AfterWords is a series of community-contributed reflections intended to further the conversations that begin during Parish sermons.
A 3-Minute Read
bye Eric Seidel
My son is going into kindergarten this fall. It’s a really huge deal. There are so many changes that are happening as a result of this milestone. It may not seem like a big deal at first glance, but it’s going to usher in big changes for us as a family. We’ll have a totally new family schedule. Old friends he’s grown close to will move on to other places, while he’ll connect with friends we’ve not known before. New learning standards will be in place, of course, as he officially moves into primary education.
One such change includes a degree of self-care, such as dressing himself, putting on his shoes, brushing his teeth and God-willing being able to wipe his own butt. Encouragement from pediatricians varies, but kindergarten age is an appropriate time to expect a child to have the independence to handle levels of self-care. One temptation we have as parents, though, is trying to absorb all the growing pains associated with his growth. My son can do all those things, but he dawdles and stalls, then wants us to do them for him. It would be so easy to move things along if we just put his clothes or shoes on for him. But the more we perform those critical life skills for him, the fewer opportunities he has to grow into the new season of life he’s entering. Ultimately, the more he does the work of an independently functioning child, the more he will become one.
This isn’t far from the way it is with spiritual life. With spiritual formation, becoming often requires doing. Put another way, becoming more of an image-bearer of God cannot be done without doing the work of spiritual formation. Henri Nouwen once said, “A spiritual life cannot be formed without discipline, practices and accountability” (Spiritual Direction, XIV). Formation into the image of God requires that we engage spiritual practices that mold us into that image. Spiritual practices Nouwen would point to include prayer, spiritual reading and community connection. He even went so far as to say “without solitude, it is virtually impossible to live the spiritual life” (Making All Things New, 69). Similar to how it is with my son’s new season in life, the more we do the work of the spiritual life, the more we will become image-bearers of God.
Much is said at The Parish about the power of the false self. The false self is the image we carry of ourselves and present to others in response to hurts, pains or burdens that we don’t want people to see so that we can gain acceptance or approval. The false self is an image we hold about ourselves that we are often subconsciously driven by, facilitating sin in order to protect that image at all costs. It causes us to sin, or put another way, it moves us to action that is destructive to ourselves, our relationships and to the image we bear in God. Jordan points out that the false self is described at length by Paul when discussing “the flesh.” One might say it’s alluded to in John’s Gospel when describing the world’s love for darkness, even though the light has come.
The spiritual practices empower us to come face-to-face with that false self, identify its hold over us and allow the graces of God to be administered upon us to break that hold. Centering prayer is one of my favorite spiritual practices. It’s so simple and powerful, but it challenges me significantly. With centering prayer, it’s best to spend 15–20 minutes in silence and solitude. In that time, you use a single word as a symbol of your consent to be in God’s presence. The mind often wanders and that’s ok. Whenever you find that you are wandering, you use the word to bring you back to the thought of God’s presence. The critical thing is the acceptance of the presence of God. God is present with you, regardless of if you are with God. Your mind wanders, God is still there. Your mind travels to the hard things. God is still there. Your mind takes you to emotionally traumatizing things in your life. God is still there. As you spend time in this space, you start to realize that all your thoughts, feelings and memories stand within the presence of God. This allows you to be honest with God and accept that God is there with you, in spite of anything you carry. Acceptance of God’s unwavering, loving presence allows you to name the hurts, to identify what causes you to prop up a false-self image to the world. That’s the power of a spiritual practice. It allows you to dismantle the power of the false self and to begin to have God’s graces administered to you to release it. It begins though, by entering into the work. To become what God has called us to be, one must do the work of spiritual formation.
Of course, the mention of work influencing one’s faith almost immediately produces the questions, “Isn’t that a works-based faith? Does doing the work of spiritual formation constitute justification by work and not faith?” This feels like a natural question that would arise. One must note that the work of union with God has already been done through the work of Jesus. No further reconciliation between us and God is necessary besides one’s own acceptance of that grace freely given by God. However, the wounds persist. The brokenness of the world still lingers in our hearts and souls. We still carry memories that have shaped us in hurtful ways. The habits we’ve developed by living with those pains do not go away without working through them with the love and grace of God. We have the gift of God’s grace, but that gift should still come with a label that says, “You’re embraced by grace, but you’re still broken by default.” Doing the work of spiritual formation encourages the healing of our brokenness and leads us to becoming image-bearers of God.