Conformed to Christ: Spiritual Formation

For many Orthodox Christians spiritual formation is defined practically, if not intentionally, in functional terms: a daily rule of prayer, keeping the fasts, regular attendance at Divine Liturgy and reception of Holy Communion and Holy Confession.  To this might be added the regular reading of Scripture, the Church Fathers and the writings of the saints and contemporary spiritual writers.

Let me first of all say that none of this is wrong. In fact it’s all very good–and especially in the case of the sacraments, essential–to living a wholesome and balanced life in Christ.  Essential practices however are not necessarily sufficient in themselves. To paraphrase St Ignatius of Antioch, it isn’t enough to do Christian things, one must actually BE Christian. Again, this isn’t to deny the necessity of the sacraments, ascetical struggle, daily prayer and the reading of Scripture. It is however to say that these are all means to a particular end.

Self-Knowledge. Spiritual formation is, I would argue, more than just being faithful to good Christian practices; it is about being and becoming Christian, something which is always and necessarily personal. In this context personal is more than just an assertion that I must pray, keep the fast and participate in the sacraments. A personal spiritual life builds on these practices. But spiritual formation requires that we make use of these practices to foster the process of self-discovery, self-acceptance and self-expression of who I am and am called to be in Jesus Christ.

Building on a sound human formation (see here), spiritual formation means coming to know and accept myself in light of the Gospel. While in principle the content of a sound human formation is universal, Christian formation requires my personal commitment to live as a disciple of Christ. This means not only drawing close to Him in prayer and study, but shaping my life around the Gospel and the example of His life. And again this is necessarily personal because while we share a common call and walk a common path, we each of us my respond to that call and walk that path uniquely.

Especially in the preparation of men for holy orders, we neglect to their harm, and the Church’s, the three goals of spiritual formation: self-knowledge, self-acceptance and self-expression in Christ. A priest without accurate self-knowledge will inevitably confuse his own transitory desires—and even his own passions–with the will of God.  In a more positive vein, the primacy of self-knowledge in the spiritual life reflects the anthropological fact that the first revelation of God’s love for me is me. My life, like each human life, is a gift of incalculable value and importance. Each human life is, quite literally, God’s gift to the world.

Far from being the merely functional, “value-free,” examination offered by secular psychotherapy, self-knowledge in Christ is just that, knowing myself in light of the Gospel. This includes not only an awareness of my shortcomings and sinfulness but also (and more fundamentally) the talents and gifts that God has given me uniquely.

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me—nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so (Hamlet, Act 2, scene 2).

Shakespeare is saying in his own way what King David says in the Psalms:

 When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,

The moon and the stars, which You have ordained,

What is man that You are mindful of him,

And the son of man that You visit him?

For You have made him a little lower than the angels,

And You have crowned him with glory and honor (Psalm 8:3-5).

David sees all humanity and so himself as a creature. He embraces his own life within the context of creation’s magnificence and the glory of God. Creation as an expression of the Divine Glory also serves as the context for David’s self-knowledge and his knowledge of his neighbor. This wholly positive and appreciative view of humanity does not, as other Psalms make clear, preclude a sharp, and at times even bitter, awareness of human sinfulness–his and mine. But I would argue that it is awe at the work of God which is humanity that is primary for David.

Self-Acceptance. Without this fundamentally positive view of the human person, true repentance is impossible.  Nietzsche, Marx and Freud—modernity’s masters of suspicion—have all ably demonstrated that an awareness of humanity’s moral failings doesn’t require faith in Jesus Christ. The problem of a Freud, a Marx, or a Nietzsche isn’t that they’re wrong but that they aren’t right. They understand human sinfulness as well as, or maybe even better, than most. What they fail to understand is forgiveness. Vice for them is the constant and defining characteristic of humanity and the life of virtue a mere dodge and act of bad faith.

Self-knowledge then must bear fruit of self-acceptance. To merely acknowledge my failures or my abilities is insufficient. I must accept my life as a gift from God and only within that context can I truly understand my own sinfulness. Sober self-acceptance means that while I acknowledge my sinfulness, it is God’s love and mercy for me that sets the dominate tone. While this is important for all human beings, it is critically important for the priest. Simply put, a priest can’t offer what he doesn’t have. A priest who doesn’t know and accept his abilities as well as his limitations, his virtues as well as his vices, and do so in gratitude for God’s mercy and love for him, can’t effectively communicate forgiveness and so can’t credibly call others to repentance. A man who is not a friend of Christ can’t introduce others to Christ as a friend.

This then leads to the third and final element of spiritual formation: self-expression.

Self-Expression. The personality and character of the priest must be a bridge and not an obstacle to faith in Jesus Christ. This means, on the one hand, that the priest relates to others in such a way as to offer evidence of God’s love and mercy for each and every human person. A priest who is harsh or indifferent, to others is as unlikely to draw others to Christ as the priest who is inconsistent or inflexible in his decisions.

At the same time, a priest’s personality or appearance can’t be such that he, rather than Christ, becomes the focus. If a harsh priest will drive others away from Christ, a priest who is overly familiar with others or eccentric in speech or dress will become the message rather than Jesus Christ.  While I am mindful and supportive of the traditional dress of Orthodox clergy, to offer one example, the priest must be mindful that a purely external fidelity is symptomatic of a priest who has succumbed to the temptation of eccentricity and vainglory. The last thing a priest by word or deed should say is “Look at me!” Rather he should say, with St Paul, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.”

Saying the latter, while avoiding the former, is the fruit not only of a sound spiritual and the personal and moral maturity of a wholesome human formation. It also requires a solid intellectual formation and mastery of the professional skills essential to the pastoral life.

Next up, the intellectual formation of priests.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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  • Adam Sheehan

    Father, I ask for your blessing…..
    Fr. Gregory,
    Though your writing is dealing with the formation of priests, I am sure you know that this is very applicable to laity like myself. My goodness, how often do I desire to “successfully conform to what believe an ideal (and disciplined) Christian is” without remembering that prayer, fasting, and spiritual disciplines are the means of positioning myself to enter into the self-knowledge, self-acceptance, and self-discovery in Christ Jesus. How easily I can use the right tools for the wrong reasons.
    Thank you for this post.

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