The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Formation in love

Spiritual direction: Shedding light along the path

The lamp is an emblem of spiritual mentoring, a ministry rooted in scripture, enflamed by the Spirit and centered on the Cross of Christ.

Spiritual formation is a natural outcome of the community’s common prayer, worship and vocation to serve in ministry to the church and the world. Formation is the broad application of Christian values in all of life. It comprises spiritual growth, education and vocation leading to a deeper relationship with the Triune God – Father Creator, Mother Spirit and Brother Christ – and transformation of the self. Spiritual formation leads to discovery of our true selves, our souls created and loved eternally by the living God. The church’s ministry of spiritual formation participates in this love of God for all creation, but it’s not a matter of teaching beginners how to climb some ladder of spiritual knowledge; rather, it is the community of faith gathering to let itself be loved by sharing what we know with each other – young and old alike – so all may be changed by the presence of God in our midst. We teach each other. We learn from each other. The community grows in shared wisdom.

Spiritual direction takes many forms, some formal, others less so. It’s also somewhat of a misnomer, unless we’re given to a kind of relationship wherein one is under another’s authority. Historically, monastic spiritual directors have been viewed in this way, and much of what has come down to us about spiritual direction comes from the monastic traditions and practices. (“Director” comes two Latin morphemes combined to mean literally, “to lead straight, guide or rule another.”) The 21st-century American mind is not accustomed to that way of thinking about spirituality, and in fact, few people “in spiritual direction” are actually in that type of relationship. More than likely, our concept is more that of spiritual mentor, a term that comes from the name of a figure in Homer’s Odyssey, a tutor for Telemachus, Odysseus’ son. Other models include that of “spiritual companion,” which by happy coincidence for Christians means “bread sharer,” and “soul friend” (Gaelic, anam cara) which comes out of the broad tradition of Celtic Christianity.

Regardless of terminology, however, it seems that most people serious about spiritual growth will find a mentor whose persona, knowledge and experience are appealing and who is willing to “tarry the Lord’s leisure” (Psalm 27.14) in conversation about the Christian spiritual life. Such a mentoring relationship is the church in miniature – two gathered in the name of Jesus, to the greater glory of God whom Jesus called Abba, in the power of the Ama Spirit – so if there is a “director” in charge, so to speak, it’s Christ Jesus, the “head of the church and the author of our salvation.” (BCP, p. 369) There is no “right way” for spiritual mentoring, but these conversations usually include prayer and contemplative silence consistent with the idea that this is “church,” and not just “hot spiritual topics over lunch” (which is fine, of course, but shouldn’t be mistaken for mentoring).

Baptism: Ordination to 'the priesthood of all believers'

Baptism: Ordination to ‘the priesthood of all believers,’ initiation into the Body of Christ and lifelong growth in spiritual formation

Many spiritual mentors have formal training but many do not. Fundamental to the vocation is that mentors be deeply engaged in spiritual practice that has formed their hearts, minds and souls. How does one know? It shows, though not in predictable ways and not always visibly. There may be no apparent reason why I might be attracted to someone as a spiritual mentor. It’s a matter of intuitive discernment, and feeling (not necessarily emotion) has a lot to do with it. I may be wrong, but an inkling is always worth pursuing. One key “test,” so to speak, is whether two people are given time and place for conversation. If “scheduling” seems impossibly difficult, even when you try hard, it may be that this particular path is not to be followed, at least for the time being.

While spiritual mentoring is a probable outcome of our desire for spiritual growth, it is not inevitable, especially for young adults, who need other kinds of spiritual companionship far more. It is most likely to be felt as a need born out of life experience or religious conversion that has provoked deep curiosity about and desire for spiritual growth. Spiritual mentoring is not the same as pastoral care, in which a trained and usually ordained minister provides explicit counsel and guidance in matters of personal concern or crisis from the perspective of Christian faith and theological reflection. Neither spiritual mentoring nor pastoral care is a substitute for psychotherapy, because most mentors and ordained ministers have neither the education nor training for this licensed specialty; indeed, formally trained mentors and ordained ministers are trained to recognize when psychotherapy is needed and to make referrals for that type of care. (Note: There’s nothing wrong with needing psychotherapy any more than it would be wrong to need an orthopedic physician to help you deal with a broken leg.)

Education is not essential to spiritual formation, but serious consideration of Christian life “in the Spirit” often creates a yearning for knowledge; and for most people, it usually means a yearning for some specific aspect of Christian knowledge – church history, biblical studies, theology, liturgy, and the like. This type of knowledge is often found in the church library, but it also may lead one to seek formal education in these areas. At first glance, this aspect of Christian formation might be taken for “filling the head,” but over time, this kind of knowledge descends into the heart and becomes not only a knowledge base but part of one’s grounding for worship, prayer, discernment and evangelism, which Anglicans understand as “living the good news.” Some church vocations require formal education – ordination, for example – and most congregations have some kind of educational program.

Vocation is simply one’s calling to serve the church and humanity in a particular way that is an extension of one’s Christian values and spiritual practice. It may be a call to join the choir or serve as a lay reader. It may be a call to ordained ministry or to serve on the vestry. It may be a call to volunteer in a social-service agency such as Loaves and Fishes. In any case, though, it is a call to giving up one’s self to God in Christ in service to others. It is sacrificial in nature, as the giving of one’s self always is – and it simply must be examined for one’s own sake and that of the community of faith. Discernment of vocations – and not just to ordained ministry – is a core ministry of the church. This fundamental task is not to “keep out the unworthy” but to perceive whether one’s gifts are fully commensurate with what one feels called to do. It’s a pastoral responsibility, not just of a congregation’s ordained clergy but of the whole congregation, to see that everyone grows to their maximum potential “full of grace and truth” (John 1.14) in imitation of Christ Jesus. By myself, I’m deprived of the perspective of the whole Body, which is composed of numerous, loving perspectives. I may feel called to one thing but am actually better suited for another; and I hope and pray my sisters and brothers in Christ will help me discern what’s true by “speaking the truth in love.” (Ephesians 4:15)

Vocations to serve the church usually require at least a little training – an opportunity for discernment – and some ministries require permission from the bishop, which is still another opportunity for discernment. Lay readers and lay Eucharistic ministers, for example, must be licensed annually, which is usually routine based on the pastor’s recommendation. It’s all part of the constant inquiry committed Christians and congregations make of themselves, “What does God want me to do?” We Anglicans believe that answers to this question come through the community of faith; and frankly, we’re not always happy with how that “shakes out.” Many more people than have actually gone to seminary have sought to be ordained, and many who have actually been ordained had to wait years before the church said “yes” to their vocations. We believe that the Holy Spirit imbues such decisions, regardless of how flawed the institution and its apparatus may appear from time to time. We are members of the Spirit-filled body of Christ, warts and all; and as such – and this is a hard word for Americans to digest – we’re called to honor the authority of Christ in his church when it’s about the discernment of vocations.


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