Sunday, February 15, 2009

My Personal Journey with Spiritual Formation

Spiritual Formation is “The process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others.” (Bob Mulholland)

Why do I feel led to Spiritual Formation studies?

It would be much easier to answer the question of what might not attract me to them. Spiritual formation experiences have, in God’s time, opened themselves to me as God’s response to the deep, inner yearnings of my heart.

Having become an experiential student of Benedictine spirituality, I am attracted to immersing myself in the structure, authority, and depth of our great spiritual traditions. I find myself drawing from the strength of the saints, particularly the holy writings of mystics as well as fresh experiences with God’s Word through the practice of ancient disciplines such as lectio divina. It enlivens the mystic within me.

It is difficult to articulate my attraction to Spiritual Formation without sharing some deeply personal aspects of my journey. I have always had a yearning in my heart for a mystical experience of God. I often say I had the calling of Samuel, for I grew up in the “temple” of the church under the nurture of my family and my father’s pastoral ministry. Like Samuel, I came to notice that God had been speaking. At the age of ten, I stood before the youth group at a retreat at my father’s church and proclaimed that Jesus was no longer just a storybook character, but had become real.

Soon after that, I became more and more involved in the Body of Christ and developed a passion to serve. I spent years going to summer camps, serving as president of my youth group, developing a love for sacred music, and doing music evangelism at churches and youth groups with a dear friend. During college, I spent years studying sacred music, sociology, and religion, serving on “Nina’s Team” for conference youth camps, working as a chapel assistant and musician, and serving as a youth and music director at a local church. During seminary, I embraced the academic nature of the spiritual life, served as assistant director of the seminary choir, began serving ministries and appointments, fell in love, and started a family. After a few years, I became the founding pastor of a new church.

The Dark Night of the Soul

I was appointed as a missionary to begin a new church at the young age of 30. I loved these years and enjoyed giving birth to a wonderful church. But I can also say that much of the spiritual struggle that lead me to my passion for spiritual formation occurred during these years of ministry. Starting a new church was intense. The joys were intense, and the fun was intense! Yes, the challenges were intense. The greatest challenges were not “on the surface”, but were the battles within me - the interior struggles of my heart. I began to depend on prayer and the spiritual counsel of my loving wife, close friends, and prayer partners for survival, not just for enrichment. I found myself lacking in spiritual reserves as I coached and encouraged this new congregation into existence.

These struggles came to a head when the new church went through a difficult time soon after chartering. A group of families in the church began to try and guide the body in a direction that I was uncomfortable with, but I did not really understand why I was uncomfortable with it. As I became clearer about the graceful freedoms and the healthy boundaries of Wesleyan spirituality, the persons involved seemed to grow more aggressive and even abusive toward me and others in the congregation. I strove with all my ability to stay connected with them through the difficulty, but experienced only deeper brokenness.

I realize that even though I felt accosted in many ways, the root of my struggle was deep within me. I discovered that my own lack of clarity had contributed to the experience. With a strength that can only come from God, I stood squarely on behalf of the future of the church and for the protection of the spiritual lives of its members. In time, two staff members and several other families left the church and dispersed to churches of more Pentecostal approaches. It was a hard experience for the new church, but it was suffering for the cause of Christ. It bound the congregation together emotionally and spiritually in miraculous ways. It was a matter of spiritual formation for all of us. The church is now an amazing, thriving congregation whose issues from those early years were dissipated. I can see in retrospect that leading the church through this experience became very positive to the identity of the church. In part this is because suffering produces endurance, and endurance character. In part this is because it was the moment when they became, well, Methodist. After this, I stayed at the church for another 6 or 7 years and enjoyed it immensely. I have since moved into new ministries which I love as well.

In the midst of this dark night of the soul, God was clearly at work and poured out numerous assurances on me. But while I functioned well as pastor, at the same time I was left broken and depressed. In part, this is because it was the first time in my ministry that I had experienced what I perceived of as failure. For a time, I blamed myself for the whole situation.

The Mystic Within Me

I was able to get the help I needed, and by grace my health was restored. During this “walk through the valley of the shadow of death”, God opened a whole new world of spiritual discovery to me. I began to search my roots, recalling family stories of saints and circuit riders in my ancestry. I remember standing before the graves of my great, great, great grandfather and uncle at Taylor Memorial United Methodist Church, which my grandfather later served. It dawned on me that I was not the first church planter in my family. My ancestors had started churches during some very difficult times in Alabama history, yet had depended on Wesleyan spirituality to carry them through. One of the grave markers reads “… embraced religion at 21 years of age, soon thereafter commenced to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ, and continued to do so until his decease …” I felt the nudge of the Spirit say to me, “if they could do that, you can do this!” Realizing my place in the larger picture of the witness of the saints restored my hope that I would make it through the dark night of the soul. I began to realize that these struggles connected me with the body of Christ throughout the centuries.

The Spirit’s nudging had begun! I began a series of visits to Sacred Heart monastery in Cullman, Alabama for personal retreat, journaling, and praying in the context of the rhythm of Benedictine life. I was drawn to the holiness of this place and it became a sanctuary where I could search for inner clarity. Using the resources of the monastery library, I spent time in study of the Gnostic heresy and how the church responded over the centuries. I began to see how Gnosticism is still present in strands of the modern Church and clarified my personal response to it. I began to discover the ancient mystics. In particular, I spent time with Thomas a Kempis, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, and other assorted devotional writers, as well as modern writers such as Thomas Moore and Henri Nouwen.

I discovered that there is a mystic within me that has been crying out for my entire life. For a time, I had let that “dancer” within me free but provided her little structure, and she “blew with every wind of doctrine”. Then for a time, I reacted to the pain of failure by stuffing the mystic back into the dark recesses of my soul and went back to the world of doing and functioning. I plummeted because I was, in effect, shutting off a part of myself. God has shown me that this has been the grand pendulum swing of my spiritual life throughout my journey, though it had not been this extreme before. It became clear to me that the “mystic-in-me” needed the nurture of spiritual formation studies to be truly free and yet grounded in faith.

Continuing this quest I found myself participating in a Renovare Conference and joined a Renovare small group with two other pastors, one of whom has since become my spiritual director. This fellowship fed my soul and helped me to restore balance to my spiritual life. I also continue to visit the monastery from time to time. I began to lead the congregations I serve in spiritual formation experiences rooted in my own journey. I attended the Academy for Spiritual Formation and become part of the leadership teams of other Academies. My covenant group continues to be lifegiving for me. I have discovered that there is room to let the mystic free in the context and balance of our great faith heritage.

My Sacred Tree

Ultimately, my answer to the question of what attracts me to Spiritual Formation might be best given with an image that has become my most sacred metaphor. During one of my earlier visits to Sacred Heart, after spending two days in arduous studies, internal struggles, and prayer, I became unexpectedly enthralled while walking by an extremely large Magnolia tree that rests near the front door of the monastery. I spent two hours contemplating under that tree, examining its large trunks, admiring its extensive branches and leaves. I was overwhelmed with a simple thought that in order for this tree to grow so large, firm, and beautiful – in order for this tree to reach up to God in praise and to reach out to the world - it must have expansive roots. Roots were what I needed.

I had spent too much of my life trying to expand my branches while ignoring my roots, and this led to a “top heavy” spirituality over the years. I had striven to reach out to God, make music that glorifies my Creator, and make a difference in the world. These are all good things, but I had not nourished the roots I so desperately needed. I had discovered the things of the Spirit but had neglected the things of the soul. To stay with the metaphor, it took an experience of “fallenness” to show this truth to me. Thank God for the grace that lifted me back up.

Spiritual formation experiences nourish and grow the roots of my spiritual tree. I am developing the mystic in me and feasting on deeper food for the journey through spiritual disciplines. I need the structure of experiences such as the Academy, covenant group, spiritual direction, and visits to the monastery to help me to continue along the sacred path God has placed on my heart. The rhythm of the daily offices, the grounding in exploration of our spiritual traditions, and the balance of academic and experiential learning help me to deepen my roots. I have found that when it comes to the things of the Spirit, structure is a very good thing. Surprising, I know.

Though Christ has brought me so far into healing and wholeness, I am still so far away from where I desire to be in my prayer pilgrimage. I have yet to become a man who prays without ceasing. Yet I yearn and hunger for God and keep finding opportunity for sacred space and time. I can’t wait to see where the Spirit leads me next!

Copyright 2009 Stephen P. West, all rights reserved