Conversatio Divina

Reclaiming Wisdom

A Gracious Reversal

Bruce Demarest

The weekly bulletin of our Evangelical Presbyterian church indicated that a three-person renewal team from the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver would begin an eight-week education course the following Sunday. When my wife, Elsie, suggested that we attend this unexpected class offering together, I demurred, responding that as an evangelical seminary professor, I was uncomfortable with some of Rome’s beliefs. Since our tradition possesses the correct theology, the last thing I needed was to be instructed by a Jesuit priest. I had even taught an entire seminary course on Roman theology, pointing out what I judged to be the theological and ecclesial pitfalls of Catholicism.


As my wife frowned, my mind drifted back to my youth, when I was a high school student in the New York City borough of Queens. The public school I attended was located half a mile from a large Catholic high school. Relations between the two schools were less than cordial. At the end of the school day, students from the two schools crossed paths, resulting in sporadic clashes. The calendar dictated our weapons of choice. During milder months, the two sides hurled stones at each other; during cold winter months, we barraged each other with snowballs. Occasionally, police were called in to break up the melee. Being a pitcher on the high school baseball team, often I was in the vanguard of the fracas. Etched on my soul was the memory of my Huguenot ancestors being hunted down and persecuted by anti-Reformation forces in Europe centuries earlier.

Growing into adulthood did little to alter my perceptions. Following eight years of missionary work in Africa and Europe, I found myself entrenched in the academic world of the seminary. I sensed the need to come up to speed rather quickly to ensure success in my new career. A decade later I entered a season of spiritual lethargy, even ministry burnout. In my teaching ministry I was saying and doing the right things, publishing books and articles, receiving notes of appreciation from students, achieving tenure, and advancing in rank. But my soul had become internally dry and increasingly barren. No great existential crisis, but a spiritual funk, nevertheless. The traditional advice—attend church, read the Bible, and pray—was getting me nowhere. I was unsure how to move forward experientially to the fullness of life in Christ that I knew theoretically.

Unfettered by the prejudices that haunted my mind, Elsie attended the first class offering presented by the Archdiocese renewal team and was richly blessed. I had found another class to teach in order to avoid attending the course led by the Jesuits. When my wife urged that I attend the next class with her, I reluctantly consented. To my surprise, the team with guitars played the same praise songs that we sang. But it was their teaching on formation issues—neglected spiritual disciplines, unfamiliar spiritual writings, insightful journey models, etc.—that piqued my interest and resonated with my hunger. The coming of the Catholic renewal team to our Presbyterian church proved to be an extraordinary gift, a kairos event, a grace-filled, redemptive season orchestrated by the sovereign God.

After introducing myself to the Jesuit team leader, we agreed to meet in a week or two to continue our conversation. The priest was eager to learn more about evangelical Christianity (his picture of evangelicalism centered on TV images of Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart). For my part, I longed to tap into his expertise in spiritual formation. For the next three and a half years, he skillfully mentored me in the new world of spiritual formation and direction. He encouraged me to listen to God in silence, practice unfamiliar spiritual disciplines (such as solitude, lectio divina, and contemplative prayer), and apply to my life the wisdom of Christian spiritual masters. Together, we pondered my dreams and prayed new prayer forms. Above all, he helped me move beyond learning about Christ to, in Paul’s words, “learning Christ” (Ephesians 4:20). As I journeyed with this gifted spiritual director, I began to live out of my heart and slowly came alive again. God was at work in the life of my spiritual director as well, for in time he resigned his priesthood, married one of his team members, and joined the staff of a Baptist church as a pastoral counselor.

I enthusiastically attended nearly every retreat, seminar, and workshop on the spiritual journey within reach. My soul guide encouraged me to visit the Pecos Benedictine Abbey, a Spirit-filled renewal community near Santa Fe, New Mexico, specializing in spiritual formation and direction. On my first visit, I experienced anxiety about undertaking an experience that appeared so different from my comfortable evangelical world. As I approached the village of Pecos, nestled in the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) mountains, I recall asking myself, What is this good Baptist boy (I was raised a Baptist) doing in a Benedictine monastery? My initial tensions soon gave way to incredible fulfillment and satisfaction during this first retreat and repeated sojourns to the monastery. The Christlike hospitality of community members, the rhythm of celebrating the daily office, edifying instruction from discerning teachers, hikes in the mountains, and seasons of silence all breathed sacred life into my soul.

Then on a crisp January day in 1995, I joined forty other enrollees—lay folk looking for a deeper relationship with Christ, Stephens Ministers, clinical psychologists, pastors, and a bishop or two—for the six-week Pecos residential School for Spiritual Direction. We were evenly divided among Catholic charismatics, renewal Anglicans, and free-church evangelicals. I was encouraged to discover in the group folks with connections to Wheaton College, Bethel Seminary, and the Navigators—suggesting that evangelicals are searching for a spiritual reality more engaging and experiential than the typical fare.

The daily routine at the monastery began with early morning Lauds and Eucharist, continued with two enriching lectures that plumbed the heart of the spiritual life, followed by noon-day prayer, afternoon formation groups of six people, Vespers, and evening Compline, which quieted the soul for the night’s rest. We participated in occasional, grace-filled evening liturgies of healing and reconciliation. Twice each week, participants met for an hour with a spiritual director. I was blessed to be assigned to a director who had founded the Pecos community thirty years earlier. Dr. David Geraets engagingly blends Benedictine spirituality, long experience in the Charismatic Renewal, and a Christ-centered faith. One of the most spiritually discerning persons I have met, Abbot Geraets gently guided me on a spiritual path that I had not trod in my Protestant world.

God anointed this place and this program with a gracious abundance of His presence. A university president experienced significant renewal following a painful divorce. A Lutheran pastor with three decades of parish ministry was healed of buried emotional wounds. A Canadian Episcopal bishop carrying the weight of serious problems in his diocese found wisdom from the Lord to address potentially explosive tensions. A Christian counselor was motivated to incorporate heart-changing spiritual formation regimens into her clinical work. Everyone acknowledged that this renewal community was an anointed, sacred place.

I often reflect on what has made this place, this experience, so special to so many searching souls. I was immediately drawn to its Christ-centered orthodoxy. At Pecos everything centered about the simple core affirmation, “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.” Second is its commitment to the communal life that characterized the early church (Acts 2:42–47). As we learned together, worshiped together, and prayed together, we powerfully bonded to one another and to Christ. Third is its disciplined practice of healthy spiritual habits. At Pecos I learned to practice new spiritual disciplines as cited above, not as ways of scoring points with God, but as means of opening my life to transforming grace.

I also experienced a remarkably balanced approach to the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The facilitators of the Pecos program modeled what the exercise of the Spirit’s gifts might look like in redeemed lives. I was given the courage to open my heart to the Comforter, who longs to impart Christ’s resurrected life to His people. And finally, the Pecos experience exposed me to classical perspectives on Christian spirituality and direction embodied in authorities such as John Cassian, Bernard of Clairvaux, François Fénelon, John of the Cross, William Law, and Evelyn Underhill. It was exhilarating to enter into the Christ-centered experience of church fathers, desert mothers, ancient martyrs, medieval scholastics, and responsible Christian mystics through the centuries. I was also challenged by recent writers such as John Baillie, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and Emilie Griffin. While not endorsing everything, I found most of what I encountered edifying. I adhere to a guideline shared by a friend: “While reading spiritual writings, embrace the vitamins while rejecting any toxins encountered.”

During the six-week School for Spiritual Directors, the toxic web of the old self was being dismantled, and my true self in Christ was being re-formed from the inside out. So rich was the experience that I felt transported back into the life of the Apostolic Church with its vision, passion, and power. From another angle I sensed that, like Peter, James, and John, I was being Spirit-borne up the Mount of Transfiguration to catch a glimpse of the glorified Christ and the heavenly world (see Matthew 17:1–8). With Peter (see 2 Peter 1:16–18), the experience of ascending the mountain with Jesus is indelibly fixed in my soul as a deposit of our future inheritance. Never to be forgotten, this extraordinary grace has provided the resolve to follow the Savior more faithfully. James Loder calls such an Aha! experience a “transforming moment” that leads to “convictional knowing.” The latter is a relational knowing, or a profound engaging of the truth about God and ourselves, that is richer than mere analytical knowing (knowing about). Such encounters shock us into repentance and accelerate the process of healing and transformation.James Loder, The Transforming Moment (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981) viii, 12.

I was assigned at the school to a formation group with five women. The only male in the group, I came to realize that God was nurturing the feminine side of my soul (anima). Some in my group were struggling with life traumas such as divorce and cancer. During the six weeks together, God bonded us at a deep spiritual level. As our last gathering was drawing to a close, Jesus dramatically appeared in the midst of the group, and I sensed Him speaking these words inaudibly to my heart: “Bruce, this has been for you a life-transforming journey. Now I want you to lay down your life in love for others. Along the path of your life, I want you to lay down footprints of blessing others.” Knowing this was Jesus, I responded, “Lord, this is wonderful, but one question: If you ask me to forget self and lay down my life in love for others, who will care for me?” After a brief pause, Jesus directly spoke to my heart the reassuring words, “I will!” That settled it! I had seen the kingdom of God! By God’s grace I would surrender fully to His values.

After these transforming seasons with Christ, I was directed outward to share these treasures with my seminary community and local church. Students gathered in our home to process these discoveries. I began to offer courses on spiritual formation and mentoring at the master’s and doctoral levels. At Denver Seminary we launched a program in Christian formation and soul care that has matured and equipped shepherds for the church. I also took groups of students to the Pecos community for weekend workshops and retreats. During one retreat with second-career students, uplifting worship and formative teaching in the dimmed light of the chapel culminated in a service of healing and reconciliation. During that liturgy, Christ’s presence and working were palpable: buried resentments were confessed; students were anointed with oil and prayed over; and some reposed on the floor, powerfully moved by the Spirit. Following the service, the mature seminary students insisted, “We’ve got to talk about this!” and so we processed this gracious visitation into the wee hours of the morning. Most of these seminarians had not experienced before such an immediate sense of God’s awesome and holy presence.

I am arrested by the fact that God used the Christian tradition I vigorously opposed earlier in life to renew and transform my life further along the journey. While I must confess the bias that I still believe “we evangelicals” possess the better theology, I came to believe that the Anglicans and Catholics I encountered seem to have retained more effective protocols for nurturing vibrant spiritual life. Perhaps in their overreaction against patent excesses in the late medieval church, the Protestant Reformers threw out soul-nourishing elements of classical spiritual wisdom with the doctrinal and ecclesial bathwater. The Reformer Zwingli, for example, stripped churches of religious art, dispatched the organ, and whitewashed the walls, judging that these sensible forms detracted from the pure worship of God. As a result,

the aesthetic, sacramental, and mystical dimensions of the Catholic tradition were put aside for the sake of a Bible-based rationalism, which was to affect many parts of the Reformed tradition, including . . . much of American Protestantism to the present day.Bradley P. Holt, Thirsty for God: A Brief History of Christian Spirituality (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005) 103–104.

While I remain governed by the Word and the Gospel, my new vision and passion is to connect with the life-transforming wisdom of the historic Christian church. By grace my pathway has become less sectarian, more classically Christian, and, I trust, more generous and compassionate. I believe that God is strategically using the current revival of spiritual formation and direction not only to renew the church, but also to bring together His redeemed people, long held at arm’s length from one another by suspicion and fear. May we all sense the burden of Jesus’ heart when He petitioned the Father,

I pray also for those who will believe in me . . . that all of them might be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me (John 17:20–21, NIVScripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™).

Heartily, I concur with the judgment of the evangelical church historian Richard Lovelace, who writes,

We need to listen to other kinds of Christians. Mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox believers have preserved biblical values that we lack. And they often have clear insights about our faults that could help us toward repentance. . . . We need to listen to . . . the body of tradition that has nourished other movements. The early fathers, the medieval mystics, the spiritual doctors of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the leaders of the awakening eras, the uneven prophets of liberal social reform—all of these can force us back toward biblical balance and authentic spirituality.Richard F. Lovelace, “Evangelical Spirituality: A Church Historian’s Perspective.” JETS 31/1, March 1988, 35.

And with Richard Foster I insist that our nurturing ventures into the world of spiritual formation and direction must remain impeccably orthodox: “We need a vision that welcomes the rich diversity of the body of Christ while being absolutely clear on the essentials of Christian life and faith.”

“Lord, You are the Light of my heart, and the Bread in the mouth of my soul.”Augustine. Confessions, 7.10.

Footnotes

Bruce Demarest serves as professor of Christian formation at Denver Seminary. He holds a PhD in historical theology from the University of Manchester (England) and an MA from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. In addition to books on theology, he has written Satisfy Your Soul and Soul Guide (both NavPress), and most recently, he teamed up with James R. Beck in writing The Human Person in Theology and Psychology: An Anthropology for the Twenty-First Century (Kregel, 2005).