Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. All of us, gazing with unveiled faces on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit.
2 Corinthians 3:17-8
If you allow yourself to be formed by God through the common, ordinary, unspectacular flow of everyday life, you will gradually experience a liberation and a freedom never before imagined.
Xaverian Fundamental Principles
St. Paul’s understanding of the experience of human and spiritual formation, reformation, and transformation is that of a passage “from glory to glory.” The continual call to reformation and transformation by the Spirit that is our life, he says, occurs as we are “gazing with unveiled faces on the glory of the Lord.” The Fundamental Principles, in turn, tell us that we can come to experience “a liberation and a freedom never before imagined” if we allow ourselves to be formed by God through the flow of everyday life. Our part in this process largely consists of this “allowing” ourselves to be formed.
To give ourselves over to God’s purifying work of formation in us is neither easy nor always pleasant. In encountering people whom we have not seen for a long time, we we find ourselves complimented by their saying, “You haven’t changed at all.” Of course, at the advanced age some of us are, it is somehow reassuring and ego-enhancing to think that perhaps something of the vivacity and energy of our youth still radiates. Yet, this compliment at the physical level is an indictment if applied to our character and personality. If we at the level of heart and soul have not changed at all then we have wasted the time of our lives. As Adrian van Kaam says, “All human life is life in formation.”
To be human is to always live both in the what is and in the what is not yet. In contemplation, we are “gazing with unveiled faces on the glory of the Lord.” In our encounter with life and world we are “being transformed into the same image” that we are contemplating. Paul says that this process of being transformed through the reformation of our character and personality is a passage “from glory to glory.” Yet, it is also, as Jesus says, a dying to ourselves that we may be be born anew. This means that the way to that “liberation and freedom never before imagined” is not an easy way for us.
Having no siblings, I was as a child very close to a cousin who was just slightly older than myself. A few years ago she was diagnosed with cancer. I spent as much time as possible with her while she was in hospice care. However, because of an international meeting I had to attend, I was not with her when she died. Those who were, however, spoke of how at the very end she was struggling so hard to remain alive, and, as she experienced herself slipping, away cried out: “No, no!” This is not the “spiritualized” story we tell ourselves about the “best way” to die, a way of an accepting, gentle, and peaceful fading away. Yet, knowing her, her love of life, her love of those close to her, and her wholehearted dedication to being with them, I was not surprised. I think of her struggle at the end as the manifestation of her deep love of life and others, and her intense desire to remain with us. I also think of her when I am called in my life to die to something or someone I long to hold onto. Every moment of reformation and transformation involves a death for us. Perhaps it is in honestly living the very struggle that formation is for us that transformation can occur.
Allowing ourselves to be formed throughout our days does not have to mean that at every level we feel copacetic about it. In fact, if it is too easy and pleasant, formation is probably not occurring at all. It is quite the project, this opening ourselves to Divine life that is so mysterious to us. The light of the Divine is so beyond us that it is darkness to us. What we believe we must hold onto to survive is precisely what keeps us from truly opening to that light. Our life is filled with moments where our need to hold on to the security in what we have and who we are is precisely the obstacle to fuller and deeper life, to the “liberation and freedom never before imagined.”
It is the truly rare person who has not made countless choices in life in favor of his or her overly developed security directives. I know that often my own timidity and anxiety have led me to resist and turn away from the summons of a moment to change and expand my life. This happens in small and in larger ways. How many of our most important relationships have been limited in their intimacy by our inability to speak out what the moment of encounter was truly demanding of us? How often has our fear of losing our independence and autonomy resulted in the loss of new friendships or a more deeply shared life? How consistently has our refusal to be still, to think, to pray when inspired to do so, resulted in a more dispersed and superficial life? How repeatedly has our fear of not knowing what to say or do kept us from being with and for someone who needed our presence and love?
For all the resistance we have to living this life in formation that is ours, we should never become discouraged. Paul says that our transformation occurs “from glory to glory.” Is it possible that our very failures to allow ourselves to be formed are actually formative? Perhaps even the fight we put up, the “no” we declare, is our way to a deeper life. I and my contemporaries are now of an age where the word “regret” is becoming increasingly heard among us. We can look back at the kind of “failures” alluded to above and feel regret and even guilt about them. And yet, Paul says every step along the way is to be seen as passing “from glory to glory.”
How, most importantly, can we not let the regret and deformative guilt that is really a manifestation of pride control our life narrative? It is, says Paul, by “gazing with unveiled faces on the glory of the Lord.” When our gaze becomes introspectively self-centered, then our judgment of ourselves and our lives can become discouraged and despairing. Yet, in opening in truth and humility (“with unveiled faces”) yet without judgment to our lives, we can then cease gazing within and instead gaze on the glory of the Lord.
The glory is God’s, not ours. It is a glory in which we participate, not by dint of our own righteousness or success, but rather as sheer gift of God who is Spirit. So, gazing on the glory of the Lord will come to mean also seeing our own life, in its limits and failures as well as in its moments of generosity and sacrifice, as a passing from glory to glory. Nothing of our lives is excluded from God’s drawing of us into Divine life. The common, ordinary, unspectacular flow of life includes all of our struggles with allowing ourselves to be formed. In Matthew 5:37 Jesus admonishes that we should let our yes be yes and our no be no. We say both yes and no throughout our lives. In honestly facing both, we can come to see the glory of God manifested even in our refusals of it. The glory of God cannot be confined by our judgments. It is by our continual gazing on the glory of the Lord, and doing so with the humility and honesty that such presence to the glory makes possible, that we shall, through all the moments of our lives, be transformed into that image on which we gaze.
Spiritual formation is a lifelong attempt to disclose and unfold the limited form of life God has meant for each of us and for our cultures and communities. Christ is the origin of this attempt. In the words of St. Paul, Jesus wants to transform these wretched bodies of ours into forms of his glorious body. (Ph. 3:21) Such transformation demands that we be honest with ourselves, that we let Him take off the masks that hide our divine originality and unveil our make-believe faces. Then “we with our unveiled faces will reflect like mirrors the brightness of the Lord, all grow brighter . . . as we are transformed into the form that we reflect.” (2 Co. 3:18)
Spiritual formation implies that we let grace open our life to the Divine. This graced openness readies us for a transformation only He can bring about. For only God is the ultimate director of or life. The open life form may be symbolized as a lily opening up to the sun or a chalice waiting to be filled. To receive God’s outpouring we must be raised beyond our infancy in the life of the Spirit. To dwell in God’s presence as open flowers in a burning sun without withering away, we have to be formed n a graced tolerance of the Infinite. This can be done only by a Divine Director, who is at home in the Infinite and at the same time dwelling within us. The Third Person of the Trinity is that Director. “When the Spirit of truth comes he will lead you to the full truth.” (Jn. 16:13)
“Truth” in the writings of St. John is the fullness of God’s reality desiring to communicate itself to us. Leading us to the fullness of truth is the finest act of spiritual formation by the Pneuma in the center of our being. This art of final formation, of step by step initiation into a life form that opens up fully to the Divine, is the art of arts attributed to the Spirit.
Adrian van Kaam, “Original Calling and Spiritual Direction,” Studies in Formative Spirituality, I,1, pp. 7-8