Spiritual formation is more than just formation of the soul or spiriti; it is the formation of the whole person. It is not just about shaping what we believe, stuff or how we think. While it most certainly includes these, spiritual formation shapes the actions, posture and whole being of a Christian so that her life and entire being become molded in the image of Jesus Christ. Ultimately, spiritual formation means that Christians are going to look and act differently than the world around them. In the words of St. Benedict, “Your way acting should be different from the world’s way; the love of Christ must come before all else.” After having taken a class on Spiritual Formation, I want to suggest four common themes that are foundational to a spirit-formed life.
While there is indeed a place and a need for individual reflection, spiritual formation is cultivated in and through the community of believers. It is in living this “life together”(Dietrich Bonhoeffer) that our attitudes and postures are shaped and conformed to the image of Christ. The community is built on the person and work of Christ. This means that true community is found only in and through Christ. In each culture and age, the community may take on specific traits and rules that guide the mission and structure of the community. Thus, Benedict’s monastic order had specific rules and expectations for its members, and while they may seem legalistic and harsh (e.g., at least two references to the use and benefit of corporal punishment) they are not designed to be punitive, but are instead meant to be tools to assist the community to conform and be transformed to Christ’s image. Indeed, whether it be St. Benedict’s monastic order, Bonhoeffer’s enclave of seminarians, or James K.A. Smith’s vision of Christian higher education, the role of community is one that embodies the Great Commandment: to love God and to love each other. This ethos that is shared and encouraged shapes not only the community but also each individual within the community. Community is where spiritual formation takes place.
In the introduction to Augustine’s Confessions, translator Maria Boulding notes that confession has three levels: there is the confession of sin, which is most prominent, the confession of God’s glory, and the confession that it is God who enables us to make confession in the first place. Augustine’s entire life is a confession to God, and an act of testifying to the goodness and rightness of God’s justice and mercy, both in his sinful life before his conversion, and in his life after conversion. Augustine’s confession exposes the reality of his sinfulness: “To you, then, Lord, I lie exposed, exactly as I am…My confession to you is not made with words of tongue and voice, but with the words of my soul and the clamor of my thought.”
This practice of confession may have fallen out of favour with Protestants in light of Catholic misuse and abuse, but Bonhoeffer and his seminary students, who were Lutheran, adopted a form of confession as part of their spiritual formation. Bonhoeffer writes that the act of confessions leads to four breakthroughs: a breakthrough to community, a breakthrough to the cross, a breakthrough to new life, and a breakthrough to assurance. Confession of sin includes confession of both personal and corporate sins, and the act of confession is profoundly counter-cultural, particularly in the modern, secular world that encourages the deflection and/or minimization of guilt (see Smith, 177-181). James K.A. Smith highlights the role of confession in the liturgy of the Church, specifically pointing to the prayer of confession in the Anglican tradition, noting that in the act of confession, “we are honest with God about our transgressions and agree with God that they are violations of his law.” The act of confession is not just words, it is also a posture and a way of life.
The act of meditating, praying through, and reflecting on Scripture is foundational to the life devoted to spiritual formation. As part of his confession, Augustine contemplates the mighty works of God in heaven and earth. Benedict devotes a significant portion of his rule to the structure and space for the study of the Word, as he outlines the practice of the daily office, and morning and evening prayer. Bonhoeffer emphasized the practice of meditation, which appears to have caused discomfort for several of the seminarians. N.T. Wright notes that reading and meditating on Scripture is habit-forming in that “the more you do it the more it will form the habits of mind and heart, of soul and body, which will slowly but surely form your character into the likeness of Jesus Christ.”
Included under the heading of contemplation is also the practice of worship, though in actuality, worship could and should properly be discussed under each element of spiritual formation, as it is done in the context of community (see Wright and Benedict), is at the heart of the act of confession (Augustine), is structured by the story of Scripture (Smith) and assists in the cultivation of virtue (Wright). An entire paper could just be written on the function of worship in spiritual formation, but suffice to say, worship is an embodied act that points to the fact that what we love is what we worship.
Cultivation of the Virtues:
As N.T. Wright notes, the Christian life does not stop once we have prayed the “Sinner’s Prayer”, given our life to Jesus, been baptized or any other rite of initiation into the life of Christianity. The over-emphasis on conversion means that Christianity can (and has) been reduced to act of intellectual consent, with little thought to the embodied reality not only of human existence, but also of the life of Christian discipleship. The cultivation of the virtues is the practical outworking of the doctrine of sanctification. It is a life-long process in which the Christian actively participates in the ongoing work of God in their life, the life of the Church, and in the world. The cultivation of the virtues is the formation of habits, so that the practice of a specific virtue becomes “second nature”, wherein the Christian does not have to consciously think about how and why he has to act, but does it automatically.[Footnote] While the list of Christian virtues may vary by theologian or tradition, the three core virtues that form the Christian life are faith, hope, and love.