On Reaching a Comfortable Cruising Altittude

A few days ago, I travelled to Phoenix for some important Envoy Institute meetings. The morning of my departure, the sky over Columbus was typical for early November: gray, overcast, dreary.

I was looking forward to the sunny blue skies of Arizona and, thankfully, when I got there I wasn’t disappointed. But this little reflection is not about the sunny skies that awaited me. Rather, it’s about something I learned on the way there.

This life, filled as it is with so many mundane things like catching a flight from point A to point B, can yield up intuitions and insights about the spiritual life that suddenly float unexpectedly into view. I love how the Lord teaches me through the routine and seemingly insignificant things in my day-to-day life.

So, I’m seated on the plane, getting ready to take off. I prefer an aisle seat, but this morning I find myself seated next to the window, where I have a nice view of the dismal sky. We take off, and the plane quickly climbs through the clouds toward what I hope will be “a comfortable cruising altitude,” where my mind will be free to move about the universe.

Gazing absentmindedly out my window, I watch the clouds fall away beneath me as we ascend to our appointed height. But just as the plane passes through the lowest cloud layer, we enter a clear gap between cloud decks that’s fairly bright, enough for me to see a fair distance away, although there’s nothing to see except more clouds. I enjoy this view for a few moments and then the sky begins to darken and becomes obscured once more, as the plane rises through another looming mass of dark mist.

Nothing but gray for the next few minutes, and bumpy, since passing through clouds usually causes turbulence. Nothing unusual there. We’re rising higher, but still, all I can see is a wall of gray, formless clouds.

Suddenly, we break back into another clear zone between the clouds. This time, I can see for miles and miles. It’s much brighter here, but I still can’t see the blue sky I had expected. Craning my neck to look upward, I can see another layer of clouds above us, this one lighter and thinner than the ones below. In a few minutes, we plunge upward into it. I see that this layer is suffused with light and even has a hint of blue peeking through, here and there.

That’s when it occurs to me how similar this flight is to the spiritual life. A simple metaphor that stirs my soul with thoughts about my own journey toward heaven. I know that “somewhere up there” is the clear blue sky — heaven — where I want to be. I want to get out of the gray, cold, dreary clouds, out of the mist, out of the turbulence, and into the warm, tranquil, light above. To get there, though, I have to pass through who knows how many more clouds that stand between where I am now and where I am headed.

The great spiritual masters, such as St. Augustine, St. Francis, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Francis de Sales, and St. Therese of Lisieux, all say that the upward path to heaven leads through the stages of purgation and then illumination before finally reaching that blessed union with God.

Passing through the dark and difficult “clouds” in this life and thinking for a moment, “Hey! I’ve made it!” only to realize with a sigh, “No, I still have a good way yet to go,” becomes a source of joy and consolation for the man or woman who truly desires God. The higher one goes, the great saints say, the more illuminated things become. Until one day, that joyful day when, by God’s grace, one has finally passed through all those interminable clouds of this earthly life, he suddenly finds himself enveloped within splendorous light and glory, as he is ushered into the presence of the Triune God.

Thank you, Lord, for this little insight. I know I’ll think about this every time I travel on a plane.


  1. Adoro te Devote

    Thank you for this…I’ll keep it in mind in our Spiritual Theology class on Sunday. (Oh, and add St. Catherine of Siena to your list…her approach is different, yet recognizably the same as are all the Spiritual Masters!)

  2. Patrick Madrid

    Thanks, and that’s a good point about St. Catherine. I just added her in for good measure 🙂

  3. Carol McKinley

    my mantra….For today, I will be holy. Few days I make it through until I hit the sheets. :O)One of my favorite quotes from a Saint about the roller coaster spiritual journey is when St. Teresa of Avila was complaining to Christ who told her this is how he treats his friends and she said “No wonder you have so few of them”.

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