Earlier this year, at a lecture on prayer-sponsored by Immaculate Conception Seminary (on the campus of Seton Hall University)-a guest remarked almost incredulously to a friend: "I never experienced prayer like that." In just one sentence, she captured the enthusiasm of the crowd attending Father Vincent Fortunato's presentation: "Praying with the Imagination."
It was an enthusiasm that seemed contagious, palpable, even transformative and it was meant to be shared. As a "snapshot" of our ongoing spiritual formation, the guided meditation that day by Father Fortunato (an adjunct professor of pastoral theology at the seminary) involved instruction, prayer, silence, and conversation.
While the full development of the snapshot would require more pondering, praying and sharing, the picture indeed had been taken and images were emerging. We had been asked to take a serious look at ourselves against the backdrop of our relationship with God. We had been prompted to put ourselves in a Gospel passage and to gaze upon Christ. Can we see Christ's expression as He looks at each of us individually? As we listened to and became engaged in Father Fortunato's meditation, there was a sense of gratitude: "Lord, it is good that we are here" (Mt.17:4).
These words of St. Peter often come to mind during events sponsored by Immaculate Conception Seminary's School of Theology (ICSST) in the daily life of prayer, study and work at the seminary. There is an appreciable "good" in the shared purpose, commitment and focus of the seminary community.
In the process of formation, there comes a realization, perhaps a gradual understanding or perhaps a startling discovery, that God is doing something beautiful for us and in us. He is shining His radiant beauty upon us and desires that we be transformed by the experience. We may have been content with a snapshot, but God desires a masterpiece.
St. Peter's own experience of the shining face of Christ conveys rich spiritual lessons for us. As explained by Pope John Paul II in his 2003 letter on the rosary, the event of the transfiguration "can be seen as an icon of Christian contemplation...in contemplating Christ's face, we become open to receiving the mystery of Trinitarian life." This mystery introduces us to the depths of divine love, and the manifold expression of that love.
The late holy pontiff also offers us a description of the rosary that is a fitting way to consider all prayer and the goal of Christian formation: "to contemplate the beauty on the face of Christ and to experience the depths of His love." Love and contemplation: these spiritual gifts are the foundation and the support of the pillars of formation.
According to the Program of Priestly Formation (PPF), there are four primary pillars or aspects of formation: spiritual, human, intellectual and pastoral. The recent document on the laity, "Co-Workers in the Vineyard," published by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (based in Washington, D.C.) also emphasizes these pillars for the ongoing formation of lay men and women.
In addition to being integral parts of the seminary's formation program for seminarians, these pillars are key facets of Immaculate Conception Seminary's new Institute for Christian Spirituality. The institute is comprised of four programs: Great Spiritual Books, Christian Employment Outreach, Parish Partnership, and Seminary's Theological Education for Parish Services (STEPS). Each program tailors its events to capture the spiritual, human, intellectual and pastoral dimensions of our Christian journey.
The pillar of spiritual formation reflects well Pope John Paul II's plea that "our Christian communities... become 'genuine schools of prayer.'" Certainly, this is an apt way to consider the nature of a seminary-a genuine school of prayer, where students focus on Christ, the model and teacher of prayer.
The seminary's STEPS program, led by Jo-Anne Lieder, D.V.M., M.A.T., offers academic courses along with retreats. These are opportunities to enter into selfreflection without the trappings of self-absorption. In the pillar of human formation, we are led to appreciate the importance of seeing and listening. We recall God's announcement at the transfiguration: "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to him" (Mt. 17:5).
Listening is essential to our lives of prayer and in the various ways we serve the Church, as Father John Russell, O.Carm., S.T.D., stressed in a recent presentation, "Listening to Your Call: The Role of Prayer and Ministry to Discipleship." Skills of discernment also have been highlighted in presentations by Julie Burkey, M.A.P.M., as she helps individuals in the institute's Christian Employment Outreach program discern their gifts and talents and "Find the Work They Love."
This pillar of formation reminds us that we are a community striving together to contemplate the face of God and "it is good that we are here." Appreciating the communal dimension of our faith, we wish to better communicate and collaborate with one another. We strive to master the art and heart of silence, which is not an easy endeavor in a technological age that glories in instant messages.
As exemplified by the Great Spiritual Books Program meetings-led by Gregory Glazov, D. Phil., assistant professor of biblical studies-we learn the nature of "true conversation." This is a dialogue that bears no resemblance to sound bites or stilted interviews. Rather, it is an authentic adventure of honest, trusting, give and take, with unexpected, unscripted, unrehearsed rhythm, speed and substance.
The pillar of human formation is further stressed in the seminary's Parish Partnership Program's "Prayerfully Speaking" workshops, led by Diane Carr, M.A., program coordinator. Here, students learn the skills of facilitating retreats, leading Bible study and witnessing to their faith in a variety of religious settings. Presenters speak from their own experience and prayerful preparation on how to introduce others to the face of God. In this pillar of intellectual formation, we learn about Christ; but more than that, we "learn Him," as Pope John Paul II emphasized.
The pillars of spiritual, human, and intellectual formation urge us to minister to others with a love that comes from experiencing the depths of divine love. Gazing upon Christ in Scripture and in meditative prayer allows for the Christian journey to be more than a series of random of acts of kindness; instead, steps in the journey are deliberate acts of love, empowered, driven and directed by God.
When Pope Benedict XVI was asked why he chose the theme of love for his first encyclical, he responded: "I wished to underline the centrality of faith in God, in that God that has assumed a human face and a human heart." He explained his hope "that faith might become a vision-contemplation that transforms us."
It is more than an esoteric hope; it involves a committed and loving response to God's call to intimacy. This is the stunning realization of Christian formation-God desires to draw us nearer to His heart where we can hear His voice and appreciate His loving gaze upon us. And there, close to His heart, we truly can pray in gratitude: "Thank you, Lord. It is good that we are here."
(Editor's note: Dr. Dianne Marie Traflet, J.D., S.T.D., is the associate dean and assistant professor of Pastoral Theology at Immaculate Conception Seminary School of Theology, located on the campus of Seton Hall University, South Orange. She is the founder of the Institute for Christian Spirituality, which she co-directs with Father Joseph Chapel, S.T.D. Contact Traflet at (973) 761- 9353, or Deborah Kurus at (973) 313-6329 for more information on programs at the seminary.)