The Academy for Spiritual Formation taught me many things, but fundamental to all of it was the definition of spiritual formation itself: the process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others. It was emphasized to us that “for the sake of others” could not happen without “the process of being conformed to the image of Christ.” There is an interior process that must be attended to in order for the outward work to be effective.
The focus on interior work was not one that had been obvious to me in my experience as a lifelong church member. I wonder sometimes if our religious communities do an adequate job of emphasizing the importance of interior work. I’m afraid our criteria for measuring one’s faithfulness is overly focused on external acts of service.
I’m not implying that outward acts are not important. We live in a world where people are hungry, homeless and hurting. But outward acts done without inward growth can lead to frustration and burnout. Thomas Merton puts it this way: The mere fact of becoming a well working cog in an efficient religious machine will never make anyone into a saint if he does not seek God interiorly in the sanctuary of his own soul.
I know that in the past I did quite a bit of “church work” that I hesitate to call “service” because I did not perform it with a servant’s spirit. Maybe I thought I did starting out, but over time I wore down and the “work” became drudgery. I believe it is because I focused more on being a “cog” in the “religious machine” rather than on growing in intimacy with God.
Indicators of being a cog might include criticalness of the ones you serve. For example, several months ago I was part of a discussion about the Sermon on the Plain, found in Luke 6. The specific verse that seemed to trigger the harshest discussion was Luke 6:30: Give to everyone who asks and don’t demand your things back from those who take them. A couple of folks were outspoken about who was “worthy” of their generosity and who was not worthy. We would all do well to pay attention to the attitudes that surround our service. It may be that we need to step back from our outward service to focus on inward growth so that our service is done with love and generosity.
In a culture that believes “what you can measure you can manage” a focus on inward growth seems to hold little value. Merton observes: One has very little evidence of progress or perfection in this interior sphere—while in the exterior, progress can be more easily measured and results can be seen. They can also be shown to others for their approval and admiration. The most important, the most real, and lasting work of the Christian is accomplished in the depths of his own soul. It cannot be seen by anyone, even by himself. It is known only to God.”
It is this uncertainty of our “progress” that leads us away from the pride of outward accomplishment to humble trust that our desire for intimacy with God is actually leading us closer to the heart of God. It is an invisible, unheralded journey, yet it is the journey that really matters.