On the Frontier of the Spirit

The expression “spiritual formation” was not one I had heard from the pulpit, until recently, although I had seen it on the printed page. One Sunday not long ago, the pastor in his sermon linked spiritual formation with Bible study and journaling. Curious as to what others had to say about the subject, I turned to the book credited with the growth of interest in spiritual formation among Protestants, namely, The Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth (1978 Revised 1988) by the Quaker author Richard J. Foster.

The reader soon discovers that Celebration of Discipline reflects Foster’s own Quaker theological convictions; indeed, one can’t help but imagine that it was in the deep silence of a Friends meeting house that Foster conceived the idea for his book.  A core belief in Quakerism is that each one must take it upon himself or herself to practice the disciplines associated with personal spiritual growth, rather than relying on pastors and professional theologians.  In his Celebration of Discipline, Foster sets out twelve Spiritual Disciplines for achieving that desired spiritual growth.

The first Discipline that Foster encourages is the practice of meditation, reflecting another fundamental tenet of Quakerism:  belief in the possibility of direct, unmediated communion with God.  Quakerism’s founder, George Fox (1624-1691), experienced a spiritual revelation which convinced him to reject church and state, and to turn instead to his own “inner divine light” as the ultimate source of authority.  He referred to this inner authority as the “Inner Light,” the “Christ Within,” the Spirit of God within us.”  This inner divine light that Fox possessed, moreover, was universally resident in humankind, however obscure it might be.  To encounter one’s inner divine light required a journey down into the centre of one’s being, to a silent place where the human spirit and the Spirit meet. Quakers have a practice called “centering down,” a contemplative technique whereby the mind is emptied of all conscious thoughts in order to create that requisite non-verbal, silent listening place at the center of one’s being.

For my pastor, spiritual formation is about Bible study and journaling, and he’s right.  But in Foster’s scheme of things, spiritual growth involves meditation and contemplative practices as well. The author challenges his readers to “live on the frontier of the Spirit” and many Protestants have taken up his challenge, engaging in contemplative exercises once practiced solely by medieval mystics.  As we all know, however, the frontier can be a place fraught with danger.  I can’t help but wonder:  How trustworthy are subjective mystical experiences?  Also, what manifestation of the Sacred do contemplatives encounter—or believe they encounter?  Do ‘progressive’ Christians, panentheists, Catholic mystics, Quakers, and evangelicals all encounter the same Spirit in that silent place, when their notions of God frequently differ?  I think I’ll stick with Bible study and journaling.

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