7.4 Epiphany Manual On Formation-in-Common

Critical Response to
Epiphany Manual On the Art and
Discipline of Formation-in-Common

By Susan Muto and Adrian van Kaam

Contribution to my understanding of spiritual direction

This is obviously a book for use in Formation-in-Common or that is spiritual formation in a group setting. Since people often do not understand what “spiritual reading” means, the questions on page 9 are useful to provide people with the types of questions that lend themselves to this type of reading instead of more analytical “informational reading”. The authors provide a simple definition for spiritual reading as “the reading of Scripture and the masters in a formative or meditatively reflective way rather than in a merely informational way.” (11) When we read Scripture formationally, we read slowly, stopping to pray frequently or as the author’s say, “Dwell leisurely on the text.” (69) They also suggest that people keep a spiritual reading notebook which can “clarify and deepen” the experience of spiritual reading. (68) Spiritual reading brings surprising results:

“When we read formationally, there are many new insights we find. The opposite happens when we approach the text with an anxious urgency to master it, to achieve inspiration, or only to gather information. In formative reading, we surrender to the pace of grace.” 70 “As time goes by, it becomes easier to for us to shift from informative to formative reading.” 71

As I seek to provide spiritual direction to others, I need to respect and honor the way God is already at work in the other person and should “never get in the way of the process already in motion in the heart of a person-in-formation.” (14) Rather than seeking to control the process, I was reminded that “Good facilitators let common formation happen.” (22) It is not necessary that I “click” with all the participants; only that I respect and value each participant’s contribution to how the Spirit is at work in the group. My role is to try to discern the spiritual needs of the group.

It is necessary to debunk the notion that spiritual formation-in-common will lead to some special or ecstatic religious experience. Formation should include a commitment to “expose the self-deception that covers up our total dependence on God.” (62) A key point for me is a reminder that “Transformation is a grace only the Spirit can give.” (63)

As I have tried to teach people how to meditate, I was reminded in these pages that before people can begin to meditate, people need to “calm down and center in God before doing anything else.” (19) A process is given that is helpful but I would have enjoyed having more discussion on “centering prayer” and about how it can be abused.

Impact on my present call and commitment to shepherd others

After reading this book, I am even more interested to invest time with others to see how the Lord is at work in them. I don’t need to have all the answers. I don’t need to control the events of formation-in-kind. Providing an environment where people feel safe and having a keen listening ear to see how the Spirit is leading as one listens to what the directees are saying are most important. Spiritual formation-in-common is needed in our Christian world today as the author’s say, “As long as we try to stand alone in our pursuit of a prayerful life, it may be almost impossible to make progress.” (101-2)

Strengths and weaknesses

One of the most helpful parts of the book were the dangers that are inherent when one tries to provide in formation-in-common. They suggested that we be aware of “forced or contrived efforts” arising from ourselves or the participants “by sheer will power”. (39) Another danger to avoid is trying to convince the participants that my style of spirituality is the one that they should follow. Because people may be vulnerable during formation-in-common, the facilitator must avoid undue attachments by participants and should recognize that there is no place for proselytizing in formation-in-common. (44) Because of the intimate nature of group direction, the authors warn about seduction or the stirring up of “hidden drives, passions, needs and desires that are not yet purified and enlightened by the Spirit.” 47 As I reflect about my previous involvement in group direction, it seems that more detachment on my part would have been useful to avoid awkward situations. The result could have been people that “betrayed their own call-disclosures” in an effort to please me as a facilitator. If there is neediness or an insecurity in me as a facilitator, it might be easy to allow things to drift in this direction. Or, if there is insecurity in the participant, they may be tempted to imitate and adopt my views.

Another danger is that some participants may resist what the facilitator is saying for any number of reasons (personality clash, pride, independent spirit etc). We need to reassure people that, “Divinely inspired and humanly reasonable counsel does not diminish anyone’s autonomy.” (55) The authors also talk about how envy can disrupt the process of formation when a spirit of competitiveness arises within the participant or facilitator. (57-58)

Scriptural and use of the masters

There was some mention about the use of the masters in spiritual formation but in this short manual there was not enough space to provide readings from the masters nor was there any bibliography specifically on the masters. There was little reference to the Scriptures in this book.

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