Whatever Happened to Spiritual Formation? (Part Two): Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
They go by various names – confessors, mentors, spiritual directors, or even counselors. Some might even ascribe another title to a group or cohort. No matter what label we give them, they share a common purpose – they aid us in our spiritual formation.
Now, before I even start, I should lay out some “ground rules”. I am not talking about a cult-like mentality of following the directions of some super-spiritual anointed person. Nor am I speaking about an abrogation of responsibility for our own actions or practices. I am, however, speaking of accountability, not necessarily in a formal sense, but with the idea that we are engaged with another person (or persons) who has something of value to impart and who will help us in evaluating our practices, attitudes and, on occasion, our need for an amendment of life.
Throughout my life as a Christian, I have been blessed with a plethora of people who have fulfilled this role in my life. As a young evangelical trying to make sense of my attraction to the historic Church, I encountered Robert Webber who encouraged me along the path. At seminary, Bill Weinrich watched over me as I began my studies in the early Church. Charles Kannengiesser directed and encouraged me in my studies of Athanasius. In the UK, +Michael Ramsey agreed to be my confessor and spiritual director – although he would have eschewed such a modern term – and schooled me in Anglo-Catholicism. James Atkinson shared his wealth of knowledge on the Lutheran Reformation and helped me understand and admire the evangelical tradition in Anglicanism. +Stephen Sykes took time from his hectic schedule to tutor me in the Book of Common Prayer and the demands of a priestly vocation. The list could go on to include Orthodox priests, Lutheran professors, Roman Catholic bishops and even a charismatic evangelical. They were profoundly different in faith, background and experience, yet they shared themselves with me and, most importantly, provided an outside perspective as a part of my spiritual formation. They held me accountable, not so much by what they said, but by who they were. Yes, they shared knowledge, but more than that, they shared and modeled how that knowledge might shape my life in Christ.
While most often, they were the teachers and I was the student, these were also close personal relationships of mutual respect, regard and, dare I say, affection. All of them genuinely cared about what was happening in my life and they gave of themselves, selflessly. It was not about their self-aggrandizement. Their direction in my life was about self-sacrifice. Owing to that fact, I was inclined to take their advice and direction seriously. Owing to that fact, accountability to someone else on my part was not a burden, but a blessing borne of trust, knowing that the person to whom I was accountable had my best interests at heart.
So, some thoughts on finding people who might fulfill such a role in your own life and spiritual formation. As a caveat, you may find exceptions or may wish to contradict what I advise, but my hope is to provide a starting place for thought and discussion.
Firstly, if you are in a tradition that provides for private confession – Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican or Lutheran – make use of it. In the process of contrition, confession, possible satisfaction and absolution, your confessor may also provide valuable spiritual direction. I will say, however, that owing to the nature of smaller churches these days, there can be value in the anonymity of going to a neighboring church or parish. The main point here is that you need a safe environment to open your heart and struggles to another person.
For those who are outside the above named traditions (or those who desire mentoring or spiritual direction in addition to confession) there are other possibilities. In numerous churches and seminaries, there are people who have been trained in spiritual direction. They may be in your own church or a neighboring church. Asking friends if they know of someone is a good place to start. Now, if you find someone, it is good to start off with a general conversation. If you perceive that there is a possibility and the basis of trust, it is important to realize that a spiritual director first wishes to be asked! They are not at your beck and call! Again, you have to find it of value and they have to feel that they have something give in such a relationship. It is a friendship and it is a sacred trust.
Often, it may be hard to find an individual. If this is the case, you might look to a small group in which there is a sense of mutual responsibility and accountability. (Remember John Wesley’s “Holy Club”.) This may grow up out of a Bible study or even an adult Christian Education program in your church. In fact, it may be a very informal group that simply becomes a vehicle for mutual encouragement and learning. You can choose to read a book together and meet to discuss it at a weekly or monthly breakfast or lunch.
The point of all these scenarios is growth… growth in community, growth in your own spiritual formation.
Finally, you may even resort to “distance learning” or “distance direction”. I currently work with five (and sometimes six) different clergy. Some are local while others are in different states. With all of them, we have regular times to get together and talk, whether in person, or, in one case, a two hour phone call once a week. Regardless of the manner or setting, all of these conversations are enriching, at least to me, and, I hope, to those I am speaking with, whether on the phone or in person.
We need others. As I think about my own experience, I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like without all those who took the time to stand by me, to teach me, to tutor me, to mentor me, to be examples to me. I cannot imagine my life without them. All I can do is to be thankful and, as my millennial friends say, “pay it forward”. So, as a last word, if someone has been this and done this for you… do it for someone else.