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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
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
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.
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.