by Fr. John A. Peck
Among the laments of clergy today, both Orthodox and heterodox, is the lack of spiritual formation among Christians. Those who are ‘believers’, church goers, even regular attenders at services and Bible studies seem, more and more, to lack a basic Christian foundation for spiritual identity, knowledge, moral discipline and ethical judgment.
At the same time, there doesn’t seem to be much clarity on exactly how one goes about forming Christian souls, or even what the desired formation ‘looks like,’ so to speak. That is to say, what and how does Christian formation take place, and to what degree? It is rather like the old saying about art – “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.” Likewise, solid Christian formation is recognizable by most, but few can articulate it at a moment’s notice.
This idea of Christian formation is, I think, what is missing in most of today’s Church plan for bringing new souls to Christ.
What is Christian formation?
Formation is what trains and allows us to understand and recognize the culture of the Kingdom of heaven. That is what formation does. It does not give us a ‘pass’ to get in to heaven, so to speak; formation actually makes us citizens of this Kingdom. Like any country, our heavenly nation has its own language (Scripture), customs, idioms (ways of speaking about things), and its own context for viewing everything in this life, and the next. This is only accomplished in the Church, because the Church is the earthly embassy of the Kingdom of Heaven. Like any embassy, that territory belongs to the homeland.
Christian formation is not simply becoming accustomed to a Christian way of doing things. Christian formation is transformative not legalistic, and requires attention to the interior life. Cultivating attentiveness in the spirit, stillness in the heart in order to listen to the Holy Spirit while still discerning the spirits; these all take work, guidance and experience.
How does one accomplish formation?
Just as a physical body cannot be formed without effort and activity, so the soul cannot be formed by being idle or distracted.
Take the ancient Christian saying,
Lex orandi lex credendi
Literally: The Law of Prayer is the Law of Belief
Effectively translated: How you pray is how you believe
Perhaps the most formative activity for new Christians is worship. The experience of worship is where new Christians ‘learn the ropes’ so to speak. They learn what we do, how we do it, and why we do it. They learn their liturgical ‘parts’, even in non-liturgical churches. Everyone learns quickly when the pastor wants you to say ‘Amen!’
Nursery rhyme hymnography displays Nursery level spirituality
And those aren’t the worst examples. What kind of formation is going on here?
Hymns with almost no theological substance sung to “BINGO” or “Old MacDonald had a Farm” do not provide a sensus fidei – a Biblical understanding of faith – nor inspire depth of spirituality, any more than speed metal evokes a state of deep spiritual resonance. They are, however, still formative, but in the worst possible way. It confuses emotional states with beneficial faith and discernment of spiritual experiences. These experiences mistake childish emotion for childlike faith. Instead of guiding along the narrow way, a lawn chair and popsicles are offered instead. It removes the salt of our faith, and replaces it with sugar.
How we worship forms us, good or bad. A Christian soul formed in this way will not be able to endure rejection or exclusion for the faith for very long, let alone any significant suffering for the Lord.
For decades now, young Christians have been formed by changing, fashionable, haphazard worship that has left them following their feelings as the most reliable spiritual guide, but without any significant spiritual discernment or formation as members of the body of Christ. Without this crucial formation, souls are easily subject to despair, deception and delusion; fateful decisions in morality, politics, economics, labor, worldview and spiritual disciplines are left to the varied and confused emotions which plague the overstimulated mind and soul. This state of malformed spirituality is regularly found among our people and throughout our nation every day.
In the next essay we will discuss the various kinds of Christian formation