I had the opportunity to attend the Immersion Experience: An Invitation to a Deeper Spiritual Life weekend course at Columbia Theological Seminary earlier this month. This is a foundational course for the Certificate in Spiritual Formation and future Certificate in Spiritual Direction offerings, but can be taken on its own for anyone interested in learning more about the origin of Christian spirituality and practices for supporting a personal journey. My intention is to work toward completion of the Certificate in Spiritual Direction, and wanted to get started on prerequisites.
A long-time student, practitioner and seeker of spiritual practices, much of what was covered was not that new to me. I was thrilled for the opportunity to learn more about the development of spirituality in the Old and New Testaments from CTS professors Dr. Bill Brown and Dr. Beth Johnson, as well as from Carl McColman, an author and retreat leader who has done much to introduce lay Christians to contemplative practices.
This is not education you’re likely to receive in most Sunday School classes. Some of the assumptions we’ve made about the spirituality of the ancient Israelites and early Christians were turned inside out, which made some people in the group distinctly uncomfortable. I think that’s a good thing. We should never become complacent in our understanding or our faith. The education we received plants the seeds for both clergy and lay leaders to bring what they’ve learned back to their congregations to support spiritual formation and growth.
What surprised me at first was the mix of clergy and lay leaders in our course. I had expected it to be primarily lay leaders or other congregant-level “seekers” looking to deepen their faith journey beyond what church offers them. Perhaps that’s because other workshops and retreats I’ve attended at Ignatius House and the Monastery of the Holy Spirit were primarily attended by lay people. As I got to know several of the pastors over the weekend, I realized they too shared a need to know God more deeply in their daily life. They also struggle with making time and space for the Holy Spirit to dwell within their hearts. We talked about creating “moments of Sabbath” throughout the week, because the reality of a full day of Sabbath rest is simply not doable for most of us right now.
I was asked to lead a small group each day during the weekend. It was intimidating when I realized there were two pastors, a seminary student and a retired doctor in my group! Of all of them, I have the least experience in Christian worship and spiritual life. My introduction to contemplative practices was initially by way of the Eastern path – yoga, Zen meditation and Japanese spirituality (via Reiki.) In comparison to the group I led, I’m a late-blooming-wandering-and-veering follower of Christ. I was not “churched”, as they say. However, my background allowed me to offer helpful distinctions for those people who were unclear as to whether or not Christian meditation and other contemplative practices derived from Buddhism (the answer is no.)
As it turned out, the pastors seemed happy not to have to lead and be held in sacred space with others. Ministers aren’t always offered the opportunity to lay down the stole for a moment and be cared for in the way they are constantly offering themselves up for others. Inspired by the Sunday small group at my church, I opened up our small group time by reading selections from Psalms, a favorite daily practice of mine.
The daily journaling exercise was the most challenging and difficult part of the course. Our final paper is to write a 10 page spiritual autobiography, and the journaling exercises provided context and working material for the paper. Digging into the moments of brokenness and grace in my life often felt like a second or third-degree burn being exposed to air. The Holy Spirit truly does work through other people, and by way of sorting through my feelings with the help of a ‘spiritual friend’ I met with each day, I came to know more deeply Julian of Norwich’s saying, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
Some of my favorite moments during the Immersion Experience included worship in the chapel. Our weekend coincided with Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi, and World Communion Sunday, so we found ways to incorporate these special celebrations during chapel time. I read St. Francis’s “Canticle of the Sun,” (also known as “Canticle of Brother Son”) before we participated in a virtual Blessing of the Pets. We sang songs from the Iona Community and shared liturgical readings “in the round” as the light sparkled through the stained glass windows in the chapel.
My heart grew three sizes that weekend. I felt so much love and gratitude for this group of seekers: for their warmth, care, honest inquiry and struggles. I am grateful to Debra Weir and Chris Glaser for leading us faithfully through this weekend. I know I wander and veer at times, sometimes tripping over my own feet. But looking back on the path I’d made that weekend, I could see a small cluster of footprints, grace-full and loving, accompanying me along the way.
Note: This post was also published on Columbia Theological Seminary’s Lifelong Learning blog, Journeying Together. Read it here.