When I first stumbled across a draft of Schaupp's initial paper on the thresholds eight years ago, I instantly sensed that here was a language for something that nearly everyone in pastoral ministry has encountered. We all know lots of Catholics who have some genuine spiritual yearnings — Catholics in whom the Holy Spirit is obviously at work — and yet who are clearly not yet disciples or even close to discipleship. Listening to people's journeys in light of these thresholds or stages of conversion enables us to honor the first reality while dealing effectively with the second.
Keep in mind that the thresholds are strictly focused upon one's lived relationship with God rather than one's baptismal status or knowledge of the faith. One of the fascinating things you learn as you listen is that some baptized and catechized Catholics have not even progressed as far as simple trust (the first threshold), while some of the unbaptized are much further along the road. A few may even be intentional disciples without having yet been baptized.
Our maxim has become "Never accept a label in place of a story." For postmoderns, common spiritual labels like "Catholic" and "agnostic" are as likely to hide reality as to reveal it. There is no way of knowing what a particular person’s journey has truly been and where the person is now until we earn the right to hear his or her story and then listen carefully and prayerfully.
Let's look at these five thresholds briefly and then zero in on the first threshold in more detail. (We have adapted the language slightly to better fit a Catholic context.):
- Initial trust: A person is able to trust or has a positive association with Jesus Christ, the Church, a Christian believer, or something identifiably Christian. Trust is not the same as active personal faith. Without some kind of bridge of trust in place, people will not move closer to God.
- Spiritual curiosity: A person finds himself intrigued by or desiring to know more about Jesus, his life, and his teachings or some aspect of the Christian faith. This curiosity can range from mere awareness of a new possibility to something quite intense. Nevertheless, a person at the threshold of curiosity is not yet open to personal change. Curiosity is still essentially passive, but it is more than mere trust.
- Spiritual openness: A person acknowledges to himself or herself and to God that he or she is open to the possibility of personal and spiritual change. This is one of the most difficult transitions for a postmodern nonbeliever. Openness is not a commitment to change. People who are open are simply admitting they are open to the possibility of change.
- Spiritual seeking: The person moves from being essentially passive to actively seeking to know the God who is calling him or her. It is, if you will, "dating with a purpose" but not yet marriage. Seekers are asking, "Are you the one to whom I will give myself?" At this stage, the seeker is engaged in an urgent spiritual quest, seeking to know whether he or she can commit to Christ in his Church.
- Intentional discipleship: This is the decision to "drop one's nets," to make a conscious commitment to follow Jesus in the midst of his Church as an obedient disciple and to reorder one's life accordingly.
Sherry A. Weddell is the co-founder of the Catherine of Siena Institute, which equips parishes to form lay Catholics for their mission in the world.
This is an excerpt from "Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus."