From the Renovaré Newsletter Archive

The selection below is from a May 1997 Renovaré newsletter. Download a PDF of the original newsletter.

Dear Friends,

The inter­est in Spir­i­tu­al For­ma­tion is grow­ing rapid­ly. We can now say that the top­ic is pop­u­lar.” I knew this day was com­ing, and now it is upon us. For some time our the­o­log­i­cal sem­i­nar­ies have been estab­lish­ing pro­grams in Spir­i­tu­al For­ma­tion; some on the M.Div. lev­el, oth­ers on the D.Min. lev­el. Chris­t­ian col­leges too have been start­ing up Spir­i­tu­al For­ma­tion cours­es and inte­grat­ing the con­cern into var­i­ous aspects of their cur­ricu­lum. Endowed pro­fes­sor­ships have been set up specif­i­cal­ly to teach Spir­i­tu­al For­ma­tion. Var­i­ous insti­tutes and cen­ters of Spir­i­tu­al For­ma­tion have been pop­ping up around the coun­try. The num­ber of those who are trained to do Spir­i­tu­al Direc­tion has been grow­ing steadi­ly. The term — if not a clear under­stand­ing of it — has now come into the main­stream of Protes­tant lan­guage. (Spir­i­tu­al For­ma­tion has been in Catholic cir­cles for a long time, but it has been con­fined main­ly to Reli­gious orders. All that is chang­ing rapid­ly, and today it is com­mon to see Spir­i­tu­al For­ma­tion con­cepts adapt­ed to reflect lay and mar­ried life concerns.)

Now, reli­gious pub­lish­ers are get­ting into the act, scur­ry­ing about to acquire books in the field, even estab­lish­ing whole lines in Spir­i­tu­al For­ma­tion. Per­haps the surest sign that this is indeed a hot top­ic is that soon yet anoth­er spe­cial­ty Bible will be avail­able to us — The Spir­i­tu­al For­ma­tion Bible.”

The Up Side and the Down Side

This height­ened inter­est in Spir­i­tu­al For­ma­tion has both an up side and a down side. The down side first. To begin with peo­ple are going to write about it and teach on it and set up cen­ters in it regard­less of whether or not they know any­thing about it. Pub­lish­ers, too, will pub­lish in the field irre­spec­tive of whether they know what they are doing or whether they don’t have a clue. In addi­tion, the con­stant pres­sure to make the con­cepts under­stand­able will lead to a dumb­ing down” process. Those at the fore­front of this process will be sore­ly tempt­ed to reduce Spir­i­tu­al For­ma­tion to lit­tle more than a vari­ety of sim­ple steps to blessed­ness.” Even more, the eco­nom­ic boon of all this inter­est will result in strate­gies for mar­ket­ing Spir­i­tu­al For­ma­tion. Here the per­pet­u­al ten­den­cies will be to claim more than is the case, promise a quick fix, and mask the cost of discipleship.

But the up side should not be for­got­ten. Many today are sim­ply no longer con­tent with either spir­i­tu­al goose bumps” or a cere­bral reli­gion divorced from life. They are look­ing for — and expect­ing — a faith that will sub­stan­tive­ly trans­form their lives. Along­side this is the poten­tial for Spir­i­tu­al For­ma­tion to breathe new life into reli­gious expe­ri­ence by recon­nect­ing the­ol­o­gy to prac­tice. A the­olo­gia habi­tus, if you will, a the­ol­o­gy which pro­duces habits. If such a prac­ticed the­ol­o­gy” is, in fact, devel­oped (and many things can keep this from occur­ring), it will swing open new doors onto spir­i­tu­al growth. This will, in turn, give renewed hope to hosts of peo­ple that it is actu­al­ly pos­si­ble to grow in grace by expe­ri­enc­ing an ever fuller con­for­mi­ty to the way of Christ.

Yet anoth­er plus: many are study­ing the his­tor­i­cal roots of Spir­i­tu­al For­ma­tion and are there­by look­ing to the past with a view to learn­ing bet­ter how to live in the present. This is a huge change over even a few years ago. This, in turn, rein­forces the long view in peo­ple so they can see their for­ma­tion as a life process con­tain­ing highs and lows, sprints of growth mixed with dis­con­cert­ing set­backs, lone­li­ness, strug­gle, hopes dashed and revived again, and more. This is (and always has been) the process of growth in the Spir­it, and we do not help peo­ple by hid­ing this real­i­ty from them. Anoth­er fall­out to this recon­nect­ing to the past is that many are search­ing for new forms of com­mu­ni­ty life that are ade­quate for the lov­ing account­abil­i­ty inher­ent in Spir­i­tu­al Formation.

On bal­ance we can be encour­aged by the new inter­est in Spir­i­tu­al For­ma­tion because of the pos­si­bil­i­ties it affords many more peo­ple to see dis­ci­ple­ship to Jesus as both the norm and the nor­mal way of life for the Chris­t­ian. At the same time we should be fore­warned that in the days ahead many things will be passed off under the rubric of Spir­i­tu­al For­ma­tion that will not even be close to its cen­tral concern.

Formed, Con­formed, Transformed

Hence it is all the more crit­i­cal that we be clear about what we mean by Spir­i­tu­al For­ma­tion. When Paul said to the Gala­tians, I am in the pain of child­birth until Christ is formed in you” he was speak­ing of Spir­i­tu­al For­ma­tion. When he told the Romans, Those whom (God) foreknew he also pre­des­tined to be con­formed to the image of his son,” he was speak­ing of Spir­i­tu­al For­ma­tion. When he remind­ed the Corinthi­ans that All of us, with unveiled faces, see­ing the glo­ry of the Lord as though reflect­ed in a mir­ror, are being trans­formed into the same image” he was speak­ing of Spir­i­tu­al For­ma­tion (Gal. 4:19, Rom. 8:29, 2 Cor. 3:18; empha­sis added in all three). So what is Spir­i­tu­al For­ma­tion? Spir­i­tu­al For­ma­tion is the con­tin­u­ing process of life and expe­ri­ence through which we are pro­gres­sive­ly formed, con­formed, and trans­formed into the image of Jesus Christ.

Now, the truth of the mat­ter is that every­thing we come in con­tact with forms our spir­it, right­ly or wrong­ly. Whether we like it or not, all of us are being formed in one way or anoth­er. In fact, in many cas­es the word deformed” would be more accu­rate — the Heaven’s Gate” group being a recent trag­ic case in point. Where this is true, we must add the cru­cial aspect of re-for­ma­tion.” (Which, by the by, is what con­cerned Mar­tin Luther and the oth­er reformers.)

Chris­t­ian Spir­i­tu­al For­ma­tion is inten­tion­al for­ma­tion. We pur­pose­ful­ly seek for­ma­tion of a par­tic­u­lar kind which will lead us in a par­tic­u­lar direc­tion. The par­tic­u­lar kind of for­ma­tion is the ancient imi­ta­tio Chris­tus, the imi­ta­tion of Christ. The par­tic­u­lar direc­tion this leads to is the Chris­t­ian virtues — love, joy, peace, patience, kind­ness, gen­eros­i­ty, faith­ful­ness, gen­tle­ness, self-con­trol, and the like. (See Gal. 5:22 – 23 and many oth­er sim­i­lar pas­sages, e.g. Romans 5:1 – 8, 8:1 – 39, 12:1 – 21, 1 Cor. 6:1 – 11, 2 Cor. 4:16 – 18, Eph. 4:1 – 3, 5:1 – 15, Phil. 4:4 – 8, Col. 3:12 – 15, 1 Tim. 3:1 – 13, 2 Tim. 20 – 26, Titus 1:5 – 9, James 3:13 – 18, 1 Peter 3:8 – 15, 4:8 – 11, 2 Peter 1:3 – 9, 1 John 3:11 – 24, 4:7 – 12.)

The rea­son we do these things is so that we may become a cer­tain kind of per­son; a per­son who is response-able,” able to respond to the demands of life appro­pri­ate­ly. That is to say, a per­son who is grow­ing in Christlikeness.

And the won­der in all this is that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and is present among his peo­ple as our ever­liv­ing Sav­ior, Teacher, Lord, and Friend. He has agreed to be yoked to us, as we are yoked to him, and to train us in how to live our lives as he would live them if he were us. As this occurs, we increas­ing­ly come to share his love, hope, feel­ings, and habits.

Grow­ing in Grace

How do we begin to move into this way of life? Ful­ly answer­ing that all impor­tant ques­tion demands a full-blown the­ol­o­gy of growth which would take far more space than I have here. But for now let me give one of Jesus’ great sum­ma­tion state­ments of this life and three prac­ti­cal sug­ges­tions that can get us mov­ing forward.

Do you remem­ber Jesus’ aston­ish­ing words, If you abide in me and my words abide in you, ask for what­ev­er you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7)? Abide in me … my words abide in you.” This abid­ing” is every­thing. In John 15 Jesus uses the word abide” eleven times in ten vers­es. Noth­ing is more fun­da­men­tal, more cen­tral, more piv­otal than abid­ing in Jesus and allow­ing his words to abide in us. But how do we do this? Here are three sim­ple begin­ning steps.

  1. Begin with a sim­ple, straight­for­ward read­ing of the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. If you have a red let­ter Bible, you may want to start by soak­ing in those words the Gospel writ­ers give us as com­ing from Jesus him­self. Don’t wor­ry about redac­tion crit­i­cism or those few pas­sages that are con­fus­ing to you. Ini­tial­ly, I sug­gest you not even wor­ry too much about his­tor­i­cal and con­tex­tu­al con­sid­er­a­tions. Lat­er these mat­ters can enhance your under­stand­ing con­sid­er­ably, but the first need is sim­ply to lean into these won­der­ful words of life. Let them form you, shape you, chal­lenge you, com­fort you. As you allow the words to per­co­late in your con­scious­ness, you will mem­o­rize many pas­sages with­out ever try­ing to mem­o­rize them. Let the phras­es seep below the con­scious lev­el of your mind until you dream about them. Don’t rush this process, think­ing that you already know Jesus’ words. The key is not know­ing” the words of Jesus but allow­ing them to abide in you. If you have nev­er done this before, I sug­gest you stay with this step for six months or so, say until Christmas.
  2. As you are soak­ing — abid­ing — in Jesus’ words, you can begin pray­ing the Scrip­ture. Fes­toon­ing” is what C. S. Lewis called it. Take, for instance, the words, Your king­dom come” and pray that real­i­ty into your place of work, your home, your fam­i­ly rela­tion­ships, your dreams for the future. You do this not pri­mar­i­ly by say­ing the words Your king­dom come” but by tak­ing up spe­cif­ic indi­vid­u­als and sit­u­a­tions and atti­tudes and pray­ing the king­dom life into them. Again, take Jesus’ words, pray for those who per­se­cute you” and allow them to sat­u­rate your heart, your mind, your feel­ings. In time you will find your­self spon­ta­neous­ly pray­ing for those who per­se­cute you — not because you are sup­posed to pray that way but out of deeply ingrained habit. And much more.
  3. As this prayer expe­ri­ence becomes nat­ur­al (that is, it becomes more and more a part of who you are rather than what you do), I sug­gest you extend your time a lit­tle through a lis­ten­ing silence. Remem­ber, Jesus Christ is active among his peo­ple today. He has not con­tract­ed laryn­gi­tis. His voice is not hard to hear. His vocab­u­lary is not dif­fi­cult to under­stand. He will speak to you and teach you and guide you as you grow in atten­tive­ness to his liv­ing Pres­ence. His teach­ing will nev­er be con­trary to what you have already been expe­ri­enc­ing by hav­ing his writ­ten words abide in you. In fact, it will have the same tone, the same qual­i­ty, the same weight. For exam­ple, it is in the nature of Jesus to draw and encour­age rather than to push and con­demn. If you have any ques­tions about the guid­ance you are receiv­ing, you can bring it to mature sis­ters and broth­ers in the faith for cor­po­rate dis­cern­ment. In fact, this work is always done best in the con­text of a lov­ing fel­low­ship of oth­er dis­ci­ples of Jesus.

In the fif­teenth cen­tu­ry Thomas à Kem­p­is wrote in The Imi­ta­tion of Christ, we must imi­tate [Christ’s] life and his ways if we are to be tru­ly enlight­ened and set free from the dark­ness of our own hearts. Let it be the most impor­tant thing we do, then, to reflect on the life of Jesus Christ.… Any­one who wish­es to under­stand Christ’s words and to savor them ful­ly should strive to become like him in every way.” And so we do.

Peace and joy,

Richard J. Foster

Pho­to by Rui Sil­va sj on Unsplash

Text First Published May 1997 · Last Featured on Renovare.org February 2022

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