In this article we would like to answer the following questions:
– What is Formation in Spiritual Life (FSL)?
– How is it different from: Formation in Consecrated Life, Spiritual Theology Teaching, Spiritual Direction, Confession, Courses, Catechesis, Talks on a Spiritual Subject, Theology, Meditation, Personal Spiritual Life, Personal Prayer Life, Community Life…?
– What does FSL require?
The Prophetic Branch of the Church
and the Birth of “Spiritual Formation”
In the Prophetic Tradition of the Church, i.e. Monastic Life, Religious Orders, “Formation in Spiritual Life” is a very specific task to the point that in the early phases of formation in Monastic and Religious lives we have the appointment of a person called “Master (“Mistress”) of Novices”, and “Master” for the remaining Junior years that precede the final consecration (final vows).
It is true that the “Master of Novices” and of Junior years (“Master of Students”, “Mistress of Juniorate”) cover more than just “spiritual formation”: they have also to form the candidate into the specific style of life (Monastic, Religious) and of the specificity of the Order or Congregation’s spirituality, traditions and uses. So “Spiritual Formation” will not be the only task of the Master, but it remains the main one because without spiritual life, without a living and growing relationship with Christ, the entire life fails to have any meaning, it has no purpose no power to it. Let us remember the fundamental meaning of Monastic Life, which is traditionally and historically the first form of “consecration” (if we exclude the early ones like Consecrated Virgins…). If we look back to St. Anthony the Great, Father of all monks, and father of the prophetic branch of the Church, if we meditate on his life (see his life written by St. Athanasius) we notice immediately that first he received a call (“If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Mt. 19:21)), and is not just starting a life on his own impetus and choice and secondly, the journey that is triggered by this call, is all unified around one thing: searching for God, for Jesus, doing all that could be done, to find Him and Him only. Nothing else does matter, at all! This is why the desert was his reality and why the “symbol” of the Desert remains a central one for the Prophetic Branch. It is from his call that all other vocations blossomed, and all other forms of life found meaning and purpose.
Therefore, the archetype of any person who is starting out to belong to this branch of the Church, the Prophetic Branch, features two qualities:
- the call is call from Jesus (not necessarily leaving everything material behind (mind you it was progressive in the life of St. Anthony, proceeding from material things to more subtle things, through emotions, imaginings, thoughts, until he reached union) and
- his life is unified by this quest, this huge desire to search for Christ and never to stop until finding Him in the Union with Him.
Hence the fact that the “Spiritual Formation” is the main task in the formation offered by the Master of Novices and the Master of the following juniorate years up to the final consecration/vows.
Nothing can be put above “spiritual formation”. It is true that human formation, psychology, community, daily tasks are very important, but without Spiritual Formation as the main “manager”/focal point/point of reference it ceases to work.
The person who knocks at the door of a monastery in the Desert is chiefly a person who is Called! And if the person is really called by Jesus, then Jesus and His Grace working in the Person are the main players (of course with the free will of the person in play) in this Call. This is why, sometimes, the Monks in Egypt do test the call rather harshly: they do not open the door of the monastery and leave the candidate outside, in the desert… sometimes for more than one day! Motives are examined! The person can be fleeing his responsibilities in the world, his difficulties, and struggles! He can be a one who is depressed. And on and on.
The monastery is not a place for “losers” or people who have failed in the worldly life. In Egypt for many years for instance, it still is very rare to accept a candidate without a University degree! Why? Because it is so common to have one, and not having one could well be a sign of something unsound! This is just an example for a specific country, not a rule for all places. In other places people can have a successful job for years and this is just as good.
Therefore, it is imperative that the intention, the motivation, the very drive of the individual is checked. Who is calling whom? Is the Grace of Jesus working in this person? Is he or she really called by Jesus, driven by Him, attracted by Him?
Then, however, if the person enters it does not necessarily imply mean that he or she has reached the goal! They are just about to start the journey to reach Union with Jesus. The person now will have a “Master” appointed to his service, who will follow him all the time and form him. Hence the existence of “Spiritual Formation”. Again, as said above, admittedly, there are plenty of other aspects to this formation, we agree on that, but the main one is a “Spiritual Formation”, because this manages everything.
What is “Spiritual Formation”?
Does the applicant embark on Formation immediately? Are there other steps before Formation? Yes of course! Today we have a variety of other steps before it:
– The person goes to see (“come and see” (John 1:39), pays a visit to the monastery or religious house!
– The person can afterwards go and spend more time with the Monks! Although here the “style of life” is very much to the fore as well as the necessity to know to which state of life Jesus is calling the person: “spiritual growth”, “human maturity” and a balanced life are involved implicitly and constantly.
– Afterward living inside the monastery or the house for a certain period of time though not as a monk as yet, can be envisaged.
And it is only after going through these stages, even though they are not mandatory, and the discernment linked to them, that the person might be accepted as a Novice and start the real steps of formation.
To a great extent much importance should be placed on to the previous stages because they prepare the person! Faithfulness to Christ in the previous stages is a vital necessity to allow growth and maturity, both spiritual and human.
If a person is not ready, it will not be helpful to start the Formation proper i.e. the Noviciate. Spiritual growth is important! It is inadvisable to give food that belongs to a further stage of spiritual development to a person who is in need of another milder type of food. In order to be ready there are many stages that are required beforehand! If they have not been completed the future “athlete” will fail to be ready to start the “training”!
Everything counts in the life of a human being. Formation at home, at school, at church, in the university, at work, each step being full of challenges that form the person. Even a person like St. Therese of the Child Jesus went through all these stages before entering the Monastic life at the age of fifteen. One can read about and analyse all the formation she received at home, the training she went through and it was not easy! A helpful suggestion would be to read the first part of the “Story of a Soul”.
To continue then…. After all these initial stages have been completed, proper Spiritual Formation can start! Mind you, it does not mean that no spiritual life has been lived beforehand! Not at all! A great deal was lived and realised on the Spiritual level. But it was not necessarily the main driving force and the Call of Jesus was not yet clearly heard, or if you prefer, the long stage of preparation had not yet been accomplished.
It is in a way rather rare to admit, but it is the bitter reality continually experienced that if important aspects of the previous formation are not accomplished it complicates things later.
Spiritual Formation starts.
Against all other explanations, it must be understood that Spiritual Formation should commence only once all the preparatory stages have been completed. Against all other definitions it must be said that Spiritual Formation is meant to form the person and support him on the journey to real and full Union with Jesus.
What does “Spiritual Formation” provide?
Spiritual Formation, through the Spiritual Formator and his or her collaborators, offers essentially three aspects that need to be in constant interaction:
1- Science: teaching spiritual life. The main science here is Spiritual Theology. Offering the teaching on the first stages of Spiritual Life: what the first stages are, the means for growth of Spiritual Life, types of prayer (the most important from among them), the effect of the work of the Holy Spirit in us, the elements of discernment, the conditions for growth….
2- Experience: not only talking about “prayer” and “love” of neighbour but acting on them:
- taking time for prayer on a regular basis (Mass, Divine Office, an hour of Lectio Divina, one or more hours of Prayer of the Heart, spiritual reading), and allowing contact with others in order to have opportunities to love, to forgive, to be patient, to help others and to share what is common with them.
- A good balanced daily schedule of an ordered life is important.
3- Means of Discernment: on a regular basis: meeting with the Spiritual Master. Going to Confession. Having Spiritual Direction.
One cannot have one or even two of the above areas of Spiritual Formation and neglect the others. The combination of the three harmoniously, under the constant vigilance and supervision of the Spiritual Formator, is fundamental. Thinking that “Spiritual Formation” can be achieved with one of these elements or worse “sub-element” is simply to live in illusion.
Lay people need to be spiritually formed
In the Gospel, the Lord called everybody to follow Him! He invited us all to become holy. Council Vatican II insisted on this call and reminded the whole Church that we need to focus on this Call. It is the exact same call we were considering above, the call that St. Anthony heard one day when he entered his Parish Church.
Now, in the times in which we live, we are able to see the difference between the state of life and the call for Holiness while initially, whoever heard the call, literally left everything and followed Jesus into the desert of this quest. Today, because of many centuries of development we are able to distinguish between the various forms of life (Monk, Religious, Community, Movement in the Church, or just living alone (hermits, virgins)… and lay life (married or single)…) and the spiritual life. Within formation itself, we actually do distinguish today between what is proper to “Spiritual Formation” and “Monastic Formation” or “Religious Formation”, or Formation in a New Movement in the Church, or Lay Formation in a Movement of the Church or a third order.
It is true that we have not yet reached the maturity to distinguish between “Spiritual Formation” in a specific religious family in the Church and “Spiritual Formation” for everybody. We still focus strongly on the differences between the different “schools of spiritual life” and do not yet see the core of teaching in “Spiritual Formation” that belongs to all of us. Despite this lacuna, we do distinguish between “Spiritual Formation” on one hand and “Religious” or “Monastic Formation” on the other hand.
Hence, if we say that “all are Called to Holiness or Union with Jesus”, and if a lay person hears the call one day, and either already has a state of life (is married for example), or has chosen to remain single in the world, he or she is also in need of Spiritual Formation.
Would it be different from the one described above? The “Spiritual Formation” as opposed to the Monastic or Religious formation mentioned above is in fact valid for all of us… lay people included.
Now comes the big question: if the Church claims that all, one day, when they will be ready, will hear the Call of Jesus to follow Him, and if this includes lay persons, how then can they receive their “Spiritual Formation”?
If they do not want to belong to any movement in the Church (providing of course they offer proper “spiritual formation” which is not always the case), or if they do not want to join a third order (Franciscan, Benedictine, Dominican, Carmelite, Jesuit,… third orders or fraternities), where can they find a proper “Spiritual Formation”?
Some might think that a “Spiritual Director” is a “Spiritual Formator”! Well, of course he is not. He might be capable of wearing that hat also, but normally this is not the case. The “Spiritual Formator”, as is described above, has infinitely more science, experience, formation and discernment.
I am well aware that today both “Spiritual Directors” and seekers wish to give and receive respectively Spiritual Formation. They wish that the two functions were the same, but they are not! The Spiritual Formator offers exceedingly more to the seeker than the Spiritual Director! Please re-read above.
Today we need a place to form “Formators in Spiritual Life” and not only “Spiritual Directors”.
Spiritual Formation Offers
Means of Discernment
|A Teaching in Spiritual Life. The First Stages of SL:
|A Daily Schedule including:
Love our brothers
|Meeting on a regular basis with:
Books that can help understand the first stages:
- Augustine’s “Confessions”.
- “The Life of St. Anthony” by St. Athanasius.
- “Autobiography” of St. Teresa of Avila.
- “Story of the Soul” of St. Therese of the Child Jesus.
- “Imitation of Christ”.
Readings that can help understand “Spiritual Formation”:
- “Way of Perfection” of St. Teresa of Avila.
- Therese of the Child Jesus’ early letters in the Monastery to her sister Celine.