As a first step to understanding, imagine climbing a stairway. You begin at the bottom gazing toward a distant goal. How to get from the first to the second floor? Unaided, your body would be stymied. It can neither float nor fly. The distance between here and there is too great, too vertical, given the downward pull of gravity. You seem irremediably earthbound.
But the stairway changes everything. Now you have a path your body can traverse. In fact, the path and body are a perfect fit, like a glove is to a hand. In walking you thrust out one foot while stabilizing balance with the other; the stairway allows you to convert this movement into purposeful climbing, a little forward, a little upward, step by step, until - voila! - you have ascended a whole floor.
The spiritual life is a little different. By nature we are not angelic beings, but firmly rooted to the earth. Whatever heights we wish to reach, we're unlikely to soar there in a paroxysm of ecstasy or by serenely floating above life's conflicts. No, we climb step by step, a bit forward, a bit upward, our movement barely discernible. A prayer here. An honest talk there. A little meditation. A mumbled confession.we might doubt we are making any spiritual progress at all yet, peering over the side, the view comes to look a bit different. We have a slightly broader perspective on life, a little more distance from the problems that so weighted us down.
The notion of progress via steps is central to the "Twelve Step" program used in Alcoholics Anonymous and other such fellowships. It seems an impossible journey to get from being a drunk, life lying in ruins, to being a sober, joyful, and respected member of the community. "Don't worry," says the AA sponsor to the newcomer. "You don't have to become a saint overnight. Just take it one step at a time and you'll be amazed at the changes that will come."
There are steps of a stairway but also, in the modern world, the steps of an escalator. Plant your feet, relax, hold onto the rail, and the moving stairs do the rest. Sometimes, happy to say, the spiritual journey works like this. Call it grace - the intercession of the Holy Spirit - the Intuitive Self at work (or at play) - when a Power transports us aloft. A song comes on the radio and provides the message we need to hear. Just as our own energy gives out, friends unexpectedly gather to lift our burdens. Or we feel consoled and illuminated by a mysterious Presence as real as it is undefinable. Suddenly, progress is rapid. We're on a spiritual escalator - just surrender and enjoy the ride.
But sooner or later (usually sooner) we're likely to find that escalator out of order. God does not do all the work for us, thank God. Our muscles would atrophy, our spirit grow lazy, if we never had to climb any steps.