is both a relationship with God and a discipline to foster that relationship.”
In his 2012 book, Human Ground, Spiritual Ground: Paradise Lost and Found, Kess Frey discusses how our basic instinctual needs for security/survival, sensation/pleasure, affection/esteem, power/control and intimacy/belonging motivate human behavior. He also discusses how early-life wounding causes these needs to be distorted and exaggerated into pathological behavior patterns, or “programs for happiness that can’t possibly work.”
“The distortion of our instinctual need for power/control is a current-events relevant example of this,” Frey said. “It may be seen in the behavior of people who seek happiness by trying to dominate, manipulate and control others in various ways. Political, religious and social leaders are often flawed by conscious or unconscious power/control happiness programs that compel them to seek more and more power, influence and control over others – for the sake of their own egos.”
In two chapters of Human Ground, Spiritual Ground, where he discusses personal identity and cultural conditioning in society, Frey points out the fact that each society has its own personality, just like the human individuals who make up a society.
Right now, national news agencies are documenting the emergence of a new consciousness in America, beyond raw capitalism, where the individual is seeking more control over the political institutions that govern society. This world looks a lot different, from the employee’s perspective, than it does from the employer’s. The employee is trying to keep the employer happy and the employer is attempting to get something done, like make money. Getting that something done sometimes takes pressure and force from the employer and the employee is resisting what he feels is a limitation on his freedom of choice.
Our healthy and legitimate need for power/control is our basic need for personal freedom and independence. One need only look at the recent examples of the demonstrations in New York, Ferguson, and around the country. The people in the street simply want a fighting chance at life. They aren’t really pushing against the individual police. The police just happen to be there as a projection representing what they’re up against in seeking freedom, respect, dignity, and independence. When people are legitimately protesting, the police who confront them are the closest manifestation of their frustrations at what isn’t working for them in society.
The growth of an individual into maturity through societal structures is one topic Frey tackles in his most recent book, The One Who Loves Us, published this year. Frey uses the metaphor of “windows” to describe the mentality, or worldview, of those in each of six stages of internal development. The six stages correspond with historical epochs, which he recasts as societal “personalities”. Because we are speaking of humanity, no description of a window, or stage of development, completely explains what “conceptual frameworks” motivate a society. At any given time, four generations may be alive in one family, all with different windows to view the society they live in.
Frey justifies his usage of psychology when explaining religious ideas as the “language we are using in modern day instead of myths. It’s the same thing, just different concepts because we are in a different culture and time. We’re essentially no different than our Ancestors on the inside.”
Frey begins with the “tribal window,” which developed approximately 50,000 years ago in response to the late Stone Age. This is an organic stage. Survival in a world filled with danger is the prime obsession. Our ancestors rarely felt “safe,” in the sense the modern mind entertains. (Naked and Afraid, while interesting, doesn’t come close.) Like any other stage of development, the fundamental needs of reliable food, clothing, and shelter must be met before admittance to the higher orders of human activity and development.
The tribal church is, “ultraconservative; fear-based; steeped in magical and superstitious beliefs regarding created reality, God and Bible; and insisting that its interpretations of God’s word and will are the only true and valid ones.”
To survive in a prehistoric world, and to cope with the odds of accessing sufficient nutrition, our Ancestors imagined a talisman (like a painted rock or stick) and a compelling story would give them the needed confidence to face the ever-present danger of being prey to any hunter — animal or human. Life was literal. The tree can suffer breakage and still live. That’s a heavy metaphor of life’s enduring ability inside a Stone Age mind.
Churches/societies at this level focus on the exclusivity of their God/tribal identity. The tribal person is other than the rest of the world or other humans outside the tribe. If the question is one of survival, both nature and humanity apart from the tribe must die for the tribal individual to remain in existence.
Naturally, the second window is the warrior window. “As may be expected,” Frey writes, “warrior churches are characterized by anthropomorphic ideas of God as the ultimate warrior and by a cultural ethos of militancy and authoritarianism…. God is seen as an absolute authority figure outside the individual who rewards or punishes the ego based on right or wrong beliefs and behavior.”
10,000 years ago, tribes began expanding due to access to greater resources. Our Ancestors visited the fertile crescent and learned about grain. Grain meant a reliable food supply. Grain leads to agriculture. Agriculture leads to leisure, but also to competition and warfare. In response, society left the tribal/magical and became a military empire. One tribe wants to control the food supply of four other tribes, and have them work said fields, either harvesting or planting. The warrior stage is an occupying force and it is brutal. Warrior stage is very much with us today, as current events throughout the world continue to demonstrate.
The third window is a reaction to the warrior stage. In response to the raw brutality of war, with its rush of disruption and new ideas, people choose to wall themselves off into cities and make predictable societies.
“Rather than an ethos of ‘might makes right’,” Frey explains, “as in warrior consciousness the ways and will of God… and group consensus are seen to ‘make right’.”
This is the fundamentalist church.
Frey borrows heavily from the contemporary integral theory of evolving consciousness espoused by Reverend Paul Smith and Ken Wilbur. The theory estimates that five percent of the global population is operating at the tribal stage, with 20 percent stuck in the warrior stage, and 45-50 percent are in the traditional stage. The next three stages of growth: Modern, Post-Modern, and Integral are experienced by a few outliers.
Modern religious thought seeks to reconcile religious faith with scientific facts and methods. Postmodernism imagines that all spiritual paths are sound as experienced and accepted by individuals. Authentic spiritual experience of our deep inner self inspires that rarest and most valuable of human emotions: empathy or compassion for others. “The truth is,” Frey said, “on the deepest level WE ARE ALL ONE in the spiritual ground of our Source. It is divine love that makes us one.”
This is the basic thesis of Kess Frey’s thought and writing: There is no “other” human. We are the human family, with the billions of human individuals comprising our one spiritual body.
The goal, through postmodern and integral stages, is to use spiritual practices, like centering prayer, meditation, and service/volunteering; to take the focus of attention from meeting our immediate needs — which are more than resourced thanks to technology — towards meeting the needs of the human family as a whole. Human needs are more emotional/spiritual than merely physical at the postmodern stage.
However, basic physical needs must be met before individuals can awaken to and pursue the higher needs. Society needs to outgrow the animalistic practice of brutality, injustice, greed, and false formulas for happiness before the wonderful promise and potential of the higher human and spiritual needs are realized – which alone can satisfy and provide deep meaning and lasting happiness.
“The torture report that was recently released in Congress is horrible to contemplate,” Frey said. “It’s a symptom of the tribal and warrior personalities grown out-of-control and dominating our governance structures. Our tribe, the human family, is the greatest tribe. We cannot kill members of the human tribe without us killing members of our own tribe.”
It’s the same with the racial tension, Frey explains. This is a tribal phenomenon. And people are making choices. Which tribe are you? I’m this tribe, not that tribe. The people in the street protesting are a part of one tribe and the police are a part of another. Both tribes are multi-racial, so this isn’t about race — well it is on the surface manifestation — but those are tribes, not races out there who need to awaken to the vision that we are all of one tribe: one human family.
To punctuate this point, think of the 96 school shootings since Sandy Hook in late 2012. Kess Frey’s books, Human Ground, Spiritual Ground and The One Who Loves Us, suggest that inner spiritual guidance into the next stages of evolving consciousness will help society overcome the obstacles now challenging the human condition.
“We can all help our common Self to grow by working on our individual selves to evolve into more integral, conscious, and loving beings in the service of the Higher Self in all of us,” Kess said. “This Self is growing, it’s not dying. It feels and may appear on the surface like the Self is dying. That’s the mystery of life that has fascinated us for all of these years. Something deeper is going on inside beneath the surface. It’s like there is really no death. Not death, as in an ending of Self, but, death, as an ending of surface appearances and things. This reality of who and what we truly are deep within is changing from one form into another: caterpillar to butterfly. Guidance helps us to bear the transformation with some grace, instead of suffering through the process in doubt and confusion.”