3. Reflections on David Benner’s Spiritual Formation series
Personal Reflection Paper
I appreciate the opportunity to consider the many gifts that God has given to me as I have read the four required textbooks by Dr. Brenner, meditated upon Scripture and attended class during the contemplative retreat held at Simpsonwood Retreat Center March 24-26. Since this is the fifth contemplative retreat that I have attended in the past three years and have previously read and taught in the area of spiritual formation, there was not a great deal of new information that was gained. However, I believe this retreat was the most significant of all my previous retreats for me. There continues to be significant assimilation and life transformation flowing out of this opportunity. I attribute this to God’s loving grace, my present life situation and heart longings for change.
Silence and solitude are necessary in my life. For a number of years in my walk with Jesus, I have known of His personal example of taking time for silence and solitude (S & S) and knew that this should be a regular practice in my life. However, I was afraid to make space in my life for regular days away with God to listen and reflect. I thought I “might miss some opportunity in life” if I went away. Indeed this is a sad admission to make. There are a number of other fears and anxieties that I have identified related to S & S.
But I have begun to discover that my life diminishes without extended time set aside for S & S and becomes alive during periods set aside for S & S. An essential element in my emotional healing from burnout has been S & S in which I have been able to process current life events and receive love from God. In the months leading up to this retreat I have been recovering from emotional and physical fatigue accompanied with depression. I no longer view S & S as something I should do but something that my heart longs for. At the same time, my heart has been awakened to its longing to meet with God through the reading of Scripture and prayer.
In the days following the retreat, during a time of silence and solitude, God helped me to see my own personal hurt and pain from the past. But, He also spoke to me how I had also caused the same pain in some of my closest relationships. I was able to talk to one of the people involved and seek forgiveness.
Another benefit of spending time in S & S is that I am able to discover the true state of my level of physical and emotional fatigue. I need to be aware of reaching a level of fatigue that is dangerous and detrimental to my emotional and spiritual life. (Barton, 2004, 57-61) In the past, I have allowed my personal activity and busyness to block my feeling of the deepest levels of fatigue whereas in S & S I am uncovered.
I need spiritual friends and spiritual directors. This truth was highlighted through various runs that I made in the mornings during the retreat. At times, I sensed the intimate presence of Jesus while praying the Jesus prayer and enjoying God’s presence in creation. During these times, running was “just right”. At other times, I battled fear and doubt about whether or not I was on the “right trail” and was “lost” and the “joy” of running was lost. I discovered certain trails from friends more experienced with the retreat center. One time, someone “appeared” and helped me to find a path that I could not find. On one occasion I enjoyed walking and reflecting with a friend during a time of what could be called spiritual direction. Our class times of “spiritual direction” practice also encouraged me to not fear being a spiritual director to others as I tried to listen to what God was doing in their life.
During a group walk, I found I needed to set my own pace to stay in a good rhythm and yet was able to keep up as long as I could keep at least one of my fellow pilgrims in sight. When I was following a marked path and there was no clear signal about which way to go at a fork in the path, it was if God was telling me that He sometimes gives me the choice my path will take. During other runs, markers along the path were reminders to me that I was on the right way. Following Jesus is the essential goal in my spiritual journey and my journey will of necessity be unique. I need to discover a pattern and rhythm in my spiritual life that fits who and where I am. Yet, I am foolish to neglect historic practices other pilgrims have discovered to help keep me on the path to following Jesus. I value receiving the gifts of “Centering Prayer”, the “Jesus Prayer”, “Lectio Divina” and “meditations on Christian art” to use in my journey. In using these various forms of prayer, I once again discovered the simplicity of prayer. They are tools to allow prayer to “descend from the head to the heart”. (Benner, personal class comment)
I have been trying to be a spiritual friend to others as opportunities arise and have enjoyed these opportunities without “forcing” them. However, I am challenged to implement the discussion in Sacred Companions (185-204) and the example given by Dr. and Mrs. Benner during class in my own marriage. Although I have a good marriage, I long to see my wife and I being more intentional about being “spiritual friends”. I realize trust needs to be developed and fears overcome due to trust being damaged early in our marriage when I broke a confidence and expressed controlling behavior in our spiritual life development together.
I sense God is encouraging me to continue to transition out of an administrative role as Seminary Director and move into a more focused role in teaching, modeling and being a spiritual friend and spiritual director in a ministry setting. I am not sure how this will be worked out. I do sense that God is leading me to offer to lead a contemplative retreat within our church in Houston along with other spiritual friends. I would also like to provide regular contemplative retreats for the Christian community once we return to Davao City. The contemplative retreat provides me with a new model for retreat. Retreats do not need to be battery chargers which suggest that the retreat is the real spiritual place Instead, the retreat is a laboratory to practice new experiences with God that can be brought into the world in which I (and others live) which is the real place of spiritual reality. (Benner class comments) However, I found myself today realizing that even as I am sensing God’s leading down this new trail, fear and doubt come up from time to time and I question whether or not I am making a mistake in leaving the Seminary leadership. At times, I am tempted to hold back finalizing this decision because of the fear of not being clear about the future. My experience in the running trails during the retreat encourages me to keep on this journey.
The Lord has provided me with both spiritual friends and spiritual directors here in the United States during our Home Assignment. I am concerned about finding the same in the field once we return since some of my better friends will be leaving. There are spiritual directors available in some Catholic settings in our city but I never made a connection during our last term there. I was not willing to fully face myself at the time. I plan to pursue finding a Spiritual Director as soon as possible upon my return and continue email contact with other spiritual friends abroad or out of our city. This is essential in order that I may stay on the journey with Jesus.
Honesty about myself is required for spiritual transformation. In preparing for this class, I have discovered how much of a “performer” that I am. In performing, I find it difficult to enjoy the moment and am always evaluating the past or looking ahead to the future. I have cared much more about what people think about me than I wanted to admit. I have been trying to seek to win people’s approval through winning their respect and through demonstrating myself to be competent. I have feared failure and have sought to avoid failure and feelings of inadequacy by controlling behavior. This has resulted in feeling that I have to rescue others when their performance is less than perfect or below my standard. There are a number of false selves that I identified. My failure to admit some of these previous unwelcome parts of myself has actually allowed them to “become stronger, not weaker. Operating out of sight and beyond awareness they have an increasing influence on behavior.” (Benner, 2003, 54) In evaluating my enneagram it seems that I am type three with a four-wing (Riso and Hudson, 1996) which means that I am tempted towards deceit in order to appear successful and I compromise my authenticity in order to feel special. (Benner, 2003, 69) The importance of being honest about myself has been reinforced through my attendance in recent months at Al-Anon meetings.
I consider the above understanding of myself as a gift because now I no longer have to hide from God or others who I am (not that I ever could). I can now bring my real self to God and allow Him to love me as I am. In fact, as I begin to learn more about myself, I also learn more about God. “Deep knowing of self gives opportunity for deep knowing of God just as deep knowing of God gives opportunity for deep knowing of self.” (Benner, 2003, 56) Now, I can bring who I am (with all my flaws and imperfections) before God and know that I am loved just as I am. I know that I can be truly transformed only by receiving and being immersed in God’s love. As Ortberg says, “Love alone truly sees. And in the act of seeing, God begins to call to the surface the goodness and beauty in us that is now visible only to Him so that one day it will be visible to all. And that makes His heart glad.” (1998, 24)
In the past, I have failed to listen to my heart out of fear. But it is crucial that I listen to my heart and its desires. I will need courage to face my fears and identify in some cases their origins. Since I am at a transition point in my life, listening and understanding both my longings and my fears are crucial. I discovered that there was no point in pretending that I could use “Abba Father” for centering prayer when I have not processed some issues related to my own earthly Father. As Dr. Benner said in class, “Centering prayer is a way to be present to the Lord in whatever thoughts he gives. I am still working on this one.
Surrender is the way to Life Transformation. I received a change of perspective about the Christian life. Rather than seeing the Spiritual Formation as a spiritual improvement project, I should see it as a spiritual descent rather than a spiritual ascent. It is not about becoming spiritually fit but surrendered to God. At one point during the class I asked myself, “of what do I need to let go”? One of my greatest longings is know that I am loved by God in a deep experiential way. Perhaps this desire to experience the love of God has become an idol and needs to be released. Has the longing for love become more important than the person of God? There is value in surrendering up this longing for love since Dr. Benner noted in class, “If you cling to God with such fervor, you may be unaware that God is holding onto you.” There have already been moments when I have released this longing to be loved that I have found God’s gift of love becoming more real to me. Centering Prayer was a helpful practice in learning to let go and surrender. Walking the labyrinth was a concrete expression of how surrender feels as I was forced to let go being in control, to be patient and continue along the path that others had made to get me to the center where Jesus was present.
Accept dreams as gifts from God which allow God to meet me and bring my attention to unattended areas of my life. The dream materials provided by Dr. Benner encourage me to be open to God speaking to me in this way. A community of spiritual friends will be an important element in processing dreams that God may give to me. Just this week, I had a lengthy and vivid dream that I recorded and plan to process with my wife and other friends. I will be more intentional about paying attention to dreams in my life from now on. More reading in this area may also be of help.
God really does speak to me as I read and meditate upon His word. Three days before the retreat, I met with two friends to process some issues of shame that God had brought to my attention regarding an incident of past sexual abuse. As we departed, one of the friends mentioned to me how valuable Genesis 16:13 had been to he and his wife in dealing with the trauma of past abuse. Thus, the passage of Genesis 16:7-17 became one of the key texts for my meditations during the retreat. The angel’s questions to Hagar became questions for me, “Where are you coming from and where are you going?” I spent a significant time reflecting on where I had come from which was very encouraging. It is unclear where I am going at the present time but I do not think I am running away as was Hagar. And I was given courage to continue on the journey because God is the one who hears (me) and the One who sees (me) with reference to past events as well as in the present and future to come. I was given an opportunity to share this passage on the night the retreat ended and was able to share with the group past ways in which God had heard and seen me and my family and encourage them to be attentive to His hearing and seeing of them.
Another meditation on Luke 1:26-38 provided me with the invitation to accept that I have found favor with God. God is REALLY with me as He was with Mary. My response needs to accept, “Let it be so” without vacillating and making excuses. I wrote in my journal, “I know I need to accept that I am in favor with God, the Lord is with me and I need to keep responding, Ok, I am your servant, do it Your way. Practice that and the way will become clear.”
I close with my journal entry on the day before the retreat began.
“Good morning Lord Jesus. You are the God who sees—who saw and who will see me. You saw me forty years ago with Uncle L and You see me this morning carrying all my doubts, fears and anxieties. “Freedom”—the cry in Braveheart is yet something to fully come, even as I receive your love…yet something to fight for, to battle for, against enemies, forces of evil, thoughts that would want to rob me of my joy and freedom. Oh, Lord, so fill me with with Your good pleasure these next three days. As I am about to fly to Atlanta, I am positive and excited—If I can allow myself to feel that—yes allow it! “David”, you are saying God, let it all go—celebrate life, celebrate my life in You. Live with a reckless abandon. It is the only way to live—no more in the shadows of fear, shame and guilt. God, I come humbly before You over these next few days and want for you to speak and Lord, I am making a commitment to obey. No double mindedness—no more ambivalence! Enjoy each moment you give—indeed, practice Your Presence every moment of every day. May my life flow out of an intimacy with You my Father, an intimate relationship in which I receive and revel in Your love, leaning and resting my full weight upon You, my Rabbi.” (a reference to Brennan Mannings, Abba’s Child)
Barton, 2004. Invitation to Solitude and Silence. Downers Grove: IVP.
Benner, 2005. Desiring God’s Will. Downers Grove: IVP.
Benner, 2004. The Gift of Being Yourself. Downers Grove: IVP.
Benner, 2003. Surrender to Love. Downers Grove: IVP.
Benner, 2002. Sacred Companions. Downers Grove: IVP.
Manning, Brennan, 1994. Abba’s Child. Colorado Springs: Navpress.
Ortberg, 1998, Love Beyond Reason. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Riso, Don Richard and Russ Hudson, 1996. Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
 What will I see in myself? Will God be silent? What will other people think? Will their be sexual temptations? Will I be bored? Going through the motions without a heart engagement? Not enough time? Maybe God will not meet with me, will He also reject me? Will I sleep too much or do the wrong thing? Will I be lonely? Will a lack of exercise leave me lethargic and depressed? Am I afraid that I will miss what God wants to show me? Am I willing to let go and trust God to speak? Will God initiate? Can I let go and allow God to be in control? Will I be able to weep and mourn my losses? Will I be able to achieve the intimacy for which I long?
 A few of the false selves that I identified: lustful, competitive, proud, selfish, tender, shamed, inferior, vulnerable, playful, deceitful, mean, passionate, apathetic, lazy, crude and coarse, racist, perverted, sexually confused, lonely, needy, angry, violent, fearful, terrified, abusive, addictive, dependent, obsessive, narcisstic.
 It may be helpful to read what Riso and Riso write abou this subtype, “The competitiveness of the Three and the self-doubt of the Four combine in ways which inevitably create tremendous pressures for the Three with a Four-wing. They begin to base their self-esteem on the reactions of specific others to their work, and often feel as though they are putting their entire self-worth on the line with every project they take on. Their imaginations and feelings will play a more active role, but as Threes, they are still, as much as possible, suppressing their feelings in order to function more effectively and to “make the right impression.” Under such pressure, they are bound to make mistakes sooner or later, and when they do, the Four-wing adds a component of self-accusation which can be difficult to endure. The relentless drive for achievement of the Three combined with the self-reproach of the Four make the idea of failure truly terrifying for this subtype. Threes with a Four-wing tend to be more moody and pretentious than the other subtype, and also more aloof and conscious of how others treat them. They put great stock in their ideas and demand that others do likewise. Narcissistic feelings of superiority and arrogance mingle with the Four’s feelings of exemption and self-indulgence. They can be subtle showoffs, but showoffs nonetheless.” 131