January 26, 2021

A Simple Pattern of Spiritual Formation

I’ve been reading Skye Jethani’s excellent new book, With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God. I hope to comment on it more this week, including a full review.

For now, as a Sunday afternoon meditation, I offer this excerpt in which Jethani sets forth a cycle that describes the way many of us experience spiritual formation, drawing closer to God and enjoying a more intimate, loving relationship with him.

Note: this is not a “system” or “program” that someone came up with as a creative path for spiritual growth or formation. Rather, it reflects a pattern that has been observed in the lives of people, one that also reflects ancient wisdom and testimony.

By studying the spiritual development of children, Jerome Berryman outlined a simple but insightful pattern that I believe applies equally well to adults. When given quiet, contemplative spaces, children will more often report a sense of God’s presence with them. This resulted in Berryman’s first exclamation, “ahh!”—a sense of wonder and awe. “This sigh,” he said, “suggests the presence of the nourishing mystery that feeds and yet overwhelms us with awe.”

As our minds with their cognitive ability catch up to the experience, there is a second exclamation, “aha!”—discovery. We come to recognize God more fully, and with him we discover new truths about ourselves and the world around us.

These discoveries result in joy—the exclamation of “haha!” Our dreary and frightening vision of the world is replaced with a joy beyond understanding. Finally, this cycle of awe, discovery, and joy compels us back into a posture of anticipation and silence so we might be with God once again.

(emphases mine)

A quiet, contemplative space…

A sense of wonder and awe…

A growing understanding…

A sense of joy that leads us to seek God’s presence in contemplation once more.

If this is the way of spiritual formation and a deepening, conversational relationship with God, then it rebukes much of what we call Christian education and discipleship. We often move directly to cognitive development, emphasize prayer primarily in terms of intercession and supplication, ignore altogether the importance of spaces that encourage contemplation, and talk about emotional blessings such as joy primarily in terms of attitudinal choices, obeying the intellectual content we’ve been fed.

Life has become school.

And we are poorer for it.


  1. Working with children and worship by berryman and Stewart illustrates this

  2. Sounds like the description of a well structured Catholic Retreat….quiet, beautiful spaces, and time to listen, think, hear, and respond…

  3. Chaplain Mike, I read With and enjoyed it very much. Jethani gives one a lot to think about and is an excellent writer.

  4. kathy howarter says

    Sounds so much like Richard Foster’s books.

  5. We’ve been battling this sort of thing in our local (PCUSA) church for some time and there are some significant dangers involved.

    The euphemism used by its proponents is “centering prayer” but the question is centering on what? Too often it is a centering on the individual or his “feelings” as Chaplain Mike seems to imply. And that fits well with the Roman Catholic view of man.

    It does not, however, seem to fit with a biblical view. For example, John Calvin realized that the nature of man is such that he must look outside himself for help in prayer. “if he would obtain succour in his necessity, he must go beyond himself, and procure it in some other quarter.(Institutes III.20.1) That is why Paul tells us that the Spirit must help us in our weakness (Romans 8:26-27) because, despite our feelings, we are unable to draw close to God without Divine assistance. Dr. Oscar Cullmann reminds us that, by enlivening us “It is the Holy Spirit which speaks in prayer.” (Prayer in the New Testament, Fortress Press, 2010: p. 73). True biblical prayer, then, is centered on the work of the Holy Spirit manifest in Christ.

    The other danger resulting from this “centering” is that in thinking that man can draw himself closer to God he very often neglects Jesus Christ. A great example of this is the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola. Ignatius believed he could go deep enough into “meditation” that he was “directly taught by God.” Well, if that’s the case, who needs Jesus? But the reality is that “no one comes to the Father” except through Jesus (John 14:6) – no matter how well they meditate. The great Lutheran scholar, Oscar Cullmann said it nicely, “The way to the goal of any prayer, encounter with God, is opened to us through Jesus, the incarnate one, in whom God turns toward humankind.” (Cullmann, op.cit.: p. 111).

    It is not our sense of joy that leads us to seek God’s presence, it is the Holy Spirit. And it is His leading that produces such great joy.

    The danger in the mysticism rampant in today’s church is that it seems to get this backwards.


    • You are way over-thinking what I said here, Constantine. I made no mention whatsoever of any particular method of prayer, for example, and yet that is the focus of your entire response.

      And please be careful with such incendiary phrases as “the Roman Catholic view of man,” as though Catholics don’t believe people are sinners in need of God’s grace.

    • “The other danger resulting from this “centering” is that in thinking that man can draw himself closer to God he very often neglects Jesus Christ. A great example of this is the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola. Ignatius believed he could go deep enough into “meditation” that he was “directly taught by God.” Well, if that’s the case, who needs Jesus?”

      I would be astonished to find that Ignatius Loyola distinguished between God the Father and God the Son as much as you seem to do in your comment, Constantine. Drawing closer to God, for him as for all Christians, necessarily means through the mediation and in the presence of our Redeemer. The Persons of God are not jealous of each other, like separate, competitive beings. They are Love.

  6. I think when it comes to growing deeper with God we develop a toolbox we can go to to help in our growth.

    We have the tools for our christianity in action
    We have our tools for day-to-day connectivity
    And then we have our tools for spirtual growth and going deeper with the Lord.

    For some of us it is prayer/meditation/contemplation and when one can find the time to actually be silent and listen, preferably in a setting that reminds us of the divine, then we find we can grow deeper and in turn as a by-product be refreshed in the spirit. I will be honest and say that for contemplation I don’t find nearly enough time to really sit and “be”. But when it happens… good stuff <- my descriptive technical term for the experience…

    Thanks Chaplain Mike. Also as seen above I realize those who follow Calvinistic theology struggle a bit with contemplation or reject it outright – that's ok, there are alternte paths to travel.

  7. Thank you, Chaplain Mike.

    My apologies for “over thinking”.


  8. Chaplain Mike,

    I’m sorry that you took my description the Catholic view of man as incendiary. My interest is actually much more evangelistic.

    Perhaps one example will exonerate me. This is the very beginning and foundation of the Catholic contemplative tradition known as the Spiritual Exercises of ignatius:

    “For as strolling, walking and running are bodily exercises, so every way of preparing and disposing the soul to rid itself of all the disordered tendencies, and, after it is rid, to seek and find the Divine Will as to the management of one’s life for the salvation of the soul, is called a Spiritual Exercise.”

    So while you may believe that Catholics hold that man is a sinner in need of God’s grace, the fact is that this tradition has been practiced for 500 years without correction in the Catholic church.

    Where – in this example – is there any need of God’s grace? And – to my obviously poorly made earlier point – where is the need for Christ?

    I think you would agree, we have an obligation to correct this type of error, albeit with “gentleness and respect.”

    My apologies, once more, for any offense I may have caused. Please be assured it was inadvertent.


  9. Hi Damaris,

    Thank you for your note.

    And I agree you would be shocked as I have been. But the case is easily made.

    Here is the analysis of a Jesuit priest, regarding the ecstatic experience Ignatius himself had as a result of his contemplative method:

    “He later described one of these enlightenments as so powerful that he would believe what it contained “even if there were no Scriptures” that taught the same thing. This description indicates his own conviction, as he forcefully expressed it, that he was directly “taught by God.” (O’Malley, John W. The First Jesuits. Boston: Harvard University Press, 1993. p. 25)

    Two things, quickly. The belief that one can have a direct revelation from God that either complements or supplements the Scriptures was condemned as heresy long ago. And this clearly shows that Ignatius had no need of the Christ of the Gospel as we would affirm. (If one can go directly to God, what would be the reason for Christ?) The Ignatian exercises are full of similar examples too numerous to be listed here.

    Again, I thank Chaplain Mike for his patience. But I sincerely believe that the contemplative model must be watched with extreme discernment as the Ignatian example clearly shows.

    Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both

    yourself and your hearers.
    1 Timothy 4:16


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