On my office wall hangs a photo of a boy energetically flinging himself from a park bench. Perhaps he is a little reckless. But, to me, he appears eager to experience the jump and looks open to whatever it has to offer. This image speaks to my own experience in pursuing certification in the area of spiritual formation. Just like the boy in my office photo, I jumped.
As a cradle Presbyterian, I grew up connecting to God through my head. Yes, I realize that many people make a connection with God using not only their heads, but their hearts and their hands as well. For me, though, the connection was primarily about gaining knowledge about God. However, at some point in my journey, my focus began to shift to the knowing part of the divine mystery. I began to devote time to spiritual practices. And through the quiet of these disciplines, I encountered God in a deeper and more powerful way.
One day I picked up a brochure promoting the Certificate in Spiritual Formation offered by the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. With the brochure still in my hands, I decided to fling myself into the mystery of spiritual formation by committing to a more structured approach. I decided to jump.
I discovered that jumping into the unknown holds surprises. The first surprise came when we introduced ourselves on the first night of class. I felt intimidated. Clearly, I was the person in the room with the least formal education. The second surprise was a gift. No one in the room seemed to notice or to care…unexpected.
I found rewards in jumping as well. Being with folks focused on listening for God proved to be most satisfying for me. During one of the courses, we gathered each morning for centering prayer. This opened a connection to the divine for me in a powerful way. This jump was proving to be beyond my expectations.
The thing about jumping is this: once in the air, there is no turning back. Being fully committed to the program, I needed to do what was necessary to complete it. In this case, commitment included time and money, doable, but not without effort. I found the same for the required readings, which, though academic, proved to be a joy. On the other hand, I struggled with the required writings. I even included images in my papers as an additional language to help me clarify my thoughts. I always breathed a sigh of relief when I dropped a completed paper in the mail. Despite my difficult moments, I stayed committed because I was already mid-air.
Image and connection, connection and image: the apex of my experience. Bit by bit I recognized I had a passion for image. Although I already had been using visual image as a pathway to God, in the program I heard the Holy Spirit validate this connection. In addition, the Holy Spirit empowered my ministry to invite others to experience the divine via image.
During one course at Montreat Conference Center (Columbia Seminary partners with Pittsburgh Seminary and students have some latitude as to where they take their courses—a real plus), Benjamin F. Long IV’s fresco at the Chapel of the Prodigal Son on the campus of Montreat College inspired a friend and me to read, meditatively and out loud, the story in Luke 15. One focused on the image while the other read the text; then we reversed the process. As I meditated, I began to identify with the nameless women in the background of Long’s fresco. She radiates pure joy, dancing with a tambourine. It appears as if she is celebrating the father-son reunion. Something about her reaction touched a chord in me. Maybe it is my yearning to celebrate others as they explore their connections with God.
This experience of my jump into the mystery of the divine and the validation of the use of image to deepen this connection penetrate all levels of my ministry. Starting with an image, generally secular, I wait for the Holy Spirit to lead me to specific scripture. This develops into meditations, coupling the image with the text. Sometimes this meditation becomes a self-guided one, placed beside framed images on the church stairwells. At other times I take groups to public works around the city for group meditation. In addition, the process is reversed by starting with the scripture. We sponsor exhibitions on a specific text, inviting community artists to welcome the Holy Spirit into their creating. We also offer workshops focused on a variety of art media for both children and adults. It appears that many folks deepen their connection to God through the visual arts.
My willingness to jump, by entering the certification process in response to God’s urging, expanded my connection to the sacred. As with any relationship, a focused commitment deepens the connection, yielding both surprises and gifts. For me, the primary gift was God igniting passions and skills I already possessed to stretch that encounter both for me and for others through my ministry. What a leap!
Ellen Heriger is director of Christian education at Wallace Memorial Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, PA. She completed a Certificate in Spiritual Formation at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in the fall of 2009