|1. Occasion for this course|
|2. How participants can enter into the course|
|3. Prior experiences expected of participants|
|4. Essentials of a spiritual journey|
|5. Opportunities for spiritual nurture|
a) The majority of those who participated in the days of contemplation (three days) expressed gratitude for the depth and enrichment of their spiritual life they experienced in these days. The problem was, however, how to integrate the schedule of these special days into their everyday life. Often the days provided a fresh desire for new depth in their daily prayer time. However, after a few weeks most of them experienced how much the everyday intruded upon the space reserved for prayer. In order to replenish their inner strength that was being lost, they would enroll in another weekend, within a year. Despite this they became aware that they needed much more than three days of such an experience each year. What could be done about this?
b) Another reason for preparing this material came in the midst of my continuing education as a leader of spiritual exercises and retreats. Here I became familiar with the individual exercises according to the Ignatian tradition (a minimum of at least eight days). This opened for me one of the most fruitful ways people can pursue their spiritual journey. In such time things can happen which inexplicably change one from within and produce effects that do not fade after a few weeks as reflected in the following comments that appeared in the evaluations, particularly from Protestant participants: "Every Christian should make at least one such individual retreat in their life." - ."Every theological student should have this kind of an opportunity." But how can we realize these aspirations for a larger group given the substantial commitment of time and energy of the leader and given the small number of leaders available? What possibilities might there be to offer such an experience at least in an abbreviated form to a larger circle of people?
c) Finally, another impetus for this project was the result of the probing question frequently directed to me regarding whether I knew other people who could give spiritual direction. Why was it that I could name only so few? One can acquire technical tools through theory and practice. However, the foundation of the spiritual life is not a set method you can learn. Whoever would offer meditation practices as helps for the life of prayer and the inner life of spiritual growth must be aware of their own spiritual experiences and have reflected on that and incorporated that (or at least begun to do so) into the core of their own spiritual journey. The spiritual life has its own inner dynamic which we cannot learn from books, but which must come from our own experience. It is only from this prior experience that we can comprehend the books that speak about such matters. From this arose an urgent question: "What resources do we have to guide people in their own spiritual experiences?" The material for this book grew from this question.
For this material I would like to use a New Testament metaphor: "You are members of the household, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the spirit." (Ephesians 2:19b-22). From that it follows for us: "Like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house." (I Peter 2:5).
what you are". This invitation runs through the New Testament.
This means that everything we do can be built into the spiritual
temple of God through which the Triune God can live in us and through us
in the world. In order to realize this we must do everything within
our power as though everything depended on us alone. It is precisely in
doing this that we grow deeper in the knowledge that what is truly decisive
comes from God al one.
The structure for this book comes from this New Testament image:
The basic focus of this course grew out of many years of acquaintance with old and new "masters of the spiritual life". This course explores possibilities for guiding people in the way of spiritual living that is nothing other than the way of love. The course material invites one to enter into the incomprehensible love of God with one's whole life and to give an answer to this love more and more with all the strength of one's being (Mt. 22:37). So it was with the eminent lovers in the history of the church who provide the background for this book. They have passed on their experiences so that others might receive the courage to enter a way which anticipates what Jesus meant when he said that he came in order that we may have life abundantly (John 10:10).
- Which names should I mention especially? There is the master whose love was so deep and so great that he often stumbled over words causing the church to reject what he said for dogmatic reasons: Meister Eckhart . In many ways his influence is still felt today for the spiritual life. There are the great Spaniards: Theresa of Avila , the master and remarkable teacher of prayer and her young confessor and friend, John of the Cross who described and interpreted so uniquely the "dark night" in the spiritual life. There is the Benedictine spirituality that has been practiced and lived for over fifteen hundred years. This is based on the spiritual experiences of the desert fathers and mothers, whose experiences to this day still help distressed persons cope with their darkness. The Benedictines have many important things to share with us from their experiences of ora et labora (prayer and work). Furthermore, they have helped many people today find in praising God through praying the Psalms in public worship the center of the spiritual life .
Furthermore, much of this book, I feel is supported by Protestant and Catholic theologians who have reclaimed the decisive importance of symbol for spiritual life and thought. In the background of later sections of this book is the established understanding of how irreplaceable symbolic pictures are. Finally, in my recent encounter with icons the thought and faith of the Eastern Church has become of particular importance to Meister Eckehart.
- Above all I must mention the master interpreter of the methods and training of people in using their own spiritual experiences, namely, Ignatius of Loyola. He is author of the small book of disciplines known as Spiritual Exercises. The organization of this book in its main features is influenced by the basic organization of this book of exercises.
What people urgently need for the healing of their inner life today Ignatius understood 450 years ago:
Second, for experiences to develop from short momentary occurrences to continuing and personally transforming events, we must remain with what has touched us, recall it and deepen it;
Third, the continuing transforming power of a spiritual event depends largely on the degree to which we involve our whole person including our body;
there is an inner dynamic of the way of love into which we consciously
enter which all spiritual teachers know and which Ignatius used as
the foundation for his spiritual exercises.
In the organic process of the spiritual life one experiences again and again how powerfully different churches and spirituality's can fertilize each other. Particularly in an encounter with diverse religious traditions it is often (not always!) the differences in language that complicate and hinder understanding between each other. When one finds the right "translation-helps" the word becomes alive again: "As each has received a gift, employ it for one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace" (I Peter 4:10).
This experience of ecumenical breadth points us to something important. What is handed down from the most diverse spiritual traditions must have had its roots there where the separation in the body of Christ has not yet taken place. Thereby, we come to the source, to Jesus Christ himself. Finally, it was neither Ignatius nor any other spiritual teacher who discovered the inner dynamic of the spiritual journey. It was already demonstrated in Jesus' way of life.
- The "foundation" for Jesus was the experience of love in his childhood that allowed him later to address God the Father as "papa" (Section Two).
- His public works began in the "desert" where he came to know the darkness of temptation and where he learned to deal with the tactics of the tempter (Section Three).
- From there followed the period of his service in word and deed which was always focused on the all important will of the Father: "My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work." (John 4:34) (Section Four).
- And finally, Jesus' life was completed in suffering and death according to the will of his Father and, thereafter, in the fullness of the new and imperishable life which he made accessible for us all on Easter. It is the task of us all to bring this message to the whole world (Section Five).
These stations from Jesus' way of life provide the basis for the development of this course.
The important prerequisites for this venture are hope and prayer and a longing of the heart. It does not mean that we have to offer some previous achievement to God, but it does mean that we truly seek God and not only our own fulfillment and satisfaction. We would otherwise be using God as a means to an end and should not be surprised if God does not go along.
b) There are additional possibilities which provide a good basis for following the way offered here:
There is much more one could add. However, from these examples one thing should be clear: whoever enters such a process already brings to it, in one form or another, their own unique experience. He or she will bring these experiences to the extent that they bring their own selves along.
To the extent we continue to practice regular listening this course can help us to listen to the gentle and quiet impulses through which God seeks to touch and direct our life. The Holy Spirit works in us as the "inner master". In such inner listening we can "tune in" our life more and more to God's design for us and the world and to God's loving kindness. At the same time we can "tune in" to our own deepest life fulfillment. Then God can use us for service to the world and for the world.
b) Biblical passages, other texts and pictures are the material which will be offered throughout for meditative prayer: This material provides stimulus for the theme suggested for the day in such a way that we can receive what is right and important for us. Thereby each major section is accompanied by three (or five as the case may be) sub themes. They offer exercise materials for one week. For each week there will in turn be six different suggested subject materials for meditation that will spread out the main theme of the week into individual days. The seventh day is deliberately kept free from any new material so that there is the possibility to review and deepen what has particularly touched the individual personally, or to simply ponder in prayer without any material and wait for what "comes".
One should take care that the exercise "weeks" are not seen pedantically
as rigid units of time. If that is so, then the set times are performed
under pressure of achievement. Any thought of achievement will be
the death of true meditation. Meditation must soar freely if it is
to develop. Whoever learns to listen more and more within to the
voice of the "inner master", the Holy Spirit, will soon experience what
fits the need and be able to determine if one should extend or shorten
a "week". Other themes can be picked up later when they are encountered
in a life situation.
The detailed introductions and interpretations of the main themes and sub themes are optional offerings. Many people are grateful for directions, but for others any word said about the exercise material is too much. Here each one must exercise personal freedom to pursue what is most meaningful to them. Whoever feels the introduction as a kind of constraint should in good conscience free themselves from that and make their own way. Whoever is helped by a little direction should do that with the same freedom. Nevertheless, it is best if one does not read the introduction during the prayer time, but read it the night before if possible. That gives more free space for one's own inner experience. And that is what is crucial.
The visual material must be limited to a few pictures. Usually a picture "speaks" to us more the longer we meditate and ponder on it. Often something is disclosed only after waiting a long time which had not been expected upon first examination . After we have experienced several times how pictures begin to "speak" to us in meditation, then we become attentive to that and discover new pictures that can be meditation material for us. Dusty picture books which have stood for years on the book shelves can unexpectedly provide valuable treasures for our spiritual life.
Whoever earnestly desires to participate in the practices of this book may soon discover that he or she would like to have another person with whom to speak regarding their experiences or other emerging questions. (Individual retreatants using the Ignatian exercises speak with a spiritual companion daily.)
- Those who have overcome the inner constraints that prevent them from speaking honestly about inner things and have earnestly searched may find a person they can trust. Often it is only pride ("What can they say to me?") that prevents one from seeking another person for guidance.
- Nevertheless, many people have experienced after looking a long time, perhaps even years, they still cannot find a spiritual counselor. We should pray for this yet understand that when our request is fulfilled it is a gift . Perhaps God allows a person to yearn and seek a long time in this way because God prefers to lead the people step by step through the Holy Spirit who "leads me in paths of righteousness for His name's sake" (Ps. 23:3).
- Still another aspect must be mentioned here: whoever is psychologically unstable should not expect this exercise material to solve their problems immediately. For such a person it is especially important that a competent spiritual companion be sought. If, for whatever reason, they cannot find one, they must be especially attentive to their inner process and be alert to whether the inner journey is a positive one or not. All of the practices offered should be helpful. "If 'helps' don't help, then throw them away", says Willi Lambert. That pertains to all the material in this book.
A small group can also serve as a guide for the spiritual journey. Perhaps in some instances this book can be the occasion for small groups to be organized so people can journey together. In other places already existing groups may share this material together. When that occurs we would have taken an important step for in the church small groups are especially needed today. When small groups form that does not mean they must meditate and pray together on a daily basis. Two women in our course met once a week to share their experiences of individual meditation. For them these talks were helpful. On all this activity rests the promise of Jesus to be present wherever two or three gather in His name (Mt. 18:20). And that was often distinctly felt.
Sometimes things happen despite our initial hesitance. We are not accustomed to speaking about inner experiences and hardly have the language for such experiences anymore. When we try to find it again it may be awkward and stumbling at first, yet in that very uncertainty we experience something of community which can release us from isolation. Loneliness will not be overcome with "masses" of people, but only when we encounter another person near us who shares the same joy and pain in his or her inner experiences, feelings, desires and longings as we do.
On the other hand a warning must be given about expecting total disclosure from oneself or from another. There is a "spiritual reserve" in every life. There are experiences, thoughts and feelings that need not be shared with any one but God.
In recent years pastoral care has had two major emphasis. First, the emphasis was placed on the counseling session during which time the client through her/his own verbalizing comes to clarity and to a solution to their problems themselves. Secondly, in the more traditional way, emphasis is placed on the specific message of proclamation or admonition which the pastoral counselor acting as God's representative declares to the person. Perhaps the material in this book can provide help and encouragement for yet a third way. To those who come with a question or need the pastoral counselor can say: "Why not begin by taking a week to deal with the questions and to meditate on them in the light of the suggested texts and materials? Be attentive to any answer that will be shown you by God".
Participants may experience in the practice of the exercises in this book that more time is required than daily responsibilities allow for much of the material . If such is the case find ways to work intensively on the particular concern that is of greatest importance to you. There are more possibilities than we realize. What really matters is that we recognize them and use them:
- Certainly illness can be a way that God sends us into silence for a time. I remember an illness which forced me to rest yet it did not interfere with my thinking. A woman friend recently described her broken leg in this way: "A gift the dear Lord sent to get me to rest for once". We do not have to "kill" the time given us by watching TV for hours or reading crime novels, but we can use it as a personal gift from God.
- We don't have to wait for illness. When our five children were small, I had three to five days of vacation from the family each year. A small room of my own, woods to walk in, and a church in which to pray were all I needed to feel refreshed in a short period of time.
- Also entire segments of life or periods of life are intentionally used by many as a spiritual journey. I know more than one person who has used the first months of retirement to reflect on their life with God, and put things in order. In that way the final "fork in the road", the remainder of life can be provided with new opportunities and tasks.
Once again, the materials in this book are suggestions and helps to show the possibilities you have to discover and reshape the materials according to your own needs. Here Ignatius would say as he said in many other places, "Observe for yourself what is right and beneficial and do it. See what helps you to come closer to God and make that your way."
Let me close this introduction with a word from Johannes Tauler: „The person who does not touch the ground of their being at least once a day, in whatever way he [she] is able, does not live as a true Christian.“