Conversatio Divina

Part 18 of 19

Conversation Guide

Kim Engelmann

In this feature of the Conversations journal, several articles are selected for use as a small group resource. We provide you with a summary and discussion questions with the hope that each issue of Conversations may morph into a thematic resource for spiritual formation groups.

01.  Opening One’s Heart to Another: The Rediscovery of Spiritual Direction

Janet K. Ruffing

This article compares the blossoming of the inner core of oneself to the blossoming of a rose. We remain “closed buds, stuck in our growth process” when we stagnate spiritually. Spiritual direction can help us to bloom. Having a spiritual director, sometimes called a companion or a coach, can help us discern more clearly what God is doing in our lives. This spiritual practice is increasingly gaining acceptance in evangelical and Protestant churches after having had a long rich history in Catholicism. Such companionship is a corrective to the isolation many feel after an initial experience of God, not quite knowing where to go or whom to trust in their quest for a deeper more centered spiritual life.

The assumption of all spiritual direction, of course, is that the Holy Spirit is already at work in the directee’s life. The spiritual director listens with one ear to the directee’s story, and with the other tunes in to the voice of the Holy Spirit. This has been called “holy listening.” Both the director and the directee notice, name, and discover together where God is in the directee’s life. Ruffing says that the director helps to discern meaning by bringing together the content of faith (history and doctrine) and the person’s faith story. This “meaning making” can open up God’s presence to the directee in new and surprising ways, facilitating growth and new possibilities.

Spiritual direction needs to be a safe place. When it is safe, spiritual direction can guide us through psychological change, so that as we grow and mature as people, our relationship with God continues to grow as well.

  1. Have you ever been in spiritual direction? Did you ever want to be? What might hinder you from becoming involved in this practice? If you have been in spiritual direction, share from your own experience what it was like for you.
  2. Why is it important to “make meaning” with our lives? How does meaning foster a sense of well-being and purpose, of connection with God?
  3. What is one area of your life or “faith story” where you feel you would benefit from more discernment and/or clarity?

02.  Spiritual Direction: Entering the Battle That’s Already Been Won

Larry Crabb

Crabb humbly confesses his own hunger for God and longing to know him better. He reminds us that no one “graduates” or “arrives” in this life. We graduate in the next life. Nor does spiritual direction cause us to arrive. It brings us hope, a foretaste of what we will experience in the next life when we see Jesus.

Given this perspective, Crabb shares five assumptions about spiritual direction: (1) There is life within the directee that is good and wants release, and the process of spiritual direction can facilitate this. (2) God is in the thick of life, and spiritual direction addresses the directee’s relationship with God underneath every trial. In spiritual direction, the outcome always ought to be other-centered compassion. Spiritual direction puts us back into the world in a whole new way; it doesn’t remove us from it. (3) Spiritual direction moves us from self-obsession to God-obsession. This is a hidden battle, but it is in every soul and becomes exposed in the spiritual direction process. (4) Spiritual direction does not fulfill our desire for God; it grows in the soil of unsatisfied desires that point us ahead. (5) Spiritual direction honors God’s timing. It is not the director who makes something happen; it is God. God is in control.

With these five assumptions, Crabb then takes the reader through the model of spiritual direction that he teaches. The spiritual director meets the directee in his or her journeying reality (where the person is spiritually, right now). The director is “radically present” to the directee’s “radical present.” It is important for the director to distinguish between his own inner pull from his interior world, and the directee’s pull from his or her own inner world and context. The director must offer only what comes from the Spirit’s prompting. With this in mind, distinguishing the pull from the Spirit’s promptings, the directee can move toward creating a spiritual vision for the person seeking direction; a beginning picture of what the directee might look like if the Spirit did his work. This possibility can excite one into prayer.

Discernment about “flesh dynamics” vs. what the Spirit wants to do is free to emerge without judgment or anger. It is important to challenge flesh dynamics, which equal narcissism or, as Augustine put it, “a nature curved in on itself.” Crabb believes that a heart inclined toward God, a heart that wants to know him and please him and sacrifice for him, runs deeper in the human soul of a Jesus follower than any fleshly desire. The “Spirit dynamic” is that (1) we discover ourselves as children of God, and (2) embracing that identity arouses our longing for God. Spiritual direction tracks people through trial and difficulty, but provides all along the way a taste of God’s goodness and a hope that frees us to be other-centered, like Jesus.

  1. When, if ever, have you sensed your flesh dynamics at war with your Spirit dynamics?
  2. What is your dream about how God might want to work in your life? What about it seems possible? Impossible?
  3. Do you agree that the goal of spiritual direction ought to be other-centered compassion? Why or why not?
  4. What are you most looking forward to in heaven?

03.  I Have a Dream and a Hope...For the Maturing of the Modern Spiritual Formation Movement

Richard J. Foster

Spiritual formation is meant to help us live a life that works. It is not meant to perpetuate customs or traditions or rituals. Spiritual formation is about real life and should so saturate life that one learns, because of this formation, how to love one’s spouse well, how to raise one’s children well, how to study well, how to reach out well, how to die well, etc.

As denominational lines blur, we can take from the rich heritage provided by each one and glean treasures to create a more eclectic approach to a more fully textured, wiser way of life. For instance, from the Methodists, we learn about “social holiness”; from the Pentecostals, we learn about the empowering of the Holy Spirit; from the Mennonites, we grow in our ability to be witnesses for peace; from the Quakers, we learn about stepping into simplicity in life, etc.

When these aspects are intertwined, we begin to realize formation in new ways and grow in integrity and character. Followers of Jesus are this way, living well, easily, and freely and esteeming others as better than themselves. (See Philippians 2:3.)

There are some difficulties with spiritual formation, however. Currently, a lot of “Holy Baloney” is appealing to people since “spirituality” and “spiritual formation” have become very popular in our culture. Many are speaking and writing on formation when they themselves have not been spiritually formed. In addition, people tire quickly in our fickle culture and move on to the next fad with restless impatience.

However, we must remember that we are not presenting a “program”; instead, we are presenting people with a life of intimate interaction with Jesus, who is alive and is our eternal Teacher, Lord, Friend, and Savior. A few things to keep in mind in the pilgrimage toward spiritual formation are as follows: (1) We should invest in a few folks deeply, over time, for eternity. (2) Spiritual formation is not to be diluted into various practices; it is interaction with Jesus. (3) Engagement in spiritual formation is for the church universal in all her multifaceted expressions. (4) Spiritual formation ought not to center on curriculum-based solutions, but rather, should serve and be subservient to one’s relationship with Jesus. (5) Our teachers, models, and inspiration are the people of God through history whose testimonies have endured the test of time. We do not commit “the heresy of the contemporary.” (6) We are after a changed heart; we are not focused on outward action. (7) As our hearts become changed/renovated, we eventually turn more tenderly toward the bruised and broken in the world. We move out of bubbles of security and make a difference for others.

  1. When have you felt that you lived one day well? A week well? A month? What is it about living with integrity that speaks volumes to the world?
  2. When, if ever, have you experienced what Foster called “Holy Baloney”? What was your experience like?
  3. Of the seven points that Foster made on living life well, which one or two might be most challenging for you right now? Most appealing?
  4. Do you think that borrowing from the rich tradition of each denominational heritage can provide a new model for the church moving into the future? Why or why not?

04.  A Place Along the Way

Marie Loewen

Marie Loewen, an Anglican priest, shares her experiences of offering hospitality to others. She uses Nouwen’s definition that hospitality is “a central attitude of the minister who wants to make his own wounded condition available to others as a source of healing.” Our tendency to discard pain like leftover salad scraps, to throw it away and cover it up, shrinks us, diminishes our life. The “stewardship of pain,” as coined by Buechner, means that instead of covering up pain or using it to gain sympathy and becoming trapped in it, we should, rather, embrace the pain as Christ embraced the cross, and find that it leads us to great beauty and great hope.

Pain stretches our souls. As we heal from it through counseling, prayer, and friendship, we find the pain receding, but the space it once occupied does not disappear. In that space we find our souls have grown. In this space we are now able to offer a place of warmth, safety, and hope for others. Loewen tells us that the memory of the pain will always be with us. Yet she says that, instead of taking up too much space, it lives in an alabaster jar in a corner and is precious ointment. We can share this ointment with others at the right times, and from this sharing come compassion for the other and also confidence that healing is possible. “We become the incarnation of the hope that the present suffering will not be wasted but will be of value some day.”

The space we offer others is marked by stillness that is a sense of “expectant waiting.” The space is a space of hope in the midst of another’s darkness, a window through which someone can look confidently ahead. In this space we offer a door to close for safety and also to open in order to send people out with open hands, not imprisoned by the relationship as an end in itself, but set free by it. In all this, it is important for the minister to nurture herself, and find worth in her own relationship with Christ, not allowing personal worth to be invested and measured by those “helped.” Boundaries and space for oneself—“sabbathing”—must be maintained and valued in order to stay spiritually healthy and vibrant. Finally, creating space for another is not limited to professionals. “Rather,” Loewen writes, “it is the capacity of any individual who has come to know a soul-deep connection with God and God’s healing presence to communicate the possibility of such connection to others.”

  1. Think about the metaphor of pain, once healed, living in an alabaster jar in the corner of our souls. Is it possible to think of your own pain in this way? How might the pain you have experienced and perhaps healed from, partially or fully, be precious ointment for another person?
  2. Did you ever think of “stewarding your pain” wisely? Have you wasted or covered up any pain or difficulty that might actually be a valuable resource for spiritual growth, guidance, and hope? How might you retrieve it?
  3. What do you think it means to “embrace” pain? If Jesus embraced the pain of the cross, what did he do that could serve as an example for us?
  4. When have you been in a situation of expectant waiting (e.g., waiting for someone to show up at the airport, waiting for a package in the mail, etc.)? How is this stance helpful when walking alongside someone who is in pain?

05.  Sacred Accidents

Earl Creps

This article reminds us that God is a God of surprises and often shows up “between the cracks” of our well-thought-out church programs for spiritual growth. God also shows up in unexpected places in the course of everyday life as well, and Creps suggests that perhaps how we respond to God’s presence in the unexpected can itself be considered its own discipline. Perhaps “sacred accidents” play a more pivotal role in spiritual formation than we might at first think, just as human accidents have often resulted in such unexpected, monumental discoveries as penicillin.

In Jesus’ parable, the sower allows for such accidents when he scatters seed without knowing how it will grow (no well-thought-through program) but knowing it will, so he scatters randomly and expects God to act anywhere and everywhere. This interpretation of the parable suggests that spiritual growth is more random than we had perhaps thought. We need to be intentional, too, about our growth, but perhaps the disciplines in which we regularly engage prepare us for even greater transformation when God gains access to our lives through sacred accidents.

God is not available to us only in Christian settings, for example, but is enormously available to us elsewhere. To recognize God in unexpected places, we may need to stop talking, move out of our comfort zone with our relationships, take chances, carry a camera that gives us “perspective,” and continue to practice the disciplines. Creps states, “Perhaps the accidental nature of these unplanned experiences is precisely what makes them disarming enough to open us up to a startling vision of God.” Staying open to what God is already doing in us and in the world in surprising ways makes us fertile soil for growth and transformation.

  1. What is the biggest surprise you’ve ever had? What was surprising about it? Did the experience change you in any way?
  2. Have you ever experienced a “sacred accident” or been surprised by God? Did this experience change you in any way?
  3. How might the church give more room for the surprising activity of God? Can we “program” for surprises? Do you think most ministry happens “between the cracks” of our well-constructed programming? Why or why not?
  4. Think about the parable of the sower. Why do you think Jesus had the sower sowing seed everywhere? How has practicing the disciplines helped you to be more aware of God’s presence in unexpected places?

06.  The Right Disciplines at the Right Time: Understanding the Journey with Teresa of Avila

Tom Ashbrook

This article talks about the importance of paying attention to our spiritual growth process and recognizing the importance of practicing the disciplines in the right way at the right time, based upon this process. Ashbrook uses Teresa of Avila’s classic work Interior Castle to help explain this. Here is an outline of the stage each room/mansion represents.

  • Room 1: Saved, yet having a worldly focus.
  • Room 2: Conflicted loyalties (world and God’s Kingdom) cause a struggle, but also draw us to deeper prayer.
  • Room 3: We are making a concerted effort to live the Christian life, to do the right things.
  • Room 4: God begins to reveal himself to us through experiences of his presence. We “taste” the love of Jesus.
  • Room 5: We move further away from doing to being; also, we might experience dark nights of the soul when God seems distant.
  • Room 6: An even deeper experience of God’s transforming love, and a passion to serve him in love, a deep longing for God.
  • Room 7: Living continually and transcendently in the present moment, in the fullness of Christ’s love. This is the ultimate intimacy with God that we can experience in this life. Teresa saw this as an ongoing process rather than a destination.

Ashbrook cites a friend’s spiritual dryness and his feeling far from God as an example of a fourth- or fifth-room “dark night of the soul.” Rather than memorizing Scripture, which his friend started doing to “fix” what was wrong, he finally let go and decided to “do nothing” with God. As he surrendered in this way, his dryness began to lift. He realized that “backsliding” was not the issue. His dryness had instead been God doing a deep work in his soul. In other words, the spiritual disciplines are subordinate to God’s work in human life and must be used as a response to this, rather than followed as a set of inflexible rules. God alone is the initiator, the fixer, the transformer.

It may be that when we are in early rooms, we need to study Scripture to learn who God is, but later we must meditate on Scripture to listen for God’s still, small voice. We tell God what to do in prayer early on; later, we move to a more listening posture. Obedience is important at the beginning, but later on, issues of love and trust become central as we grow in intimacy with Jesus.

  1. What room do you see yourself in at this stage in your life?
  2. Since Teresa did not mean for this process to be linear, are you aware of having visited a room several times? Did you return a little bit different each time?
  3. Think about each room and the spiritual disciplines with which you may be familiar. How might spiritual disciplines be used appropriately or inappropriately at these different phases of spiritual growth? Discuss as a group.


Kim Engelmann serves as Pastor in Congregational Care at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, Calif. She attended Barnard College, Princeton Seminary, and Boston University where she specialized in Pastoral Care. Kim has three children, ages 8, 10, and 12. She is married to Timothy Engelmann, who is a clinical psychologist in private practice. The Engelmanns also have a dog, guinea pig, love bird, chinchilla, and a rabbit.