One Size Does Not Fit All – Teaching Spiritual Formation in the Midst of Diversity.

Overseas Minsitry Study Center New Haven CT

I am currently in New Haven Connecticut at the Overseas Ministry Study Center where I teach a course on spiritual renewal each year. This is one of the most enriching and challenging teaching situations I am ever involved in. My students come from across the globe. Methodist ministers from Myanmar and Korea sit together with Anglicans from Kenya and Ghana. Catholic sisters from the Philippines rub shoulders with Pentecostals from India and Brazil.

How do you teach in the midst of such diversity I am often asked? How do you help each student find renewal that suits their needs?

I must confess it can be a challenge. What one student finds refreshing another might find offensive. What is acceptable in one faith tradition is anathema to another. What renews and enriches my spiritual journey may do nothing for someone else.

I learn something new each year not just about how to renew faith in the midst of this kind of diversity, but about how to approach spiritual formation in any context. I thought that you might appreciate some of the insights I have learned.

1. Learning to see with fresh eyes and to hear with unstopped ears. Probably the most important skills we can teach people is the ability to look and listen, not telling them what to believe but opening their eyes and ears to perceive what God’s spirit wishes to communicate through their encounters, their activities and their interactions with God’s created world..

2. One size does not fit all. Whenever I see a piece of clothing that advertises “one size fits all” I know I am in trouble. It will definitely not fit me. Similarly with spiritual practices – one size does not fit all.

I often feel that my purpose in spiritual formation is to provide a rich smorgasbord of spiritual practices and ideas which participants can taste and experiment with. Many of the practices I talk about in my book Return to Our SensesLectio divina, vision divina, prayer walks, breathing prayers, exercises in gratitude and thankfulness, labyrinths and prayer flags are just a few of the tasty dishes that God gives us to choose from. Allowing people to choose what suits their palates without expecting them to eat everything on the table is a liberating and faith strengthening process for all of us.

3. The power of story. In his book A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer talks about using stories that encourage people to come at the truth slantwise. What he means is that we can use stories effectively to draw the truths that the Spirit of God is stirring within a person’s soul. We can use a person’s own story. We can also use as stories that sometimes seem on the surface to have no relationship to what we are discussing yet trigger thoughts and understandings in peoples’ minds.

Jesus used parables in this way. Often they had many possible interpretations, all of which could contain Godly truths and so might speak to people from a broad array of backgrounds. No wonder what Jesus said excited not just Jews but also Greeks, Romans and other nationalities.

4. Enabling people to ask the right questions. I once heard British theologian John Stott say The answers we get depend on the questions we ask. And it is true. New experiences, new encounters, new reflective exercises all raise new questions in our minds. Our purpose in spiritual formation is to give people the freedom to ask the right questions. Not so much why does God allow this to happen but rather what is God doing in the midst of this situation?

These are only a few of the tools that can assist any person’s spiritual journey. We are meant to lead gently from behind, encouraging the footsteps of our followers along the pathway God has chosen for them.


The Transforming Power of Lectio Divina: A Deeper Look at the Four Movements – Christine Valters Paintner

Tools for Prayer

Tools for prayer

This morning’s post in the series Tools For Prayer – comes from Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE.

Christine is the online Abbess of Abbey of the Arts, a virtual monastery offering online classes and other resources to integrate contemplative practice and creative expression.  She is the author of several books including her two newest– The Artist’s Rule: Nurturing Your Creative Soul with Monastic Wisdom(Ave Maria Press) and Lectio Divina—The Sacred Art: Transforming Words and Images into Heart-Centered Prayer(SkyLight Paths).


When I first was introduced to the practice of lectio divina many years ago I felt an opening inside of me, as if I was being met right where I was.  I discovered in this ancient way of praying a mirror of my own inner movements and longing for contemplative depth.  I felt supported in a way of savoring life and listening deeply for the voice of Spirit moving through sacred texts and the world.

Lectio divina has four movements or stages to it which invite us into a place of savoring life and our experience and to discover God’s invitation to us in the midst of that savoring.


The first movement is to read the sacred text and listen for a word that shimmers or catches my attention.  I do this as I sit to pray each morning with my scripture reading, but also as I move through the day I find that there are moments that shimmer forth: a friend offers me an unexpected insight, I gaze upon my sweetly sleeping dog, I go for a long walk and find the gathering of crows cawing stirs something in my heart, my husband reaches for my hand and in that moment I feel so deeply loved.  We all have these shimmering moments calling to us each day if we pay attention.  Through lectio I cultivate the capacity to notice these and honor them as important, as sacred.


The second movement is reflection which involves taking what shimmers into my heart and allowing it to unfold in my imagination. I savor the images, feelings, and memories which arise.  Our lives are so rushed, that savoring can become a counter-cultural practice.  In my morning prayer I make space to just notice what experience is rising up in me, and in my daily life I become attentive to those experiences which stir strong feelings or trigger an unexpected memory.  Perhaps I am driving in my car and a song comes on the radio which carries me back in time to a moment from my past and I am filled with emotion. Lectio cultivates my ability to make space to allow the fullness of my experience. Rather than holding back my tears and judging them, I let them flow and in the process discover a moment of healing and grace.


The third movement is about responding to our prayer and listening for God’s invitation in this moment.  In my morning practice I sit and wait as the word that shimmers and the images, feelings, and memories which have unfolded in my prayer begin to yield a sense of God’s longing for my life.  In my daily life I notice when my heart is touched by an encounter and I sense that God is summoning me into something new through this very moment.  I can’t know what that new thing is just yet, it is often more of an intuition.  Sometimes it happens after I teach a class and I have expressed something in a new way and I surprise myself by my own words or a student asks a probing question which breaks open the subject in ways I hadn’t considered.  These are moments of divine invitation and lectio helps me to respond.


The fourth movement is about going more deeply into a space of rest and stillness.  In my morning prayer I simply sit in silence for several minutes, basking in the experience of being rather than doing and feeling full of gratitude for this gift.  As I move through my day I am touched by the moments of stillness I find in the midst of life’s busyness.  I go for a walk and come upon a radiant dahlia blooming and I am stopped in my tracks, breathing in for just a moment the beauty of dahlias.  I am sitting with someone who is sharing her deepest struggles and both of our eyes become wet with tears and we simply pause for a few moments to rest into the silence which holds us both.

Lectio and Life

After almost twenty years of practicing lectio divina, I see the world differently.  Each moment and thing has the potential to become a vehicle for revelation.  Lectio divina has changed my life.  Instead of being something I practice for twenty minutes each morning it has become a way I experience and move through the world.  Instead of feeling bound to a particular structure and sequence of steps, I discover that each movement of lectio has its own gift and rhythm and I open my heart to when it will be revealed in my day.  The practice of a spiritual discipline is about more than the minutes we spend doing it, but how it overflows into the whole of life.

We might ask ourselves, is my vision changed because of this practice?  If not, how might I let its gift be unleashed into each moment.



Lectio Divina in New Words – More Thoughts from Christine Valters Paintner

I am currently preparing the programme for our upcoming Celtic retreat.  Love doing this as it enables me to draw aside and meditate on scripture and delve into the practice of lectio divina once more .  In the past I have used this traditional description for lectio divina but after reading Christine Paintner’s inspiring book Lectio Divina – The Sacred Art I am adapting her description instead which I thought you would appreciate.  (see page 10) I love her terms for the different stages of Lectio which I explain below –  Once again thanks Christine for this great book.

Lectio: Settling and Shimmering Settle into your prayer space, let go of distractions and open yourself to an experience of prayer… read the text through slowly and listen for a word or phrase that beckons you – a word or phrase that shimmers for you.

Meditatio: Savouring and Stirring Read the text again and take time to savour the word or phrase that shimmers by allowing it to unfold in your imagination.  Listen for what images, feelings and memories are stirring and welcome into your heart whatever comes.

Oratio: Summoning and Serving Listen for how the things that have been stirring within you connect to some aspect of everyday life.  Prayer arises spontaneously when you allow your heart to be touched by this entering of god into your experience and you are drawn to respond in prayer

Contemplato: Slowing and Stilling Slow yourself down and rest into the still presence of God.  Sit in silence.  Offer gratitude for God’s presence and enjoy what God is doing and saying to you

Lectio Divina – the Sacred Art by Christine Valters Paintner

Lectio Divina - the Sacred Art

Christine Paintner's Lectio Divina

A couple of weeks ago Christine Paintner contacted me about reviewing her new book Lectio Divina – the Sacred Art.  To be honest I did not want to do it.  I was too busy and feeling a little overwhelmed by all the books that kept appearing in the post.  Fortunately Christine persevered and this week I have avidly been devouring her book.  It is one that I have decided I am too busy NOT to read.

Christine takes Lectio Divina far beyond our usual understanding of using it as a tool to contemplate on scripture.  She envites readers to expand this practice beyond scripture to a sacred reading of the world through image, sound, nature and life experience.  As she comments

In our daily patterns of loving, caring, and working, we are following a spiritual path of sorts, whether we are conscious of it or not.  The shape of our lives reflects our priorities and ultimate values.  We nurture intentional and conscious choices about how to shape these patterns and ways of being through commitment to regular spiritual practices of prayer.  We can help shape the persons we are becoming by the practices we choose to commit ourselves to and live into as they transform us.  Such practices are used to regulate and shape our lives, on the assumption that changing our habits can change our perceptions and ideas as well.

Some evangelical protestants may  struggle with some of the language that Christine used in her book – using the term sacred texts rather than scriptures for example.   But for me that was just part of the stretching process, recognizing that terms I sometimes think of as outside the Christian understanding of faith are still ones that we can learn from.

I heartily recommend this book to all who are looking for a deeper walk with God and a faith that embraces every aspect of life.