How Community Can Help You Move Through Pain and Experience Spiritual Awakening
It is no accident that the people most likely to be eager for a personal experience of God in their lives are those who have been forced to discover, often at considerable pain, that they are not in control. Such people have been through tragedy, their lives have been torn apart by divorce, failure, death of a loved one, sexual confusion, disease, or the inability to meet the expectations of others. They discover to their deep disappointment that the high-sounding schemes that seem to work for other people do not work for them, and they have been forced to come to terms with this fact. (Rice, 1991, p.40-14)
That statement by the late PC(USA) moderator and spiritual guide, Howard Rice, describes well my predicament when God called me to participate in the Certificate in Spiritual Formation Program at Columbia Theological Seminary in July 2017.
Not that I started my spiritual journey then: Raised in a Presbyterian family by parents comfortable talking about faith, instinctively engaging in long peripatetic prayers throughout my teen years, often finding new angles for my soul in scripture, even writing and publishing a couple of books on spirituality in everyday life, suggested that no Damascus Road conversion seemed necessary. Yet, the longstanding walk of faith did not spare me the dark valley.
I realized that the third and fourth verses of Psalm 23 belong together, even though most translations separate them with an extra space as if to introduce a new thought:
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff — they comfort me (NRSV).
Somehow this dark road proved a right path, and the Spirituality Program at Columbia Theological Seminary became a frequent and nourishing sojourn.
In summer 2017, everyone I knew seemed to have it all together — and to be on vacation.
From the nadir of loneliness, I remembered many years before when I enjoyed the stimulation and good company at Lifelong Learning courses at CTS.
I checked online and saw that Ben Campbell Johnson, the spirituality program’s founder, had a course coming up called, “Contemplation for Beginners,” and I signed up.
Not only was Ben there, with his humility, insight, and contagious passion for prayer; not only was Tom Lewis there, the pastor who directed the program and made everyone feel welcome; not only were fellow pilgrims there who shared my hungering and thirsting; but the Holy Spirit was there, drawing us together as the Dove does.
Even Ben, who seemed sometimes like a coach wearing a headset into which God spoke guidance from the press box, paused occasionally in mid-lecture and said, “Do you sense something special here? I do.” He included “the members of a class, Beginners in Contemplation, in July 2007,” on the dedication page of his 2009 book, Companions in Contemplation.
There I began a daily practice of centering prayer that still provides an anchor for my life and certainly did then.
Having run out of words and almost out of hope, I found in centering prayer, communion with God in silence, a kind of communion for which I thirsted all my life without knowing until I tasted it.
There, too, I met friends in a small group who still meet periodically, friends who still love each other through trials and joys. They started out as the hands through which God carried me until I could walk on my own, and they have given me the opportunity to give back. Again, that’s what the Holy Spirit does.
Needless to say, I kept coming, earned the certificate in 2010, but still keep coming from time to time.
The program gave me a needed structure, a project with which to regain my vocational bearings.
After a decade away from writing, I resumed it, starting my Beatitudes Blog in 2014.
Then in 2016, Skylight Paths published my book, Blessed at the Broken Places: Reclaiming Faith and Purpose with the Beatitudes. In another blessed opportunity to give back, I have taught a couple of courses in the spirituality program based on the book.
The Harrington Center is sacred space to me, and those who gather to learn, worship, and pray together there are a communion of saints.
Those classes feel like church when the church itself doesn’t.
Who knows what God will do with you there? But if you feel any nudge to participate, I recommend you go find out.
—By Marshall Jenkins
To learn more about our Spirituality Certificate and additional programs, click here.
Howard L. Rice, Reformed Spirituality: An Introduction for Believers. (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), 40-41
Marshall Jenkins, Ph.D., is a writer, counseling psychologist, and spiritual director. Through his writing and listening ministries, Marshall strives to validate the faith and empower the discipleship of people facing emotional pain. The Beatitudes point to rich insights for that mission, and he shares them in his Beatitudes Blog at www.jmarshalljenkins.com and in his recently published book, Blessed at the Broken Places: Reclaiming Faith & Purpose with the Beatitudes (Skylight Paths, 2016). He received certificates in spiritual formation at Columbia Theological Seminary and in spiritual guidance at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. Since 1987, he has served as Director of Counseling at Berry College and conducted an evening private practice in psychotherapy and spiritual direction. He lives in Rome, Georgia with his lovely wife, Wanda Cantrell.