I suspect that many parishes, priests, and lay persons may not consider spiritual formation as a means of or opportunity for outreach. Instead, parish outreach tends to focus on corporal needs such as hunger, homelessness, poverty, health care, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and issues of justice. This most certainly must continue. It was a part of Jesus’ earthly life, a concern of the early Fathers, and holds a venerable and well-established place in the history and life of the Church. The needs of the world and its people are great. I cannot help but wonder, however, if this has not led to, in the words of Father Alexander Schmemann, “the fundamental belief in Christianity as being first of all action.” In this regard, Father Schmemann writes,
The “eating” and “drinking” man is taken quite seriously, almost too seriously. He constitutes the virtually exclusive object of Christian action, and we are constantly called to repent for having spent too much time in contemplation and adoration, in silence and liturgy, for having not dealt sufficiently with the social, political, economic, racial and all other issues of real life.
Father Schmemann’s words remind us that “life is more than food and the body more than clothing” (Luke 12:23). He is highlighting and pointing to the interior life. This is not a denial of the world’s needs (see James 2:14-17) but a reordering of priorities. The world’s needs are symptomatic of an impoverished interior life. Action that excludes, ignores, or diminishes the interior life is hollow. The inner life is the foundation from which and by which we engage the world, one another, and ourselves. We must “first clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean” (Matt. 23:26).
How, or even whether, the Church models, teaches, and offers the interior life outside of itself is the missional challenge before us today. This challenge will, however, be met only as priests and parishioners more fully engage their own inner lives.
The world is changing, but the human longing for God and God’s for humanity are constant. Those two longings intersect in the person of Jesus Christ. He is the archetype of who we are and who we are to become. St. Augustine was explicit about this when he said, about the Holy Eucharist, “Be what you see; receive what you are” (Sermon 272). The movement from beholding to becoming, from image to likeness, is the interior journey toward theosis and the most authentic and faithful work of the Church.
Spiritual masters like Evagrius, St. John Climacus, and St. John of the Cross offer a way of understanding and engaging the interior life and journey. Their teaching is not only relevant, practical, and applicable to the twenty-first century Church; it is necessary. It describes “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) that is Christ. Jesus is the embodiment and archetypal pattern of the journey to theosis.
A recovery of the ancient practices of spiritual formation and direction is not a return to the past. It is, rather, the way forward. The future of the Church, the world, and our own life is not around us but within us.