Caution: Contains more “God talk” than usual. If this irritates you, you might want to stop here and go see this instead… And I dare you to not smile.
More Caution: Be suspicious of “spiritual formation movements.” Don’t confuse “take up your cross” with “take up your cause.” Spiritual formation is a process facilitated by a lifestyle.
Spiritual mise en place
I don’t function well in messes. Unfortunately, however, I do create them.
For instance, if the kitchen counters are cluttered, there may be no dinner. I have a distaste for culinary chaos, preferring to cook in an ordered space. Ironically, though, when I have finished, the place will probably resemble a tornado-ravaged trailer park. Such is my creative process.
This is not at all true of my Mr. S who is meticulous in his work processes. He cleans as he goes, puts tools away immediately, and focuses on one task at a time. In my defense, he is rarely charged with multitasking and answering small-person questions in between adult conversation, while trying to read and follow recipes. (If you prepare the evening meal at your house, you might relate.)
Maybe, like Mr. S, you’re naturally organized. (I am irreverently clapping for you right now.) That is NOT me. To the degree I am free-spirited and spontaneous, I benefit from minimal external structure. At least to begin with. Mise en place, things in place. I suppose that’s why I am drawn to this vein of Christian thought and experience which, over time, has come to be known as spiritual formation. Maybe you are, too.
C. Michael Patton wrote a blog post in which he gives four reasons why he doesn’t “think much of the spiritual formation movement.” If you’re a regular reader, you understand why it caught my attention. Given the title, I was pleasantly surprised by his generous tone:
“Having spoken of this in a somewhat subjective way, let’s get to my issue. I do think there are some things in the spiritual formation movement that can be counterproductive. No . . . I don’t think it is “new age.” No . . . I don’t think that it is part of the “one world religion.” No, I don’t think it is demonic! I have actually read many Christian critiques that argue for such. Don’t go there. Those who argue such need to stop, count to ten, spin around thirty times, and take a spiritually-disciplined nap.
There are some red flags to everything (including theological studies!). Let me list some here with regard to spiritual formation movement…”
He then offers this, along with explanations of each point, beginning with “it can”.
- It can fail to account for individuality.
- It can set one up for unrealistic expectations.
- It can hinder the spontaneous nature of the Spirit’s movements.
- It can be a replacement for trust, belief, and faith.
I read the post, glanced through the comments and was tempted to join the discussion. (I do have to say, though, that the use of “it can” seems to indicate he might think a little more of the “spiritual formation movement” than he reveals…) But instead of a line by line response–because, really, who cares?–I took the opportunity to reminisce a bit. It occurred to me that my experience has been a reverse image of the negative possibilities.
The “it can’s,” didn’t.
Here are 4 of the reasons I do think much of the “spiritual formation movement.”
- It restored individuality to me, a deep conviction of beloved, authentic personhood which had been sold for a pittance on the auction block of religious compliance.
- It re-ordered my expectations, relieving me of the anxious need to control outcomes reserved for God alone.
- It freed me to engage with the Spirit’s movement in the present, bridging the gap between spiritual and physical realities–after decades of life as a Christian.
- It renewed my ability to trust–God and community, grounded my belief and anchored my faith.
A distinction is needed.
The current “spiritual formation movement” is not its own animal. It began as an organized presentation of the many practices–alternately discovered and forgotten throughout time–which have helped humans join the Spirit in what God is already doing in them and in the world. Its purpose was to make this body of accumulated knowledge and experience available and encourage its practices across faith traditions. It promises nothing more and does nothing less–except when the “handling instructions” are ignored.
In my list, the It is italicized, for It did none of the things on my list; God did. Opening to the Spirit of God–and becoming aware of the ways I don’t–through various spiritual practices, is the mechanism by which my gasping faith could once again breathe in new life. Yes. It is counter-productive to join a movement or adopt a given set of practices for its own sake–though some undoubtedly have tertiary benefits. God helping me, those days are over.
As it is in weight loss and fitness, so it is in our life with God, who cannot be captured in a movement. Optimally, the principles of healthy caloric intake and proportionate activity must be integrated into a lifestyle that extends beyond the date your membership at the gym expires.
Each caution is valid…
…And each caution is equally valid regarding any replacement of God, himself, in a life. Many things, especially those religious in nature, fail to account for individuality, set us up for unrealistic expectations, hinder the spontaneous nature of the Spirit’s movements, and quietly but surely erode trust, belief and faith. Indeed, engaging with spiritual formation as a movement will turn most of the “it can’s” into “it will’s”. Honest engagement with God, however, through various “best practices” will not.
The author graciously ends his post with this:
“My Facebook friend asked me yesterday “Why do some people hate the spiritual formation movement with such a passion?” I know those people. But they usually hate everything with the same passion. I don’t hate the Spiritual Formation Movement. I just think there are some red flags that we need to be aware of.”
Me too–if it’s just a movement. I think Mr. Patton and I agree more than we disagree. I’m grateful for the nudge to pause and examine my place in it all. I hope you will too.
If I may be so bold, my caution:
- Fear can keep you and me from a plethora of life-giving, Christ-centered, spiritual practices. Don’t let that happen to you.
Now, I think I will heed his advice and take a spiritually-disciplined nap, after which I’m off to clean the kitchen so we can eat.
1. Take the next step. Check out CFDM Northwest, a spiritual formation ministry that follows the “handling instructions”.
2. The video is really fun. You really should watch it.
What thoughts or feelings does the term “spiritual formation movement” raise for you?