Note from the Editors:
In a day-long brainstorming session by the editorial committee, we decided amid the consumption of large quantities of bagels and coffee that it would be good if each issue of Conversations could be better used to enhance the spiritual formation activities of small groups. Actually, the idea wasn’t original; we had been hearing reports that this was already happening. So we decided to find someone actively engaged in the ministry of formation who would be willing to help us develop a “conversation guide” for each issue. We are delighted that Kim Engelmann (please see bio) has agreed to write this feature— at least until she gets tired. Kim will provide brief summaries of selected articles—drawn from each of the five sections of the journal—and questions designed to facilitate small-group discussion. We think her inaugural run is excellent, and we hope you will enjoy this new feature of Conversations.
In reviewing selected articles from this issue of Conversations, the reader finds the pervasive theme is that spiritual growth cannot be manipulated. Rather it comes with surrender and involves a trust in the imminent presence of God, a Presence which continually informs and transforms our experience to reveal to us more of the nature of divine love and longing for the world.
This awareness grasped by experience—since we cannot intellectually understand this mystery of divine love—is a movement toward God. We become more and more defined by the awareness that we do exist inside of a divine context where we are continually being called, wooed, and pursued by One who created us for a deep, transformational love relationship.
This theme rings like a dinner bell calling us home to commune, to be nurtured, warmed, and cared for, or, in more joyful terms, to be surprised by grace as we become aware that we are in the midst of a great celebration of love, and then to become further aware that God has thrown this party in our honor. Now let’s turn our attention to a more focused interaction with several of the articles.
The Nature of the Spiritual Journey: What Movement Toward God Looks Like
by Selwyn Hughes
In his article Selwyn Hughes identifies four basic themes that define a pattern of authentic spiritual growth. Early in his life, Hughes would have seen everyone’s spiritual journey as essentially different. Now, from a more mature vantage point, he recognizes through experience that although everyone has a unique journey, there are four integral components that can be identified. These become increasingly present as one moves toward God. These he identifies as (1) one’s desire to be holy, (2) one’s willingness to accept suffering and understand its value,
(3) one’s ability to be other centered in relationships, and (4) one’s capacity to hold an eternal perspective in a finite world.
Each of these themes played out in the human life speaks of an ongoing process of change that does not stagnate but is in motion, constantly working and reworking the human heart to become more like Jesus. Hughes suggests that holiness is best understood as one gazes steadily at Jesus in adoring contemplation. Suffering, as the greatest mystery in the universe, despite its pain and horror, is used by God to effect transformation in our lives and create in us a greater capacity for love and compassion. Relationships are important not only because they allow us to reach out beyond ourselves, but they are the essence of reality. Relationships mirror the other-centered nature of the Trinity as each member—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—relates to the other in dynamic, unconditional love. Finally, an eternal perspective keeps heaven before us, reminds us who we are and where our home is; it also gives us courage to risk for the present. It is the greatest visionaries, who see the bigger picture, who have so often done so much for social change.
- In your own spiritual journey, which of these four themes has been the most meaningful in directing your life?
- What specifically has happened to you and/or within you that has allowed you to move forward in one or more of these four directions?
- In what area(s) do you feel the need to grow? What is the most difficult challenge?
- How did Jesus’ life exemplify these four areas?
TIME: Opportunity Lost or Opportunity Gained?
How do you view time? As our time reserve wanes at the dawning of more mature ages and stages, it may well be that our view of time increases in depth, rather than in longitudinal scope. Crabb, who is now sixty, talks of two ways to view time. One is in terms of “opportunity lost.” As we grow older, we are inclined to experience nostalgia and desire for pleasures gone by that are no longer ours to have. Once in your sixties, you can no longer experience the joy of fatherhood in your thirties as you watched your son in a Little League outfit play a baseball game. This is a view of time that sees the glass half empty.
The alternate view does not see the glass half full, however. It sees the glass bursting at the brim, filled to overflowing. Crabb calls this “opportunity gained.” This view of time is realized most explicitly for the Christian and often becomes more salient as one grows older. It is the awareness that finds us when we grasp the truth that as our mortal selves decline with the passage of time (in terms of both opportunity and physical stamina), we are growing closer and closer to the One who is the Source of everything good—God. Living in this way, time befriends us as we are then freed up from mourning loss to seizing every moment for God.
As we begin to catch “a whiff of heaven,” life in all its joy and with all its opportunity pales in comparison to the spiritual awareness that truly “the best is yet to come.”
- How have you experienced “Opportunity Lost” in your own life? “Opportunity Gained”?
- In your experience is there an interaction between the two? If so, how has that been demonstrated in your life?
- How might you enhance your ability to realize “Opportunity Gained” in the moment, as you face the future?
- When, if ever, have you caught “a whiff of heaven”?
The Heart’s Desires
David G. Benner
David Benner’s The Heart’s Desires speaks of the human spiritual journey not as a journey where desire is stamped out, but rather a journey in which prayer—most especially silent prayer—sorts out our desires and conforms our hearts to God’s heart. Ultimately our desire is always a desire for God—a desire that is formed by perfect Love.
Benner point out that what we think we desire can actually be disordered, springing from our own wills and attempts to make ourselves happy by our own efforts. Ordered desires, or those which fulfill and make us fully human, are those that spring from surrender: the freedom of desiring nothing more than God. Most compelling is Benner’s observation that our desires, no matter how thwarted, originate in God’s desiring us. Our deepest longings are given to us by God, for they will eventually (with detours and cul de sacs, given our disordered desires) lead us to the divine Lover of all humanity.
- How has the discipline of prayer shaped your desires?
- Have you ever longed for something you thought would bring fulfillment, only to discover, once you attained it, that your true longing was far deeper? How did you come to this awareness?
- In what moment along your spiritual journey have you been aware of God desiring you?
God Is Closer Than You Think
What if God is so close that we have missed the divine presence somehow? What if God were perceivable in the very ordinary events of day-to-day life? John’s article is one that causes us to sit up, open our eyes, and look around for God. We are reminded that indeed the most frequent promise in Scripture is not that we would be forgiven, but rather the promise that occurs again and again is “I will be with you.” The Sistine Chapel ceiling painted by Michelangelo holds the image we’ve seen of God and Adam reaching for each another. The truth is, however, that God’s reach is extended farther, with far greater vigor and intentionality than Adam’s.
- Do you find yourself seeking God throughout the ordinary events of your day?
- Have you ever been surprised by finding God in someone you dislike, or in some incident that seems entirely too mundane?
- How do you imagine God? For instance, is your God the God of the Sistine Chapel, or is it the God who loves from a distance and chooses to stay uninvolved?
- Do you think our image of God is important in learning to be in close relationship with him?
- How does God’s pervasive promise to us in Scripture—“I will be with you”— tell us about who God is for us?
Classical and Modern Understandings of the Journey
We are on a journey. The Bible is saturated with images of journey. The image of journey is encouraging because it means we are going somewhere. But, as McGrath suggests, the journey is more than a means to an end. It is also a process by which we can grow in faith as we travel, discover our identity as believers, and prepare ourselves for a grand homecoming when we see Jesus. Two images of the journey have been helpful to McGrath, and he shares them with us. One is the image of a hitchhiker. To hitch a ride is to learn more about people and life, and to depend on others to get where you need to go. Spiritually, our own gifts are varied, and we need others to partner with us, pick us up when we are weak, and transport us where we need to go.
Journeys were not meant to be done in isolation. “To hitch a ride with the great spiritual writers and thinkers of the past is to learn and be encouraged,” he writes.
The second image is that of a “spiritual trainer” akin to a personal trainer who devises programs suited to the individual’s aspirations. The spiritual trainer, or mentor, provides such an environment of support, suggestions for spiritual disciplines/exercises, prayer, and under God’s grace helps develop spiritual resources needed to keep us going. Both these images of the spiritual journey involve partnership and trust. No one need go it alone—the road has been traveled before by many—both in the past and in the present.
- Do you find the images “hitchhiker” and “spiritual trainer” helpful?
- Can you recount a time when you hitchhiked on another person’s spiritual gifts to get you where you needed to go?
- If you have been mentored, was this clarifying in terms of growth, knowing your direction and keeping your goal in mind?
- Have you ever felt isolated in your spiritual journey? How might McGrath’s suggestions help you to be in partnership and community with others as you journey?
- Have you ever been a mentor? Picked up a hitchhiker? How was doing this for another person related to your process on the journey?
Wounded by the Inner Flame of Love: Journeying with John of the Cross
Joyce Peasgood’s review of St. John of the Cross shows us that even though his world was radically different from ours (1542–1591), he is helpful for us in teaching a slower, contemplative pace that Peasgood calls the “art of savoring.” Working with St. Teresa of Avila, John had great compassion for the poor and worked tirelessly with St. Teresa to establish places of prayer and centers for spiritual nurture. Eventually he was imprisoned after being severely flogged, and it was there in prison that he discovered what it meant to be stripped of all attachments. There he experienced “the dark night of the soul” and, in the midst of those arid, difficult days, God’s work in transforming the deepest parts of him. John’s deepest longing was for union with God, and his recurring stages of growth to this end are purgation, illumination, and union.
The lack of attachment to anything but God, the appetite for nothing but the divine, or the “nakedness of the soul” is achieved only through God’s inner, loving wisdom penetrating the soul, a penetration which often demonstrates itself in what we would call “suffering.” We might perceive this as God’s abandonment. However, John speaks of this dark night differently. He compares it to a mother weaning a child. Although it is painful for the child at the time, it in no way signifies abandonment by the mother. Rather it is meant for the child’s healthy development and ongoing maturity.
John also uses the metaphor of a log burning, to explain the purification (purgation) process. In order for the log to provide light, warmth, and comfort, it must be purged of the moisture it retains. As it burns and is being purged, the wood turns black and in so doing gives off light and warmth. This is illumination. Union occurs when the will of God and the will of the soul are in conformity—when everything that opposes God is removed and the soul “rests transformed in God through love.” Then the flame of God’s love burns gently within.
- What attachments do we celebrate in our culture?
- How might they get in the way of our closeness to God? From what do we need to detach ourselves? Might it even be a theology or a system that hinders our pursuit of divine love?
- It is important to remember that John’s stages of purgation, illumination, and union are recurring ones throughout life. It is not as if we ever “arrive,” but we are continually drawn closer to God. Do you think this perspective may help you as you face seasons of suffering in your own life? How might suffering be a redemptive process?
- Which metaphor, the nursing mother or the burning log, appeals most to you?
- Can you think of other metaphors that might help to explain the dark night of the soul?
- Have you ever had a sense of being completely stripped of all that would normally entice you, and instead desiring only fellowship with God?
Spiritual Director, Spiritual Companion: Guide to Tending the Soul
Tilden Edwards defines a contemplative stance from a Christian perspective as a “loving immediate presence to God,” or a willingness to lean back into the gracious Presence of God and apprehend that we are meant to be in intimate relationship with our “Great Mysterious Lover,” who is at the very heart of all reality.
Separation from God’s pervasive presence in our lives stems from our own brokenness, which is often demonstrated in our need to control and “domesticate” God, to accumulate spiritual achievements, and to fear instead of trust. This runs counter to “leaning into” the mystery of the divine Lover who longs for us.
Tilden speaks of our soul as our core identity in the image of God. Soul is the “moreness” that goes beyond the empirical, physical/psychological, cognitive understanding of what makes us human. The concept of soul is understood by Tilden as articulating the reality that the divine and the human dwell mysteriously together in the center of our being. The spiritual director helps to facilitate this awareness of God’s close and immediate presence for the directee by being willing and open to God’s loving truth and having a deep, humble receptivity to God’s surprising acts of grace.
- How have you experienced “leaning back” into God? In doing this, what is most difficult for you? What is most rewarding?
- How have you sensed that you are more than a physical/psychological being?
- If the soul, as Edwards defines it, is the dynamic of the divine and the human dwelling together at the center of our being, what does this tell us about who we were created to be? What were we created to do?
- Have you been a recipient of one of God’s surprises, an undomesticated happening in your life? If so, what was it?
- Have you had a spiritual director or companion who helped you “tune in” to the rhythms of God’s presence in your life—the closeness of Divine love? What was this like for you? How was this different from seeking God’s presence alone?