Grief is a funny thing. As a pastor, I’ve read about grief, I’ve studied it and I’ve watched people go through it. Yet, I am still surprised. I was surprised this morning to find myself in tears after a dream I had about my father. My father died in September. Here it is in May and I thought I was finished with grief. I was wrong.
One of the principles of Adrian van Kaam’s Formative Spirituality is appraisal. Van Kaam’s science maintains that everything is important. Even the most mundane and boring moments in our lives are pregnant with God’s formative potential. So, whenever an event happens, we pause and ask ourselves “what is going on here?” Living out a Formation Theology means not allowing events to pass through our fingers without appraising it in light of formation journey.
I did that this morning. After the dream and the tears I asked myself, “Why?” Why now? What’s going on that I would dream about my father who died in September? I thought I was over my grief. I thought it was all in my past. Why would I have such a dream now?
I’m not sure I fully have the answers to that, but what I have realized is that since my father’s death I have been extremely busy. That explains why the last post on this site is from January. I began wondering if my grief and my busyness were related. Could it be that I have been trying to numb real pain and feelings of loss by filling my schedule with important, but time consuming, activities? Could this explain why I have been struggling with spending time in silence?
Even though I wouldn’t call the relationship I had with my dad “close” or “nurturing” he was still an important (although at times neglected) part of my life. As Formative Science would point out, he was an integral part of my “formation field” which has a great impact on who I become as a person. He had been placed in my life to help me become who I was created to be. God used both the positive and negative aspects of our relationship to form me into….me.
I’m still appraising this event and I’m sure there is more depth here than what I realize at this point. Nevertheless, if you are reading this, I encourage you to spend time appraising the events in your life. Don’t allow the events of your life to slip through your fingers. You are always being formed by those events. They affect you and effect you in both positive and negative ways. All of these events are gifts and are provided so you might become who you were meant to be. That is your journey and your task.
Here’s a quote from Susan Muto’s work “Where Lovers Meet: Inside the Interior Castle.” This work is a companion or commentary to St. Teresa of Avila’s “Interior Castle” classic on the spiritual life. Here Muto is discussing St. Teresa’s ‘vipers’ that one encounters as he or she seeks to draw near to God:
The viper’s trick is to deceive us into thinking that temporal affairs escalate in significance to the point where they almost seem the eternal. They try to deceive us into believing that worldly success will grant us at some point ultimate satisfaction. This illusion blinds us to the inherent finitude of earthbound affairs. However splendid our accomplishments may be, their outcomes pass away over time if we do not give the credit to God. The way of the vipers is to hold before our mind’s eye the esteem in which the world holds us when we exercise this kind of activism. They make us secretly relish people’s praise. Our pride-form allures us into thinking that our worthwhileness rests on the works in which we are engaged rather than in the God we serve. These clever devils also try to convince us that any kind of withdrawal to worship God in solitude is a big mistake. What will the other “worker bees” think of us if we take time to “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10)?
I believe these comments stand on their own. For me, it is a point of reflection as I seek to live out my faith as true significance only comes from resting in God.
Our life may be imprisoned in functional dispositions. They dim the vision of the spirit. Most harmful in this regard are those of ascendancy over others. To prove our functional potency, we may strive vigorously to outshine other people. This competitive attitude engenders inordinate strife and self-exertion. As a result our bloodstream may be polluted with overdoses of glandular chemicals. Arteries, brain, heart, and other organs may suffer from such surfeit. Disorder results. Problems like these multiply in functionalistic cultures because they are dominated by social form traditions that neglect the unfolding transcendent dispositions. – Adrian Van Kaam (From Formative Spirituality Volume 2: Human Formation pg. 99)
Dispositions are the habits of our life and heart. Some might even say that our dispositions define us. Here van Kaam makes a distinction between transcendent dispositions, or the “more than” part of who we are, and the functional dispositions, or the “what we do” part of who we are.
When we are focused on functional dispositions our lives are about what we do. We equate our worth with how much we produce, create, or accomplish. This mode of life is prevalent in our culture. When we meet someone we want to know what they “do for a living.” They want to know the same about us. What we do defines us. As we continue to live in this mode we begin to believe that we are what we do. We receive our sense of worth from what we do and we measure our worth in the same way. If we get done with the day and haven’t been able to accomplish what we set out to accomplish, we feel bad. After a day of hard work where we have accomplished much, we feel good about ourselves.
Van Kaam points out there is a danger when the whole of our existence is formed by these functional dispositions. It causes us to begin to measure ourselves and compare ourselves to others. In order to feel good we begin to compare ourselves with others and believe we are in competition with them. Van Kaam says this competitive attitude creates strife and fragments our life. Functionalistic cultures, he says, create this type of atmosphere and then suffer from a variety of disorders created from the pollution of glandular chemical overdoses. Our attitudes can and do effect our bodies. We have all experienced how anger causes our blood pressure to rise and how fear and worry can even cause us to become sick. Over a period of time these bodily reactions can work their way into cultural experience. It is no wonder why North America even with all its wealth is one of the most depressed cultures on the planet.
As long as we are imprisoned by functional dispositions, we cannot be at peace. Peace comes when we realized that we are “more than” what we do. There is a transcendent dimension to humanity. God created us in God’s image. That image is still within us, but will not be realized by functional dispositions or living. The only way to realize the image God has placed within us is to be open and receptive to the “unfolding transcendent dispositions” in each moment of our lives.
Formative Spirituality teaches that God invites us to discover who we have been created to be. Each moment is an invitation and opportunity to discover the unfolding form for which we were created. This is a mystery; a mystery we must trust. We trust that God is good and every moment in our life is there so we might become who we were created to be. This does not happen when our lives are focused on how much we can do, accomplish, or produce. It can happen when we are open and receptive to the unfolding events, good or bad, that we encounter. This is how I understand van Kaam’s reference to “the unfolding transcendent dispositions.” As we allow transcendent dispositions to unfold in our lives, we discover peace. We find that the fragmentation and dissonance that once defined our lives are slowly fading away. Little by little we are being released and freed to be who we are created to be.