Many of the contemporary writings on spiritual formation address beginners on the spiritual journey. As they write about our relationship with God, the motivation of which they speak is to benefit the individual. We are encouraged to draw closer to God, deepen our relationship through the spiritual disciplines, and live in a Christ-like manner for the reward of peace, help in our relationships or meaning for our lives.
These are wonderful objectives, but this is not the way spiritual formation was approached by the church mothers and fathers. These authors spoke of a different impetus for practicing the disciplines and living a life of dedication to God. The purpose of which they write is to join into the work of God for the benefit God. They suggest the rationale for living this way is about God, rather than us.
This ancient perspective can chafe for those of us who are self-sufficient and believe in the Western dream of working to gain a reward. Doesn’t God want us to be happy? This is in fact, the wrong question. A better question is “How can I best be used by God for kingdom work?” This view is about shifting our focus to God as we progress along the journey. St. Benedict best describes this as he spoke of spiritual development with the analogy of climbing a ladder. When we start on the bottom rungs of the ladder–beginning our spiritual journey–the focus is on ourselves. We enter into a relationship with God to benefit ourselves. The motivation is egocentric. But as we continue up the ladder, our focus begins to move out beyond ourselves. We want to offer this love we are experiencing to others and invite them into their own relationship with this loving God. As we continue to the top of the ladder, our focus shifts to God. We think less about ourselves and more about serving God and entering into God’s work in this world. God’s work of healing love.
The paradox of this journey is that as we focus more and more on God, it does indeed reap benefits for us. The more we give ourselves as instruments for God’s use, the more freedom we experience. We are no longer tossed to and fro by surface values that compete for our attention, we are free to love and be loved. This is not something we accomplish; it is a gift from God. Julian of Norwich expresses this God-centered life in her prayer as follows:
God of your goodness, give me yourself
For you are enough to me
And I can ask for nothing less that is to your glory
And if I ask for anything less, I’ll still be in want
For only in you have I all. Amen.
Grace and peace to you,