Sunday, January 11, 2009

Common Lesson 1 - Spiritual Autobiography

Here is a format for a very brief autobiography looking just at the present time. I've used it as an ice breaker at the first meeting of the year. I give the group about 15 minutes to write responses and then we share them. It can also be used as an introduction to writing a fuller autobiography structured around the 4 Sources.

Autobiographical Introduction to the Four Sources

Where is your spiritual life and practice right now?
What movie, news item, advertisement, book, current event has affected you recently?
What is one event or experience that stands out in your current life?
What ditch have you died in/stand have you taken this year?

This is some information I hand out as an introduction to writing a spiritual autobiography.

Spiritual Autobiography

We begin each year with an exercise in spiritual autobiography. In our text studies we look for God's presence and action in scripture and our shared tradition. In developing a spiritual autobiography we look for God's presence and action in our own lived experience. We reflect on the people, times and incidents that have been significant in our spiritual lives. We are looking for the things that have made us the spiritual beings we are today.
These may include:

Encounters with God (mystical, conversion, charismatic, contemplative, experiences of mercy, nudges, pursuit – 'The Hound of Heaven')
Moments of repentance
Crises of faith (doubt, disobedience, depression)
Crises of circumstances (breaiup, death of parent, fired from job, illness)
Experiences of growth (intellectual, emotional, relational, service)
People who have been 'Christ Bearers' for us

An Introduction by Richard B. Patterson:
What is the point of writing an autobiography, especially for those of us who are not bound for fame? As with journaling, the autobiography can give us a sense of theme and pattern in our lives. So it is with our spiritual side. Writing your spiritual autobiography can give you a good sense of those themes of your spiritual world which have shaped you. It can also give you an idea as to which questions have pursued you.

The best way to approach your spiritual autobiography is to first of all simply tell the story. You might want to begin by telling the story of your parents' religious background and general spiritual approaches. Your early life might include early messages that were communicated to you (for example, "God loves you" or "You're bad and the devil will get you!"). Of importance, too, are early experiences that had great impact on your subsequent spiritual journey. In my case, for instance, I lost two sisters to spina bifida. This raised the "Why?" question for me at a very early age. That question has dogged me ever since.

You can then explore your early experiences with organized religion and any particular events that may have impacted you. You may want to talk about persons who influenced you spiritually. You may also begin to explore your experiences with the concept of sin. My own thought at this point is that each of our faith experiences is a story about community. My own spiritual autobiography is made up of many stories, not so much about dogma, but about people.

As you work through your teen and early adult years, the notion of doubts may take center stage. Similarly if you have traveled through midlife, this spiritually tumultuous time may require much reflection.

Spiritual Autobiography: Important Markers Method

Quickly list the important markers of your life. This list should not be made with careful consideration and extensive reflection. Rather, it is a "this is what comes to mind when I reflect upon my life."
experience of finding God in your life
experience of prayer, church, sacraments, etc.
experiences of school, work, volunteering
frailties and weaknesses
significant decisions you have made
Significant events in your life
significant persons in your life
special teachers
significant turning points in your life
struggles and conflicts
successes and failures
talents and accomplishments
people who ministered to you, taught you, helped you grow

Note: an event is a one-time episode: the birth of a child, graduation from college, a wedding day, the death of a parent. An experience is a process: pregnancy, your first job, serious illness.

On a second day join the people, events, and experiences in a chronological sequence. Include only those persons, events, and experiences that seem significant to you now.As you make these connections between people, events, and experiences, look for:
Trends or patterns;
Ways that God is active in your life;
Principles you use to evaluate whether God is active in your life.
You may also include your reflections of:
An understanding of your relationship with Christ;
Theological concepts that have been illumined by your life experience;
Commitments you have made as a result of your experiences;
A sense of Christian vocation that has developed;
Ways that you have matured in your spiritual life or a pattern in your devotional life;
Areas in life that represent successes, and areas that remain ongoing concerns.

Take an intuitive leap into your future:
What do you see as forward directions to be pursued?
Are there goals to be achieved or commitments to be made?

Spiritual Autobiography: Life Line Method

Develop a lifeline in any manner you wish (examples might include a line, spiral, diagram, or timeline). Focus on transitions, changes, decisions, new directions, marker events.It is often helpful to show location, school or work setting, role status (child, single adult, married), significant figures and events, and the pluses and minuses of each period.
Identify key transition periods.
Evaluate each one as easy or difficult on a scale of 1 (easy) to 10 (difficult).
Think about the reason for each rating (examples might include "Not ready to move on," "A disturbing external event," or "Experienced much inner suffering."

Reflect upon your timeline using the following questions:
Where did I experience God's presence or absence?
Over which transitions did I have the most control? The least?
Where were the high points? The low points?
What issues were dominant during various periods?
Where any issues left unresolved?
Are there patterns or trends?

The writing of one's spiritual autobiography should be a joy and not a chore. It is a good way to begin the process of reflective thinking and leads into the discipline of journaling.

Some things to think about

From the Journal of John Wesley for May 14, 1738
"In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate-Street, where one was reading Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation: And an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death."
Have you had times when you felt or knew beyond doubt that God was real? That God loved you? That you love God?

The Orthodox call Mary "Theotokos" which can be translated "God-Bearer". One who brings God into the world, one who bears the imprint of God in her flesh.
Who is a God-Bearer for you?

An angel is a messenger, someone who is sent . In one of Josephine Tey's mysteries, one character chides another for his disbelief, saying that he is expecting an angel to have wings and feathers when it is just as likely to be a scruffy man in a bowler hat.
Have you been visited by an angel?

Saints and Icons
Someone said icons are a window through which we can see an image of the divine.
Have you ever asked what it would look like if someone really loved God with her whole heart and mind and strength? Or truly loved his neighbor as himself? I think that if you can point to someone and say, "There, it would look like that", then that's a saint.
Who are your saints?

Coincidences, God-incidences
Bernie Siegel, MD, author of Love, Medicine and Miracles, reports that he once had a flat tire that caused him to miss a plane to a speaking engagement. When he got to the airport, no one was at the ticket counter to assist him. He was harried and upset … until he found out that the plane had gone down. When he told this story to an audience, one listener commented, “Maybe coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”
There are disruptions in our lives that seem to be disasters at the time but end by redirecting our lives in a meaningful way.
What 'flat tires' have occurred in your life?

Some famous spiritual autobiographies:
St. Augustine, Confessions
C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy
Thomas Merton, Seven Story Mountain

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