Category Archives: Formative Spirituality

Ever since Socrates defined the human spirit, we have been on our search excellence. A basic fact: humanity transcends itself. It’s in our DNA. We either become better, or we deform. In the end, we have been 12 or a hundred different people. We unfold. We follow some primordial call.

Thousands of years of spiritual Masters have been on this journey, mapping its contours. Major streams of thought and untold religious effort have been spent to endorse, extinguish, capitalize upon, and support this one fundamental piece of the human DNA.

The discipline of Formative Spirituality, conceived by Father Adrian van Kaam, seeks to scientifically explain the unfolding of a healthy human spirit and locate its obstacles. At its core, spirituality aids a person in the discovery her unique-communal destiny (what one is called to be and do). The pressures of a sick spirituality reinforce human pride and the impulse to dominate and control even one’s own destiny. While Christian Spirituality does not claim that it alone creates deeply good and selfless human beings, it does claim to map the deepest image of reality, particularly the full flowering of one’s individual calling culminating in the creation of a divine community and embraced by the Creating Mystery as Cosmic King.

The Essence of Spiritual Reflection: Part 3

We all struggle every day with what to do and who to be.  Our choices range from which scarf to buy– for your girlfriend who let you travel to Spain– to the change-the-course-of-your life decisions. How long and when we listen to the voice of God is a skill we must all learn to master.  I know of a lady who often stands in front of her open closet and lets God decide what she will wear for the day.  That may seem extreme, but in this fragmented and global age where a multi-trillion dollar advertising industry depends on influencing our identity, we must learn to trust in more than our frail cleverness.  We cannot see all ends.

van Kaam calls the second stage in spiritual reflection, “Apprehension”.  What he means is that after awe opens our spirits like like a flower to the morning sun, we are then in the best position to apprehend God’s nudging. Apprehension is like a bridge step that brings us from passive awe to an active weighing and balancing, the utilization of our God-given logic.

“Apprehension”, the second stage, therefore does not signify a timid posture; in the midst of life’s challenges we are not apprehensive.  Rather, here we can learn use a sixth sense.  Equipped with our intuition, we move carefully but quickly into acknowledgment, argumentation, and assessment (step three).

Many who did not abide in awe filled attention or whose pride secretly rules their heart falter here.  Politicians, for example, who may apprehend a logical move, may mis-assess the situation as they rationalize their way around the right response. It is important that we acknowledge our internal resistances and weigh pros and cons. But, apprehension must come first.   And, our cost analysis must always give way and be paved by brave assurance that the immense love of God will lead us toward good ends, even if it sometimes seems in the short run that our divine calling would undo our most important investments…

Reflections on Appraisal: Part 2

Today, many of us find ourselves on a spiritual quest.   We wonder if we have reached the heights of the great spiritual masters or if we have been led into cheap versions of faith.  When our tempers rage or life’s storms undo our resolve, it is then we wonder what our foundations are really made of.  Wherever we find ourselves, any authentic spiritual journey must find a way to incorporate the Appraisal process.

We worship a deeply personal and good Mystery.  Awe and Attention characterize this formational waiting. Father Adrian called this first step of spiritual Appraisal “Abiding in Awe-Filled Attention”

In fact, attention to the divine echo (or sometimes hornblast) flows out of a holy reverence.  First, we must turn our thoughts away from our worries and concerns.   Rather than solely making our decisions based upon our clever assessments, or worse our of our anxieties, we first gaze into the divine mystery pressing up our awe into the Cloud of Unknowing.

Awe re-places our proud ego driven selves with a humble awareness that we are simply creatures in need of daily direction.  Silence facilitates awe as it stills our tongues and paves the way for our transcendent self.  In the process, we regain connection to the universe and its transcendent-immanent Mystery.   And at the end of this first stage, we should find ourselves readied in full attention.  We are freed to delve into our life events seeking its meaning. We grasp life’s gravity pulling us to become our deeper self.

Reflections on Appraisal Part 1

The appraisal process remains central to the healthy formation of any human.  In order to hear and comprehend echoes of the Spirit moving in our lives, we must build the spiritual muscles that engage our spiritual eyes and ears. While simple reflection can help us discern right things to do, Appraisal moves far beyond simply pondering the mysteries of our universe. If one were to break it down, Appraisal really includes seven components that moves from “Abiding in Awe Filled Attention” to the “Application of our Yes”.

As a human practice, Appraisal becomes the integrated way through which we stay awakened to the movements of God in our life.  Appraisal keeps us radiant.  It also becomes and the excercise that fills our eyes with light (Luke 11.33-36).  Without engaging the Appraisal process, we are likely destined to be tossed on the storm driven sea of life and fall captive to the executive slavery of our own pride. Therefore, the goal of any spiritual life is to learn and integrate the Appraisal process so that in times of large decisions or in the momentary decision to pick up the hitchhiker, we can naturally engage God’s hearts for wise discernment of direction…

Simon the Seminarian

I remember the surprise I got at seminary when I realized that some of its people were lousy humans. After a couple of decades as a practicing Christian, I know now that religion has the double-edged power to corrupt or transform, but when it corrupts, it become very dangerous. Take Simon in Acts 8.9. He spent his early years impressing people with religiosity and convincing them that he was great. And when Peter came along and astonished Simon’s city with true power, Simon full of self assurance placed himself first in line as the next likely disciple. Reminiscent of Judas, He gave Peter some silver to buy whatever power Peter possessed. Peter, now with an acute ability to read the human spirit, knew immediately that Simon’s heart was not right in the matter. In fact, Peter went so far to diagnose Simon’s deepest problems: bitterness and envy. Peter knew that it was not enough to dazzle others with one’s religiosity; he knew that transforming religion is far more about the heart and its dispositions.

So, when I sit in a classroom where Simon the Seminarian has just interrupted the teacher a third time in one class giving his two cents about the little he knows, I think about Peter. Now, Simon has paid his silver to come to seminary and perhaps is recently emerging from an all-star ministry (sorcery in Simon’s case), but he will be greatly disappointed when, if Peter bursts his bubble. But in a market like ours we won’t take the time or energy; many seminaries operate with the bottom line as its main priority, and if it is not careful, it might just take that silver and stamp its approval on Simon. Simon will burn out in time, or inflict a deeper harm than we could imagine. But the deeper issue is not whether the seminary takes Simon’s money; it is what it will do with Simon when he gets within her doors.

A theological school will gladly take in this former sorcerer, but unlike Peter it will never cut to the heart of the matter. A theological school will give space for Simon to grapple with the right questions and perhaps equip him with some answers, and Simon will be convinced that he will then be able to impart the Holy Spirit on those he encounters. Simon will be getting everything right yet all the while getting it all wrong. As Peter shows, Simon does not need a Theological Education; he needs some years in an arena of formation. If we listen to Peter here, we see that Simon needs his heart transformed, his bitterness sweetened and his envy humbled. The religious world is full of Simons; will we take their silver and reinforce their sorcery, or will we give them their chance to repent like our Simon did in Acts 8?

When I leave the seminary setting, I will remember well the Simons. But I will count it a great blessing to have been touched by the Baranabas’, Pauls, Phillips, Peters, Marys whose lives and wisdom testify that their transformation will become a great beacon of hope in this world. I pray that as a seminary among seminaries, the whole endeavor will remember that it, like the early apostles, must be in the business of holistic formation that transcends a simple theological education.

A Miniature Barren Banzai Tree

In these weeks, as winter takes its last stand, two earthen moments have stuck with me.

First, the blue sky had drawn us out into a deceptively cold morning. We expected to enjoy a coatless walk.  Instead we shivered along while our breath billowed into the brisk air. Still, with determined hope, our little family bundled and made our way past houses and fields and onto the gravel paths of our countryside. By then, we each had collected our own walking sticks, limbs that had been blown to the ground from some winter storm. Along the path there were random puddles only inches deep. It was only when I went to stir up one of those puddle that I discovered the cold.  Each one was covered over with a layer of clear thin ice.

My walking stick and I promoted spring that morning by breaking up the ice and helping it melt into the warmer water below. I had reached the final puddle and was about to break its sheet into a hundred pieces when I saw below a smallish worm wiggling its way around the floor. How did this creature survive encased in ice? It was striving back and forth seeking some warm soil. We rescued that worm today.

Second, as the season’s final snow melted into the Bluegrass, I packed together a snowball. When I held it in my hand, I noticed a tiny root placed atop the sphere as if it were planted there, a miniature barren banzai tree.  While I contemplated what lay in my hand, the simple ball of snow seemed to transform into a mystical image. It inspired this piece of verse:

Randomly pressed into this snowball, a root presses up to the sky
Glimmering in the melting sun I hold a tiny barren banzai tree
Resting atop some crystal soil and waiting for its spring
What will bloom here? A plant of purple jewels?
Perhaps some shining stars will flower sheltered by golden leaves.
Yet my intuition flattens falsities and the promises of cheap dreams
So, I toss this snow mirage back below onto our earthen ground
And watch it crash into its pieces, a dead root joining the awakening land below.

Back to “Sacred Earth”

The Power of Appreciation

What is it about life that makes it so impossible to focus? I mean about priorities, relationships, perspective. Our ambitions and projects seem to steer us away from the deep inspirations that flow from our core in a never ending always uphill battle. And yet I now painfully know my limitations. I cannot remold myself to ignore every rabbit trail idea that flips through my head nor push away the struggle to answer every question that would lead me away from the quiet for which I so long.

I can only wait for those rare moments when death stares me in the face and reminds me that he too will knock on my door. Those moments seem to multiply as age grows shorter and the lights of those I love get snuffed out. When I think of dying, I do not struggle; I simply get sad. I do not want to leave this earth yet, but the journey to eternity plays no favorites. I simply am bound to this earthly tent for now and must follow the Mystery’s unfolding footsteps.

Yet, on days when I loose sight of the end, when I squander my priorities and lock myself away from the ones seeking to give me their love, only one powerful tool remains: appreciation. Try it. Appreciation turns disappointments into opportunities for formation, projects into inspirations, and the darkness of drudgery into a reminder that this could be my last moment or week to smell the beautiful fragrances of cherishable life.

Childhood and Spirituality

Am reading a book on spirituality called, “Looking for Jesus” by Adrian Van Kaam.  The premise of the book is that Jesus’ speech in John 14 exists as Jesus’ main directives on the spiritual life while awaiting his return.  Came across one of those gotta-memorize paragraphs:

“To live spiritually is to preserve the spirit of childhood within myself, to regain it when it is lost, to restore its power when it is weakened. The opposite is pride. ‘Every proud man is an abomination to the Lord; I assure you that he will not go unpunished.’ (Pv. 16.5) His punishment is the loss of wonder and openness, of the sense of adventure that is the salt of life and love.”*

I was particularly moved by the last sentence.  The absence of wonder, openness, and adventure seem to me all parts of the shadow of discouragement, monotony, and then depression.  Am slowly learning to step away from these damp places. 

Would love to hear your thoughts. How do you remain in wonder, openness, and adventure?
*Adrian Van Kaam, Looking for Jesus (Denville: Dimension Books, 1978), pp.28.