The Adventure of Formation

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Since the God who made the world and everything in it is himself Lord of heaven and earth, he does not make his home in shrines made by human hands. Nor is he dependent on anything that human hands can do for him, since he can never be in need of anything; on the contrary, it is he who gives everything—including life and breath—to everyone.

Acts 17: 24-5

I have yet many things to say to you but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.

John 16: 12-3

Today we are offered two powerful and radical teachings concerning God’s revelation and gift of himself. The first is the startling insight of Paul of the universality of God’s love in Jesus. Despite the ongoing human tendency at the personal, cultural, ethnic and ecclesial levels to claim for ourselves a special and privileged relationship to God, Paul reminds us that “We are all his children.” Paul reminds the people of Athens, and us, that God cannot be contained in their and our images and sacred spaces, within our doctrines and teachings, and that God doesn’t need the things we do for him. Rather, we are to realize that it is God who gives “life and breath”, not only to us and our kind but “to everyone.” What this means in practice is that our stance before others is not to teach them (“Don’t let anyone call you teacher, for you have only one teacher . . .” Mt. 23:10) but rather to listen and attend to the One who gives them also “life and breath.” Living in the Spirit means that our primary task each day is not to bring Jesus into the world but rather to discover ever anew the manifestation of God’s love in Jesus in the common and ordinary moments that unfold. In this sense, we must learn to wait upon the persons, events, and things of our day in expectation of the epiphany of God that they bear.

The passage from John’s gospel reminds us of a truth that we have all experienced: that we, as limited human beings, cannot know a truth until we are ready to receive it. If we haven’t awakened to this truth in ourselves, we know it as parents, teachers, and mentors. We all know the experience of trying to tell our children or students a very basic and simple human truth and realizing that our words fail to register because their life experience has not yet formed in them a ground to receive what we are saying. This is the truth to which Jesus speaks in today’s passage from John: “I have yet many things to say to you but you cannot bear them now.” It is not that three years have been too short a time for Jesus to say what he has learned from the Father. Rather, it is that three years is too short a time for the disciples to become a ground that can receive the seed of that Word. The Spirit works by guiding us “into all truth” at the pace of our own unique spiritual formation. We learn not primarily through the words of the teacher but rather when the words of the teacher illuminate a moment of our own life formation.

Adrian van Kaam defines spiritual formation as follows:

The graced process of a prayerful search for and of tentative gradual incarnation in all dimensions of one’s life of the foundational form or unique image of Christ one is called to realize. This ongoing search and incarnation is guided by a divine direction which is gradually disclosed by the Holy Spirit as speaking in the Church, in the life situation, in the formation tradition and in one’s own soul.

We receive the revelation of God in our own regard through our entire lives in formation. Today Jesus confirms our experience that we come to know and realize the unique image of Christ that we are called to realize only gradually and tentatively, and that in each moment of our lives the Holy Spirit is present and active. Our task is to be humble enough to be a disciple or student of the Spirit’s call and action. This is true at the personal, communal, ecclesial, and global levels. The Divine director tailors the message to what we are able to bear. This gradual and tentative process will continue each moment of our lives, until the end, and probably, even then, still not be finished.

Often new paths have to be cleared in new situations. We are better able to find our way if we believe that the Spirit of Jesus is waiting to lead us. We must be ready for such enlightenments because Christ—as He said to His apostles—still has many things to tell us, but we cannot bear them yet. Our unique life form in Jesus has to grow, expand and mature. It is only slowly, and step by step, that the Holy Spirit enables us to disclose and realize the divine image we, our cultures and communities are called to fashion in this period of history.

This realization presupposes that we are intrepid adventurers in the land of divine formation. We are always tempted to pitch our tent too early, settling down in one limited, current form of presence to reality. We do not go far enough beyond the initial gift of divine formation. We do not venture out into new meanings each life situation may yield, so we never discover the new possibilities of formation in Christ that lie waiting for us, that should be ours. We do not allow ourselves to feel the invitation of God’s deeper plan for us, with its unexpected horizons of growth in Jesus.

Horizons of divine formation keep receding as we approach them; they keep attracting us to go on and on. That is true not only of us personally, but also of the journey of Christianity through the centuries. Range rises behind range, peak towers above peak in the formative self-manifestation of Christ in history. What any person, community, culture, or cultural period can express in their own original image of Christ is a mere segment of His fullness as the image of God. In the thought of St. Paul, it takes the forms of all human lives, cultures and communities—and the particular sides of the richness of Christ they represent—to give us an inkling of what Christ is as the Image or Form of God.

 

Adrian van Kaam, C.S.Sp., Original Calling and Spiritual Direction

 

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