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“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” — John 14:27

Spiritual Formation
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A Glossary of Terms


Spiritual Formation

Spiritual Guidance and Spiritual Direction

A History of Spiritual Formation in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

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The contemplative life is to "retain with all one's mind the love of God and neighbor but to rest from exterior motion and cleave only to the desire of the Maker"

—Gregory the Great (quoted in Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer. NY:
Image, 1971: 51)

Contemplative prayer is "the development of one's relationship with Christ to the point of communing beyond words, thoughts, feelings, and the multiplication of particular acts…"

—Thomas Keating, Open Mind Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel. NY: Continuum, 1992: 146).

The contemplative relationship with God is "a way that tends to wordlessness and the unification of thought, feeling and desire so that the energies of the whole person are gathered into focus in an attractive, waiting awareness"

—Wendy Wright "Guidelines for Discernment of Lay Contemplative Formation Programs." The Lay Contemplative. Eds. Virginia Manss and Mary Frohlich.
Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2000: 90.

"It is common to regard contemplation as a rare and exalted gift, an so no doubt it is in its plenitude. Yet the seeds of a contemplative attitude exist in all of us. From this hour and moment I can start to walk through the world, conscious that it is God's world, that [God] is near me in everything that I see and touch, in everyone whom I encounter. However spasmodically and incompletely I do this I have already set foot upon the contemplative path."

"Contemplation is not a means to an end. It is not even a goal sought for itself. It is so utterly simple that the very desire for it becomes an obstacle to achieving it. And when you achieve it, you haven't really achieved anything. You do not get some place where you were not. You are getting where you always really are: in the presence of God. You have achieved nothing. Yet you have achieved everything. For you have been transformed in consciousness so that at last you recognize yourself for who you really are."

—William H. Shannon, Seeking the Face of God.
NY: Crossroad/Herder & Herder, 1990: 16.


"Discernment" has been described as "a way of making Christian choices, of following the Spirit of God in the decisions we make."

—David Lonsdale, Listening to the Music of the Spirit: the Art of Discernment.
Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1992, p.19.]

In the New Testament, the word for discernment is diakrisis, which means "differentiating" or "distinguishing."

In discernment, individuals and groups allow the experiences of a dynamic relationship with the Living God to give shape to their decisions, seeking to judge between choices that are obedient to God's will and those that are contrary to God's desires. It is often associated with the call of God to a particular person or group.

Discernment is an ongoing process rather than an isolated event, and is grounded in a life of prayer. It makes use of rational processes, intuition, imagination, and emotion, and always includes the testing of a discerned decision.

From the Latin discernere meaning "to sift apart," as in the practice of sifting wheat to remove the chaff. As a spiritual practice discernment refers to the process of:

  • Prayerfully seeking to notice with clarity and without bias. Taking "a long,loving look at the real."

  • Noticing the many values and possibilities that are present. Asking God to show us Spirit's presence and values in them. Considering them through the light of Scripture and our faith community's wisdom.
  • Imagining the various responses and choices we might make. Noticing the likely outcomes each presents.
  • Prayerfully taking time with each outcome and asking God to help us see the effects our choice creates.
  • Identifying our choice or response and then praying with it for a period of time (if needed days or weeks) and noticing whether it has "Spirit-life" to it or feels and thinks "deadening."
  • If it prays, feels and thinks right, choosing to prayerfully follow that course of action.

—Steven Wirth, "Communal Discernment: Choosing with God in Community."


"Within the Reformed tradition, the word that has been used most commonly to mean spirituality is 'piety.' Most contemporary Protestants react negatively to the word 'piety' or to anything that remotely reminds them of that word. Piety sounds narrowly judgmental and self-righteous. If often has the overtones of a form of religion that is afraid of finding any joy in the created order, opting instead for a stern and grim, dutiful determination to keep rigid rules. But piety is nothing more that the pattern by which we shape our lives before God in grateful obedience to what God has done for us. Calvin's definition of piety is helpful in understanding the scope: 'I call 'piety' that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of [God's] benefits induces."

—Howard L. Rice. Reformed Spirituality.
Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991: 46.

"The true purpose of Christian spirituality is not what we do for ourselves or how holy we may appear to others. It is how we point beyond ourselves and bear witness to the majesty and love of God. A God-centered spirituality brings glory to God rather that credit to ourselves.

We are also, according to the [Westminster Shorter] Catechism, "to enjoy [God]. Piety of spirituality is not a dreary negation of everything in the world; the challenge of Reformed piety is to discover the joy of obedient discipleship."

—Howard L. Rice. Reformed Spirituality.
Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991: 47.

Spirituality: See also Spiritual Formation

"Spirituality is the pattern by which we shape our lives in response to our experience of God as a very real presence in and around us."

—Howard L. Rice. Reformed Spirituality.
Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991: 45

"To be spiritual is to take seriously our consciousness of God's presence and to live in such a way that the presence of God is central in all that we do. This awareness of God is not automatic, nor can it be brought about by any particular technique. We can, however, open ourselves to the already present God by deliberately cultivating certain disciplines of mind and will."

—Howard L. Rice. Reformed Spirituality.
Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991: 46

Spirituality as a concept points to the style of apprehending and responding to the ultimate in our lives. In its widest sense, Sandra Schneiders (1986) speaks of spirituality as the experience of consciously striving to integrate one's life in terms of self-transcendence toward what one perceives to be of ultimate value. It can be specified by a variety of religious or nonreligious contexts and theologies, but is distinguished by its reference to issues of ultimate concern.

Spirituality, then, can be thought of as the ongoing, transformational experience of intentional, conscious engagement with the presence of the Ultimate/God, involving three dynamics: nurturing or preparing for interaction with the presence of the Ultimate/God, the affective human experience of interaction with the presence of the Ultimate/God, and intentionally responding to that presence. A person's spirituality is his or her lived pattern of engaging the presence of the Holy, becoming intimate with the presence of the Ultimate/God (Liebert and Dreitcer, 1995).

A specifically Christian spirituality would relate the human capacity for self-transcendence to God as revealed in Jesus Christ and communicated by the Holy Spirit to the Church (Schneiders, 1993). Particular Christian communities will stress different aspects of this relationship; hence different Christian communities may be said to express varieties of Christian spiritualities.

As an academic discipline, spirituality studies the lived experience of this self- transcendence in the light of the Ultimate/God. It is an interdisciplinary enterprise, at various moments, descriptive, critically analytical (using the lenses of various disciplines determined by the phenomenon studied and the questions the researcher is attempting to investigate), and constructive.

—Elizabeth Liebert (San Francisco Theological Seminary)

The following analytic categories, by Andrew Dreitcer of the Claremont School of Theology, are useful in distinguishing and assessing the variety of spiritualities commonly encountered today:

  • What is the definition of “spirituality” in this tradition?
  • What is the aim of this spirituality? What image or term captures this? What are the characteristics of this aim? What would the truly spiritual person do, feel, experience, think, value and reject according to this spirituality?
  • What methods and practices can the person participate in to help this spirituality flourish?
  • What is the context or environment of the actions and attitudes initiated by others (including God) that allow this spirituality to flourish?
  • What is the experience of the person over time as she/he lives into this spirituality?
  • What are the central insights into, understandings of, or assumptions about the nature of God, humans creation, church, Scripture, etc. that operate as a part of this spirituality.

Spiritual Formation: See also Spirituality

"Spiritual formation is the activity of the Holy Spirit which molds our lives into the likeness of Jesus Christ. This likeness is one of deep intimacy with God and genuine compassion for all of creation. The Spirit works not only in the lives of individuals but also in the church, shaping it into the Body of Christ. We cooperate with this work of the Spirit through certain practices that make us more open and responsive to the Spirit's touch, disciplines such as sabbath keeping, works of compassion and justice, discernment, worship, hospitality, spiritual friendships, and contemplative silence."

—Office of Spiritual Formation,
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

Spiritual formation refers to the means that a particular community of faith uses to bring members into that community of faith and assist them in their continual development of faithful response. It shares many commonalities with spiritual guidance, and in some circumstances, may also include spiritual direction. What distinguishes it is the orientation to a particular group's life of faith. From the point of view of the individual, Maxie Dunham's formulation is helpful: “Spiritual formation is that dynamic process of receiving through faith and appropriating through commitment, discipline, and action, the living Christ into our own life to the end that our life will conform to and manifest the reality of Christ's presence in the world.”

—Elizabeth Liebert (San Francisco Theological Seminary)

Spiritual Guidance

Spiritual guidance, as I will use the term, refers to all the pastoral responses which have been called “care of souls” or “cure of souls” since Gregory the Great in the sixth century, insofar as these pastoral functions raise our awareness of God's call and our appropriate responses. Spiritual guidance occurs through such varied pastoral activities as regular pastoral calls on congregants, letters of counsel or condolence, confessional or penitential guidance, preaching and worship, visits to the sick and imprisoned, sacramental preparation, pastoral counseling, and education in the texts, traditions and disciplines of the Christian community. Spiritual guidance employs all the means, including spiritual direction, that the church offers for the healing, sustaining, guiding, reconciling and nurturing of its members.

(Note: some persons who dislike the phrase “spiritual direction” use “spiritual guidance” to refer to the one-to-one relationship traditionally called spiritual direction.)

—Elizabeth Liebert (San Francisco Theological Seminary)

Spiritual Direction

Spiritual direction is an interpersonal helping relationship, rooted in the church's ministry of pastoral care. In this relationship, one Christian assists another to discover and live out in the context of the Christian community his or her deepest values and life goals in response to God's initiative and the Biblical mandate. Spiritual direction particularizes spiritual guidance to each person's unique experiences, life circumstances, decisions, and yearnings. Furthermore, spiritual direction always involves an explicit covenant to sensitize persons to God and encourage them to deepen this relationship in all its ramifications. Thus, spiritual direction is a more specific, individualized form of spiritual guidance.

—Elizabeth Liebert (San Francisco Theological Seminary)


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