By Michael Lee Cook, Adjunct Professor of Pastoral Care
To most observers, it is clear that we live in a society primarily dominated by material concerns. In this context, what seems most cherished among us is physical output and performance, rather than the development of meaningful lives and relationships that are spiritually-motivated. Unfortunately, this neglect often has lasting consequences for our individual and collective well-being. As Thomas Merton noted, “The spiritual life is the life of man’s real self, the life of that interior self whose flame is so often allowed to be smothered under the ashes of anxiety and futile concern.”
Yes, in our hurriedness, we often simply lose the awareness that spiritual formation is the heartbeat of life and that few things could be more important to our long-term stability and happiness than a well-groomed interior life. In this sense, spiritual formation is a deep expression of self-care because it primarily frees us to live with more spiritual integrity and not be imprisoned by temporal pursuits. Truly, spiritual formation sets the tone for every aspect of our lives, including the way we care for ourselves, others, and even the environment.
In this regard, the Scriptures bear witness that Jesus was well aware of the lasting benefits of spiritual formation and its implications for individual health and relationality. We are consistently reminded that Jesus withdrew often to quiet places to pray and meditate as a means of refreshment and preparation for his wide ministry among others. Simply, Jesus’ example teaches us that self-care is a prerequisite to communal care, which is helpfully facilitated through spiritual formation. And in its simplest form, spiritual formation is an intentional and ongoing practice of self-discovery and care in light of our relationship with and to God.
In a practical sense, spiritual formation requires us to spend quiet time alone each day with ourselves and God away from the busy-ness of life and the critical gaze of others. It is in these moments of solitude and reflection that we can deliberately reconnect with our deepest longings and values, and more importantly, to the source of our creation and being. Even more, spiritual formation helps us to develop a solid place within our souls—a place where the meanness and inconsistencies of society can never touch. In this sense, spiritual formation significantly prepares us to reenter the company of others with more authenticity, poise, and humor.
Hence, the inward life must be the place in which we first discover our abiding sources of meaning, affirmation, nurture, and visions for living. For, it is this spiritual foundation that will hold us steady when the winds of life blow the hardest. This is why I believe that spiritual formation is a deep expression of self-care. As such, let us remember, the most beautiful rose without consistent nourishment eventually becomes a dead weed. In like manner, an unnourished Spirit dies over time and its beauty and strength is diminished and lost to the ages.
Michael Lee Cook, ThD, LMFT, is a licensed pastoral psychotherapist in private practice at Micah Counseling Services in Peachtree City, Georgia. He is also a lecturer in pastoral care at Columbia Theological Seminary and serves as an adjunct professor in pastoral care at Emory Candler School of Theology. Further, he is an AAMFT Approved Supervisor candidate providing clinical supervision to aspiring mental health professionals. Cook is an ordained Baptist minister that speaks regularly at professional conferences in the area of family life and theology. He is the author of Black Fatherhood, Adoption, and Theology: A Contextual Analysis and Response (Peter Lang Publishing, 2015).
For almost two decades, Columbia Theological Seminary has offered courses leading to the Certificate in Spiritual Formation, a journey through which modern-day, world-weary pilgrims may quench their spiritual thirst. The Certificate in Spiritual Formation offers people in the pulpit, in the pew, in all denominations and stages of life, an exploration of community-grounded Christian spirituality that is rooted in scripture, theology, a history of the tradition, reading in the spiritual classics, prayer and meditation, and in skills for assisting others on a spiritual journey. You will learn spiritual practices experientially, and, at the same time, develop skills for helping others in their spiritual growth. And, as seminary faculty members and other carefully selected, experienced teachers guide you through structured study, you will discover the relationship in Christian spirituality between compassion, justice, and effective ministry. Learn more about this program here.