Through the (double) door: Chayei Sarah
Academy for Spiritual Formation: feeling surprisingly at-home

Off to the Academy for Spiritual Formation

Academy-LogoI've participated in a lot of two-year training programs, from my low-residency MFA at Bennington (which I began in June of 1997, more than twenty years ago -- how did that happen?!) to the Davenen Leadership Training Institute while I was in rabbinical school. But I've never taught in one -- until now.

Today I'm on my way to Malvern Retreat House, a retreat center outside of Philadelphia, where I'll be serving as faculty for the Academy for Spiritual Formation. Here's how their website describes the enterprise:

Since 1983, the Academy for Spiritual Formation has offered an environment for spiritually hungry pilgrims, whether lay or clergy, that combines academic learning with experience in spiritual disciplines and community.  The Academy's commitment to an authentic spirituality promotes balance, inner peace and outer peace, holy living and justice living, God's shalom.  Theologically the focus is Trinitarian, celebrating the Creator's blessing, delighting in the companionship of Christ and witnessing to the power of the Holy Spirit to transform lives, churches and the world.

This will be the second week of this cohort's journey together. In the mornings they'll be learning with Rev. Marjorie Thompson. In the afternoons I'll be teaching them about the psalms. Each of us will teach for an hour, and then the students will enter an hour of silence (primed with questions for reflection), and then we'll regroup for half an hour to work with whatever arose for them during that contemplative time. I'll also take part in the week's various prayer and meditation opportunities designed to help cultivate discernment as the participants continue on their journey of spiritual formation.

Each instructor had the opportunity to assign two books in advance. I assigned Miriyam Glazer's Psalms of the Jewish Liturgy and Rabbi Marcia Prager's The Path of Blessing (not about psalms per se, but an excellent introduction to the richness of Hebrew as a sacred language.) I'm looking forward to seeing how those books resonate for them, and what kinds of questions they open up. My hope is to open for them an authentic and devotional relationship with the psalms: without ignoring the substantial differences between our traditions, but without getting bogged down in them, either.

I'm looking deeply forward to learning with and from the students -- and to attending daily prayer in a tradition that's not my own. (One night I'll have the privilege of leading evening prayer, which puts me in mind of when I got to do something similar at Beyond Walls at Kenyon College a few years ago.) I'm fairly certain I will be the only Jew in attendance. I'm looking forward to experiencing how my own spiritual journey will be enriched by walking alongside this group of Christians for a week.

Reb Zalman z"l, the teacher of my teachers, spoke often of Deep Ecumenism -- not merely "interfaith dialogue," but connecting deeply with our siblings of other traditions. One metaphor he used is the image of light pouring through a stained glass window. In order to appreciate its beauty, one has to be inside the building. Just so with spiritual truth: in order to understand what trinitarian theology does for a Christian, I need to be willing to stand in their shoes, to feel as they feel -- without ceding my own spiritual authenticity as a Jew. My Jewishness need not be threatened or diminished by that. On the contrary, it can be enriched.

He taught that we need to transcend triumphalism (the belief that any tradition is "right" and therefore the others are wrong). Instead, we can draw on the wisdom of Rev. Matthew Fox, who speaks of "many wells, one river." We all draw living waters from our own wells, but the source of that water is the same underground river, the same source of flow. (It's that same flow that my hashpa'ah / spiritual direction training gives me tools to discern with, and cultivate in, those whom I serve in that capacity.) May I be a fitting conduit for that flow, so that I can bring openness and authenticity to the awesome task of this teaching.