Spirituality and Spiritual Formation

The evangelical world is all abuzz about “spiritual formation” these days, thanks primarily to the work of Quaker writer Richard Foster. Courses in “spiritual formation” are taught in many evangelical seminaries. Books and articles abound, some suggesting that we haven’t paid enough attention to “spirituality.” Some act as if the traditions of the Reformation have nothing to offer–that “spirituality” consists in recovering specific medieval Catholic practices. Others are more intrigued by modern practices and perspectives rooted in Jungian psychology.

Some who are leading this effort have felt such a lack of spiritual nourishment in their own tradition that they risk grasping at whatever comes their way without either understanding the history of Christian spirituality or their own tradition, and without critically evaluating practices and principles. Some others have gone to the opposite extreme, and reject anything that uses the term “spirituality” or “spiritual formation.”

I can understand the hunger. When I was in a period of searching, I, too, cast aside the Seventh-day Adventist tradition in which I was raised and went to see what others had to offer. In 1985 I started my studies at Gettysburg Lutheran seminary, and was immersed in Lutheran spirituality and introduced to other approaches. We had a seminar in spirituality from Fr. Mark Gibbard, an Anglican Benedictine. I took classes in the history of spirituality, and in Franciscan spirituality, at a Franciscan seminary in Washington, DC, the Washington Theological Union. Through the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory I was introduced to Jungianism. I joined an ecumenical Franciscan community, the Brothers and Sisters of Charity, founded by John Michael Talbot. I went on retreats with Benedictine and Camaldolese monks. In 1992, due to these and other influences, I joined the Catholic Church.  I was initially drawn to more liberal expressions of Catholicism, but over the years grew more conservative, and was attracted to more traditional forms of Catholic spirituality, especially through the influence of Opus Dei. All these experiences led me to look again at where I came from, and to appreciate anew my roots, and three years ago I returned to the Adventist Church in which I had been raised. I tell the story here. My point here is that my critique comes from a great deal of both experience and academic study in the area of spirituality.

Let’s start with some definitions. As I’ve written elsewhere, Christian spirituality, at the simplest level, is the lived experience of a personal relationship with God. It includes the day to day things we do to express and nourish that relationship, including prayer and the reading of Scripture. It includes the inspiration we find to keep us going, to help us make choices. It’s about developing that trust in God that gives us hope for the future, meaning to the present, and strength in hard times.

“Spiritual formation,” on the other hand, is a term that comes from the Catholic seminary system, which, in turn, was influenced by the monastic system. For the latter (and for other Catholic “religious communities”), formation is the process by which a candidate’s “vocation” is tested. They are taught the history of the order, and its practices of prayer. They are guided as they progress through stages of postulancy, novitiate, temporary vows, and final vows. They are literally “formed” into a member of that community, with its values, its practices, its traditions. For Catholic seminaries, “spiritual formation” is but one aspect of priestly formation (the others including human, intellectual, and pastoral). Spiritual formation entails cultivating a life of prayer, regular practice of confession and spiritual direction, a love of the Church and the liturgy, a spirit of obedience–it means instilling in the priest-to-be the spiritual practices and attitudes that will guide and sustain him in ministry. It is to imbue him with a proper priestly spirituality.

Though the term has its origins in these specific contexts, today “spiritual formation” has come to refer to any process guiding Christians in the development of a life of prayer and the living of an authentic Christian life. Or, to put it another way, we could say that “spiritual formation” is the process of cultivating “spirituality.”

Because spirituality is about lived experience, we learn from those who have gone before us. We all have those brothers and sisters we trust who are like mentors in the faith, who held our hand when we took our first awkward steps, and who are still available to us when we find ourselves on rough ground. Books by Christian authors can also be a help—they’re another way we learn from the experience, struggles, and insights of others, a source of wisdom we can apply to our own life.

Spirituality, in the broader sense, then, includes not just our own experience, but this collective wisdom that provides timeless guidance. In his book, We Drink from Our Own Wells, the Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez said that spirituality starts as a personal experience, but it becomes “the subject of later reflection and is proposed to the entire ecclesial community as a way of being disciples of Christ.” In other words, someone says, “This is what’s worked for me—why don’t you try it?”

Because of this, there is not one thing called “spirituality”–there are lots of different “spiritualities.” In the history of Christianity, Neoplatonism has been a major influence on many of these, starting with the works of Pseudo-Dionysius and “The Cloud of Unknowing.” These assume that we are on a journey from the material to the spiritual, that the spiritual realm is superior to the material world, that the body needs to be chastened or constrained, and that spirituality consists of an ascent to God. Emphasis is placed on certain practices that aid in that ascent.

The Reformation constituted a radical break with the Neoplatonic tradition. This was one of the critical areas of Luther’s struggle. He was frustrated because he was not getting the payoff he expected. He had no security. It was never enough. The more he expressed his frustrations, the more his spiritual directors could merely say, “try harder.” It was only when he encountered the grace of God in the Word of promise that he experienced peace. Lutheran spirituality embodied Luther’s struggle between the demand of the law and this liberating word of the Gospel, between life as a citizen of the world and life as a citizen of the kingdom of God, between personal doubts and fears and the need to grasp onto Christ by faith alone, as he comes to us in Word and Sacrament.

These two traditions constitute radically different approaches to Christian spirituality. The one is based on our vertical ascent, the other is rooted in Christ’s self-humbling. The first is our search for God, the other is God’s search for us. The first must end in frustration, the second results in salvation, and peace, and joy.

The study of the history of spirituality shows a variety of practices have been advocated as a way to either find God or to nurture our relationship with him. Reading of Scripture, prayer, study of the lives of other Christians, fasting, mutual consolation, corporate worship, the Lord’s Supper, song–all Christian spiritualities make use of these disciplines, though they may understand them and experience them in different ways. Spiritual disciplines are the essence of any type of Christian life or Christian community. So it seems foolish to me for some to be suspicious of  “spiritual disciplines”–if they are Christian, and if they are a member of a community, they practice them. Thus, we have to take a step further and be critical not of these practices in themselves, but in how they are understood and practiced.

Let’s take prayer as an example. Prayer can be understood simply, as “the opening of the heart to God as to a friend”–as conversation. It can also be the repetition of certain prayers, such as the Lord’s Prayer. The “contemplative” tradition emphasizes silent contemplation as a means of mystical union with God–the contemplative ideal is to cast aside all images, all words, all thoughts (this is best represented by Carmelite spirituality). Other traditions emphasize using the imagination, or even using actual, physical images, in our prayer (Ignatian spirituality is an example). The question to ask is which of these are most in keeping with the lessons on prayer that Jesus himself gave? Which best express the Biblical understanding of our relationship with God? I’d argue that the kataphatic traditions (using images) run the risk of becoming idolatry; the apophatic traditions (without images) separate us from the external Word and risk blurring the distinction between the human and the divine. The Bible, by contrast, stresses the personal nature of prayer: it is children crying out to their Father; it is Trinitarian, joining, through the Spirit, with Jesus’ prayer to His Father; it takes its confidence from Jesus’ appearance before the Father as our great High Priest; it is not vain or repetitious or ostentatious, but humble and persistent.

Another key issue where spiritualities diverge is the relationship between the spiritual and the physical. The Bible speaks of a struggle between the flesh and the spirit; Jesus said the spirit was willing, but the flesh weak. Paul saw the need to discipline his body. And yet the Bible teaches the material world is good, and that the Word became flesh. True Christian spiritualities will aid us in the battle against sin, and will help us discipline our impulses; they will not be self-centered, but will include compassion to others; they will not be concerned only with heaven, but with acting in love to others now. When they lead to abusive relationships over others, when they lead to physical punishment of the body, when they lead to libertinism or extravagance, then we must be on guard.

If you are curious about spirituality, start by identifying and understanding your own heritage of spirituality (I’ve written about Adventist Spirituality here). What are the spiritual practices you were taught as a child, that are valued by your community? How do they reflect your view of God, and of the world, and your place in the world? And most importantly–what role do they play in your life? Do you have a consistent practice of prayer, of Bible reading, of corporate worship, of service to others?

To those who are in pastoral ministry, or in positions of leadership in seminaries, I’d say that you have a duty to teach (and, yes, to “form”) those in your care in the spirituality of your movement. It is what unites you; it is what makes you a distinctive community. Understand its Biblical and historical basis. Understand why it is unique. Be sure that future leaders embody its ethos, and so can pass it on. Be sure that your academic community is also a worshiping community–and that your worshiping communities are evangelizing and serving as Jesus did.

Then, properly “formed,” rooted in a particular tradition, grounded in a particular worldview, living out an authentic spirit-filled life with integrity–then you’ll be in a position to study other approaches, and learn why they are different, and what they might teach you, and what you should avoid. To start such a search without that grounding is to be cast upon a stormy sea in darkened skies.

Here are some links on related topics: