by Fr. John A. Peck
There are different kinds of spiritual formation, but these are related not to a different spirituality for each, but differing degrees and intensities focused on. Just a reminder, from the last article, 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.
1. Basic Christian Formation – this is the initial formation of a sensus fidei – a sense of the faith – in the new Christian. Basic Christian formation includes some basic moral formation, but also the initial transformation by the Holy Spirit in Jesus Christ. Without this, the soul lives as a Christian between Ascension and Pentecost, never experiencing the life in the Spirit. It is true formation which ignites the Spirit within us without distracting us to spiritual fancy or delusion (a lack of any kind of spiritual discernment is almost a by-gone conclusion these days). Basic Christian formation clears away a great deal of confusion and distraction during the early days of Christian life and makes taking advantage of the tools of the Church, which are all tuned to spurring spiritual growth, easier.
2. Advanced Christian Formation – this is the mature Christians formation into a joyful, watchful, simple, spiritually intense soul that is exceptionally discerning. The work at this level passes into the interior realm, where focus on Christ, perpetual prayer and struggling with thoughts is the meat and bread. The elementary practices of spiritual life of watchfulness, prayer, fasting and almsgiving now take on a greater meaning and work together on the soul, greater than the sum of their parts, bringing about a natural state of holiness which is both unexpected and simple. In Orthodox Christianity, the techniques of watchfulness and stillness, so hard to acquire in busy life, become necessary skills to master. Again, this is not the end of formation, but a new beginning.
This level is not a destination, but a deeper experience of every aspect of Christian life. The formation at this level is critical and the help and guidance of the spiritual fathers of the Church is invaluable in the use and variety of the spiritual techniques which make advancing in the spiritual life possible. Many people seek holy elders, usually monastics, to give them spiritual guidance, but at this stage it can be particularly helpful as these elders are really physicians of the human soul (not a term I use lightly) and know very well the make up and anthropology of man and his spiritual states. They are masters of prayer and experts at formation.
3. Formation of Preachers – this is how a man is formed to preach the Gospel. It is a good deal more complicated that most people realize. Yes, you can just go and get out there and begin ‘preaching’ but we’re talking about an activity which is the foundation of the Church. Without preaching, there is no faith (Romans 10:17) and without faith, there is no Christian. The importance of preaching is belittled today, but it is the hidden weapon of the Church, and like any weapon, needs practice, skill, and repetition to master. I cannot state this strongly enough; the formation of those who preach means the difference between them receiving the life-creating Gospel of Jesus Christ and the inoculation against the Gospel with sermonettes moralizing on whatever the hearer has the stomach and willingness to endure.
What most people are not aware of (and many preachers are apparently not aware of) is that preaching is the pinnacle of theological activity. It requires a convergence of his skills in Biblical studies, exegesis, theology, soteriology, watchfulness, Church history, dogmatics, spiritual life and disciplines, and liturgics and all the disciplines which the preachers has studied, usually over many years.
4. Priestly Formation – this is the formation of a future shepherd of the flock of Christ. It is not always a guaranteed function of seminary experience. Instead, it relies heavily on the spiritual culture and direct handiwork of experienced and committed spiritual guides with significant pastoral experience. This is only accomplished under a guide who knows what priestly formation is. Priestly formation is intensely liturgical, entering deeply into the cycle of prayer and services which are designed specifically to inculcate the mind of the Church and the eye of the Church to the celebrant. There is so much theology in the Scriptures, in the Psalms, in the hymnography, the canons, and the canonical prayers that the habit to incline one’s heart to these in prayer is like swimming in a fast moving river. The closer you get to the middle of the river, the faster the river takes you downstream. Likewise, the closer you get to the heart of the Church’s activities in prayer, the more you are carried by the stream of that prayer, making progress with little effort because the Church is carrying you, and you join the prayers of that great cloud of witnesses, backward and forward in time and throughout the world. That’s not a babbling brook or trickling creek, it is a raging torrent coursing safely over the cataracts of temptation and distraction. The years of difficulty in seminary are designed to get you into that water and get used to swimming around.
This is why when a man is ordained to the diaconate or the priesthood, he traditionally goes on a 40 day retreat, celebrating the daily services and divine liturgy every single day. The formative power of that 40 day tradition cannot be underestimated. When I went through it as a new priest, I could only describe it like this; after two weeks, I had the services completely memorized. After three weeks, I was fatigued beyond measure. After that the liturgy never stopped going on within me.
To put it another way, you may have heard the saying by alcoholics,
first I drank liquor, then liquor drank liquor, then liquor drank me.
My experience with this 40 day retreat was similar, so forgive me for paraphrasing.
first, I celebrated liturgy, then liturgy celebrated liturgy, the liturgy celebrated me.
Don’t misunderstand. I wasn’t the point of the liturgy. By the end, liturgy had gotten inside my bones, and it has never left. The liturgy goes on perpetually within the properly formed priest.
5. Monastic Formation – because I’m not a monk, I’m not going to talk too much about monastic formation, except in general terms. Like the others, it takes experienced spiritual guides for form the monastic for the life of unique hardship and effort that they will be undertaking. Their spirituality is not different, but it is far more concentrated and intense. When it comes to monastic formation, while most of us labor hard on the narrow way, and struggle to stay on it, moving in fits and starts of speed, monastic spiritual life takes those same activities and concentrates them so intensely that it beggars description. It would be like comparing a stroll to a picnic location to an Ironman Triatholon. That is what they are training for in the spiritual life every day. What are you training for?
Fr. Roman Braga said that monastic life was a decision, and a decision to live the Gospel literally. When the Bible says,
“Go, sell all you have and give to the poor… and come follow me”
that is precisely what a monastic does. Likewise for the other hard sayings in the Bible. You know the ones I’m talking about.
In the next essay we will discuss the crucible of Christian formation, the container where the formative reaction actually takes place.