Three years ago I requested that St. Luke's Episcopal Church, my local parish, offer our members financial support toward opportunities for spiritual formation. In response, our vestry offered $1000.00 toward retreat work and/or missions trips, with no more than $250.00 given to a person per year. Our vestry has had to withdraw that scholarship for now, as we, along with all but the super rich suffer financially around the globe. I hope that one day, the scholarship will be restored and increased. Although Father Ed Messersmith has retired and Kate Harrigan is in a new position in the diocese, I have left their names in the essay. Here is my presentation:
Thank you for this opportunity to speak with you about spiritual formation and the life of our parish.
The last Sunday of June Father Ed Messersmith preached. VBS had just come to a close. I expected to hear an adult version of the children’s themes. This has happened before and I recall enjoying it. But that morning, I was hoping for something else. To my surprise, Father Ed spoke about contemplation. Do you remember that? I must admit he presented the need for contemplation in an energetic mode, yet it was contemplation. As I was listening, I knew that I would quote him as I spoke to you tonight.
He said, “Without contemplation we wilt, we burn out in our activities . . . We forget we need to rest in God and that we need to have conversations with God . . . Jesus himself needed to be nourished in his relationship to the Father . . . We need a balance of doing with being . . . [and] Our ministry is sabotaged when we forget the roots of that ministry.” Are you tracking with him? Interested?
How do we contemplate? How do we know we are doing it? Does taking a day off of work and renting a silly movie have anything to do with contemplation? Could it be a beginning to winding down and opening ourselves to see things from a fresh perspective? Do we need to leave home to contemplate? If I don’t leave home, but sit in my garden, as Father Ed suggested, what then? Do I bring my Bible? Other spiritual literature? Or sit in silence? If I sit in silence, what do I do? Can I hear God in the silence? How do I know it is God? Maybe Father Ed’s admonition for us to contemplate is not so easy to do?
An analogy might help us here. If I want to improve my physical health, I might consult my doctor. Then I might join a fitness club. I could meet with one of their coaches once a month to monitor my activities, evaluate my progress and just talk about my experience exercising. It can be beneficial to talk with someone who knows about physical fitness when I am working to improve my own. If I get really serious about it and have the financial means, I may hire a personal trainer.
So it is with our spiritual life. I know it is a good thing to pray and read my Bible, to worship with my fellow parishioners, and to actively become a part of that body. But what resources are there if I want to become more focused and build confidence in my spiritual growth?
Father Ed was speaking about formation in his sermon July 8, when he instructed us to be crucified with Christ in order to be free and empowered to each be a Gospel of Jesus in the world. As I listened to him speak, I knew that the work he is calling us into happens naturally when we are doing the work of formation.
My plunge into spiritual formation was nurtured by a line from our liturgy of the Eucharist, “Sanctify us also that we may faithfully receive this holy sacrament, and serve you in unity, constancy, and peace . . .” (The Book of Common Prayer 363). Unity, constancy, and peace—those gifts of God have become the plumb line for all of my relationships. I know that if the passion of Christ is means anything it can mean that for me.
So the work of spiritual formation, to quote from our Old Testament reading this past Sunday, “is not too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it . . . . No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” (Deut 30:11-14).
For those of you who have read Bishop Nathan Baxter’s first address to the Diocesan Convention, you may recall these words: “An area of great concern for me is lay formation. How do we help the persons in the pew—children, youth, and adults—the real missionaries, to better articulate their faith, deepen their spiritual lives and share the Gospel individually and collectively?”
Our Bishop said, “an area of great concern for me is lay formation.” What is formation among the laity? Formation occurs when we become conscious of our motivations; it is psychological and spiritual integration. In his book The Kingdom Within, John Sanford tells us that we are vulnerable to everything in ourselves of which we are unconscious. He goes on to say that “The New Testament word for sin is “amartia” in Greek, which literally means to miss the mark. It is the same word that an archer would use if he shot an arrow at a target and missed it. This seems like a surprisingly benign word to use to describe something as destructive to human life and relationship to God as sin, for, after all, can it be so very bad to miss the mark? But the seriousness of missing the mark is that it reflects back upon the archer. The archer missed the mark because he failed to be on center and shot unconsciously without taking proper aim . . . . [T]he attitude of Jesus toward sin reflects this view that missing the mark has to do with unconsciousness on the part of the individual.” He continues, “The key to the ethic of the kingdom of God is . . . consciousness . . . represented under the symbol of a light or lamp or an eye, something which denotes “seeing”; i.e., psychological knowing.” (145-46)
Sometimes we get an internal nudge to begin intentional formation. David Richo in his text How To Be An Adult, says “There are ghosts asleep inside every one of us: arcane issues never addressed, ancient griefs never laid to rest, suspicions, self-doubts, banished longings, secret meanings.” Integration happens when we allow one of these issues or “ghosts” as he says to move to center stage, integrating another part of ourselves. Becoming conscious is the work of spiritual formation.
Some have described the first half of life as the time to make our place in the community and the second half as the time for this “inner” work, when we are given the opportunity to understand ourselves more deeply. That distinction is breaking down. The Bishop has charged the Reverend Kate Harrigan to oversee the work of formation for “children, youth and adults.” We can see that spiritual formation is no longer left to women at leisure to pursue in the second half of life rather it is now seen to be a vital part of the entire parish.
I think Bishop Baxter believes that the mission and ministry of our church is supposed to happen first here at St. Luke’s. We need to be committed to our own growth. Then because we are sure to set monies aside specifically for people who are the most desperate on the globe, we extend our mission and ministry beyond our parish family. Even the airlines tell us, “Mothers, fathers, in case of an emergency, put on your oxygen mask before you put one on your child.” Caring for oneself and those in our own parish may at first glance appear to be selfish, and if that is all we did, our behavior would be selfish. But that is not the situation we are in. I believe that as we continue to present ourselves to Jesus, we are increasingly able to be the Gospel of Christ in word and deed.
Could we, as a parish, benefit from supporting in some measure a few members every year to be trained in spiritual formation? Yes. And Reverend Harrigan’s office may have some strong recommendations for what those choices would be. I know that there are organizations that offer guided or directed opportunities for us in our area varying in origin, purpose, and length of commitment whose purpose for existence is to bring others into a fuller relationship with Jesus Christ.
I also believe that there are benefits for the parish when its members are serious about their own spiritual vitality. For example, I believe the pastoral counseling load of our priest would be lessened, as his parishioners explore and develop their own inner resources.
So, I believe we as the parish of St. Luke’s should fearlessly welcome opportunities for spiritual formation for our parishioners and support them financially in some small measure, in order to underline and affirm the importance of our health as persons, as families and as a single parish in the global community. Do not fear requests for scholarships for the study of spirituality and formation. Instead, create, fund and promote scholarships for our members.
My hope is that having now raised this subject that the vestry will continue the discussion at a later date.
Thank you for your time and attention to this important opportunity. I look forward to hearing more from you.