Blueprint for a Spirituality of Experience

by Rev. John McMurry, S.S., S.T.L., Ph.D.

Rev. John McMurry, S.S., S.T.L., Ph.D. of St. Mary's Spiritual Center in Baltimore, Maryland discusses a "spirituality of experience" for the renewal of the American priesthood from within their own lives. He asserts that Progoff's Intensive Journal method is a practicum of this experience, connecting inner renewal with the outer life and ministry of the priest.

Throughout the life-story of Christian spirituality there is a distinct inner-to-outer movement, that is, as we observe the growth of Western spirituality we can easily detect movement from the solitary interiority of the Egyptian hermit to the service-oriented spirit of the post-Reformation era, a spirit which continues to enliven us today. The path of Western spirituality then is made up of several large stepping stones: the spirituality of the hermit, the monk, the mendicant and the specialized servant. The movement is from solitary interiority to societal action in the service of others.

The spirituality of today must appreciate and value the world in order to be true to the tradition of development in Western spirituality. The style of spirituality of the parish priest today certainly cannot be exactly that of the hermit, monk, mendicant or even that of the ministerial specialist. The spirituality that characterizes the present era will include consciousness of the world at large and concerns of global dimensions. In that spirituality religious stories and symbols will not inhabit a world of their own but will refer to life as we know it and will bring out to us the meaning of our life here and now.

A Secular Spirituality

The parish priest is the general practitioner of the religious profession, not a specialist. He is ordained to ministry of word, sacrament and service and the range of his area of service or pastoral care is nearly infinite, limited only by the wants of the people, nuanced only by the human needs of rural or urban situations.

I call Western spirituality today "secular" because it is characterized by outwardness and an outreach that embraces the whole world. If we are going to relate to the transcendent God and that's what spirituality is, the individual's relationship with God we are going to have to do so through the incarnation of the Image of God or the embodied Image of God.

Furthermore, the incarnation of the Image of God will be sacramentalized or symbolized in ordinary, everyday realities of life. The United States Catholic Conference (USCC) document, Spiritual Renewal of the American Priesthood (SRAP), puts it this way: "Our human experience opens up and becomes the universal sacrament of Christ's presence" (p. 62). Otherwise we secular priests run the risk of becoming social workers at best and superficial materialists at worst.

God's Signals and the Mystery of Christ

As Christians, our contact with the transcendent God is through the medium of Christ, the incarnation of the Image of God who since His death-resurrection-ascension is Spirit. Christ is a real presence in the world still; God is eternally sending the Word of love to us, and God is doing so through Christ who is presenting every relationship and event of life.

That means that even when things are going "wrong" the loving God is still there. To believe that is to take a radical faith-stance which, following the example of Jesus on the cross, acknowledges that the meaning of a present event may become evident only in the future. In order for us to believe that we have to trust radically in the transcendent God; we have to trust radically in the eternally loving Source of Life and in the Incarnate Son who is, indeed, God in the form of the fullness of human personhood.

Because the Incarnate Image of God is the fullness of human personhood, that Image is the Objective or Goal of our life-process and the fullness of human aspiration. Furthermore, the Divine Spirit is our Guide on the life-journey from the Source to the Goal of Life. The tasks set before each of us Christians are discerning the real presence of Christ in the meaningful relationships and events of our individual lives, becoming attuned to the creative guidance of the Spirit as we move along through the years, and expressing our creativity in ways that enhance the quality of life on earth.

Our culture is the place where each of us is called personally and individually to live the mystery of Christ. Since the bias of our culture is so thoroughly outer-oriented, we Christians and a fortiori we priests are challenged all the more to critique our culture by reintroducing the opposite pole of interiority and by helping to restore balance to the rhythm of life because life is not pure outwardness; it consists of an inner-outer dialectic. According to the Spiritual Renewal of the American Priesthood (p. 5), "True spirituality is the journey within and the journey back to the outer rim of life. The journey within is, in fact, the journey into reality."

Spirituality of Experience

A spirituality for us today must be not only a secular spirituality, but also a spirituality of experience whereby we engage in dialogue with the contents of our outer life/experience and in the process discern the real presence of Christ within life.

Every genuine human relationship is itself an encounter with Christ...This theology reassures priests whose lives are busy in the service of others and yet who search seemingly in vain for the presence of God in their experience. (SRAP, 30-31)

It remains for us to cultivate a contemplative disposition, an attitude of receptivity and openness toward Christ in our experience of life. That contemplative attitude is necessary as a counterbalance to the activist bias of Western civilization and our spontaneously activist mode of relation to God.

Contemplation and action are the inner and outer aspects of life, mutually complementary; they serve as the two poles of a circular, spiraling movement around Christ the center that leads up to God. A question still remains: Where do I begin the process? The answer lies in my real life, my total experience. This means that human experience is the "stuff" of spirituality. (SRAP, 59)

What molds my spirituality is confronting the relationships of my life in faith. At one and the same time in my interaction I create the possibility and allow the actuality of experiencing God in these many ways and places. The experience of Christ is at the center of my life: its manifestations and expressions occur in the successive circles of my existence. In this way each priest works out his own personal integration and new "self-interpretation" in faith. (SRAP, 61)

A spirituality of experience is a matter of entering into a dialogue relationship with my life, a relationship of give-and-take in which I listen to what Christ is trying to tell me from within my life and respond to it. In this process of give-and-take I must establish an openness to my whole life, excluding nothing as a possible channel of communication between God and me. Christ has redeemed my whole life and "transubstantiated" it by His real presence in its every particle. Now it is my turn to listen to Christ's message of creative love as He speaks to me from within my own life.

Laying the Foundations

Progoff's Intensive Journal program is a practical method for a spirituality of experience. One of the general principles of Progoff's method is that each person has what it takes to live a creative life. At times we may lose contact with the resources of creativity by living too long near the surface of life. In that case we need a way to move beneath the surface and to re-establish contact with our personal center and with resources for growth that are beyond those of the individual.

A lot of middle-aged priests experience the need to restructure their lives in the process of moving deeper. The USCC document, As One Who Serves (p. 56), assesses the situation as follows:

Midway upon the journey of life, the priest, as do all men and women, undergoes profound developmental changes. This time period has been alternately called middle-age crisis, mid-life transition, and middle essence. The difficulties of this growth phase may show varied symptoms such as indecisiveness, worry, anxiety, depression, compensatory behaviors, and/or chemical dependencies. The priest may show a decrease of motivation and a lowering of commitment to his ministry...priests become involved in a kind of "stock-taking" and start asking themselves: What am I doing here in this parish (ministry)? What have I done with my life? What is it I really want?

In any case, the Intensive Journal method begins by acknowledging realistically the way things are now, during this period or epoch of your personal life. The Intensive Journal exercise for getting a feel for the way you experience your life at present is called "Period Log."

After beginning to focus on the present period of life it is necessary to get an overview of your life and an appreciation of the fact that each of the steps you went through to get from birth to wherever you are now is a valid part of your path through life. After cultivating a receptive mode toward your whole life, there is an Intensive Journal exercise called "Stepping-stones," where each stepping-stone is an event which presents itself to you spontaneously as you stand back from your life and take a friendly, trusting, accepting look at it. This stance invites you to experience whatever feelings arise as you review your life without being judgmental.

The object of this exercise is for you to get a sense of your life as a whole with its variety of experiences, pleasant and painful, and a feel for the flow and movement of your life as you moved from birth to the present. This exercise implies trust that a holistic principle of growth is at work in your life. In terms of the Judeo-Christian spiritual tradition that dynamic principle may be called "the Spirit" or "Christ."

In Christian terms the ground for that trust is my belief that Jesus has redeemed me completely and forgiven all my sins. In as far as I have internalized my Christian faith, the Spirit of Christ is operating in me, allowing me to accept myself as I am and to move on toward deeper union with the Lord.

In order for Christ to speak to us through our life we must have a way of articulating our life or dealing with particular contents of it. In the Intensive Journal method we are invited to enter into dialogue not only with people of personal significance to us; we also are invited to establish a dialogue relationship with other personally meaningful contents of life such as work-projects, the physical and societal dimensions of life, events, situations, circumstances, and wisdom-figures.

In the sequence of dialogue exercises as they are done within the structure of a workshop, the movement is from the more personal (or individual) toward the transpersonal (or universal) within our experience. In the process of moving deeper within myself I am moving toward interior resources of insight, awareness and creativity which lie beyond myself. That process enables me to move toward self-fulfillment by moving toward self-transcendence.

For someone who believes that there is an Objective of the movement of life; that the Omega of life has dwelt among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth; that Jesus, the Christ, rose from the dead and is with us still; that "Christ can be found in all the events of our lives, in more ways than we ever dreamed possible" (SRAP, 61); for such a believer the Intensive Journal process becomes a form of prayer because ultimately the dialogue relationship within us is a relationship with Christ.

Potential for Future

Karl Rahner, in his treatment of prayer as dialogue in The Practice of Faith (p. 94), points out that we ought not regard dialogue with God as if it were dialogue with another human being. Dialogue with God has a peculiar quality: It is not as though God says "something" to us in prayer, rather, "God's most original word to us is we ourselves as integral, total entities." This kind of inner dialogue with the contents of past life is not a matter of reflecting on the past as "dead facticity" but it is a matter of allowing the past to serve as promising potential for the future.

What appears on the surface to be an inner dialogue between myself and contents of my past is, from the perspective of faith, a dialoguein which I listen to God speaking to me from within my own life/experience. The Intensive Journal structure is a vehicle for such interior dialogue, which is a form of prayer. It might not look like prayer if we're expecting some familiar form of prayer but that's because it's a stylewe're not accustomed to.

The Intensive Journal method is self-regulating if it used properly, that is, by approaching a problem or issue of life from various angles in using the variety of Intensive Journal exercises over a period of time. In addition, it serves as a field in which disparate contents of life can come together in new relationships; things from our past which at first seem to have nothing in common can come together creatively to give us new insights for the present and the future and enable us to discern meaning in our life where we had previously known chaos.

The Intensive Journal Method as it is taught at a basic workshop helps us get experiential answers to four questions:

1. Where am I now in the course of my life?

2. How did I get there?

3. Where do I go from here?

4. How do I get to the next step in my life?

In helping us discern how to get to the next step in life, the Intensive Journal method employs exercises for simultaneously reflecting and stimulating movement in four areas of our past life in which the energy for the future is stirring around in search of creative outlets.

Those four outlets are as follows:

1. Relationships with other people.

2. Relationships with meaningful work-projects.

3. Relationships with the physical world.

4. The dimension of meaning or relationships with entities that transcend the individual; ultimately, the relationship with God.

The God of all life that is, the Ultimate Source, Goal and Guide of all life-movement is the unthematized pattern of dynamism within the process of individual life/movement and the life/movement of the universe. The object of each individual life/process is to establish and maintain contact with the God of all. The procedure of moving toward that objective is the practice of a spirituality of experience. It is my position that Ira Progoff's Intensive Journal method is a link between inner renewal and the outer life and ministry of the priest. It is an introduction to a spirituality of experience.

* Based upon an article by Rev. John McMurry, S.S., S.T.L., Ph.D. entitled "Blueprint for a Spirituality of Experience." The Priest. November 1988. Vol. 44, No. 11. Reprinted with permission of the author.

** Rev. John McMurry, S.S., S.T.L., Ph.D. is Director of St. Mary's Spiritual Center in Baltimore, Maryland. He has been a certified leader of the Intensive Journal program under the auspices of Dialogue House since 1978.

"Intensive Journal" and "Journal Feedback" are trademarks of Jon Progoff and used under license by Dialogue House.