SPIRITUALITY: On Spiritual Formation

On Spiritual Formation

Henri Nouwen, on his definition of spiritual formation, writes the following:

Spiritual formation, I have come to believe, is not about steps or stages on the way to perfection.  It’s about the movements from the mind to the heart through prayer in its many forms that reunite us with God, each other, and our truest selves.

Henri goes on to explain that in his context, the heart is the seat of everything: it is where the body, soul, and spirit come together.  He elaborates even on this by saying that in the Jewish-Christian tradition, the heart “refers to the source of all physical, emotional, intellectual, volitional, and moral energies.”

That’s quite a mouthful, don’t you think?

Henri views spiritual formation as an action, using the verb, to move, to characterize it.  And so I spent some time considering this.  And I found, not surprisingly, that I disagree.

I also see spiritual formation as an action, but I put the emphasis on the verb, to strip.  Stripping.  What Job was put through — everything of value taken away until the only thing left to him was his relationship with God.  And for Job, that was enough.

But my experiences of spiritual formation are not quite the same as Job’s.  Instead, I find spiritual growth a result of being stripped of emotional comforts, not physical.  When these periods of growth occur, I think of the well worn image of an onion being peeled.  Layer by layer.

For me, the layers are always about my feelings of shame.  And when it is time, I am always confronted with doing something that will result in directly confronting feelings that are the absolute last feelings that I want to be feeling.

There was a long period of time in my life when, because of my seemingly most unusual gifts, that I did not want to be considered insane.  I actually went to a psychiatrist as a young woman to determine whether or not these visions that I was having were a sign of mental illness, or a damaged brain.

Even as I was blessed with a diagnosis that my visions were both benign and beneficial, I spent much of my life building a wall between my spiritual life and my “real” life.  I wanted the biggest buffer between myself and the accusation of insanity that I could create.

So I was overwhelmingly horrified when I came to a period of life wherein my visions directed me to behave in most unusual ways.  I had come to absolutely trust God, and so, not even begrudgingly, I followed the path laid out for me.

And, slowly, the eyes of the people around me turned on me.  How they glared!  I was, it seems, nothing more than a “religious nut.”  The battle that I was in at the time was caused solely by me and my mental and emotional imbalance.

I was completely and thoroughly condemned.

It was my worst nightmare.

But I discovered something in this time of turmoil: I discovered that the changed perceptions of those around me gave me an excellent place in which to hide from them.  To them, people confused about what side to take in this battle, I became a nonentity, something of an idiot.

And so I got to be in places where I wouldn’t have been allowed under normal circumstances, and to learn all sorts of things that I could use to my advantage.  I could also get away with doing things that would, under different circumstances, be taken much more seriously than they were — I was, after all, suffering great distress and was not, “myself.”

The battle that I am referring to was my eight-year long divorce from a man willing to play very, very dirty in the proceedings, and is, himself, an attorney, so had great advantage over me, an at-home mom of two.

By the way, I won the battle.  Overwhelmingly.  And I can only assert that I could not have done so without the very real backing I received from God through my visions.

This was, of course, not the only time that I have had to face my worst fears in order to develop my relationship with God.  And it surprises me, each time, when this time of growth is upon me, that I am surprised by the feelings that I have to confront — as though I didn’t know all along that they were there, lurking, under the label, this is the very last thing I will do for God.

It is through these hidden emotions, these fortress-like constructs that we build to keep ourselves safe from those around us, that the illusion that we are separate from God comes from.  For if we perceive that we are separate from God, then we are suffering from an illusion.

And as we lay aside these bounding-up emotions, we come into increasing comfort with ourselves, and allow ourselves to feel God’s love for us.


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