Becoming whole and holy…

Posted by on Jul 22, 2016 in Blog | 2 comments

I am currently enjoying reading a book on spiritual formation published under the title Becoming Whole and Holy: An Integrative Conversation about Christian Formation. It is essentially a gentle conversation between the three authors (Jeannine K. Brown, Carla M.Dahl and Wendy Corbin Reuschling) on questions of human being and becoming (or formation). They each bring a different field of specialization to the discussion (biblical hermeneutics, the social sciences and ethics) – which leads to a refreshingly broad and integrative exploration of spiritual formation. Here are some insights from the second chapter on creating trustworthy contexts for becoming (p18-22). It is just a little snippet from a much larger argument, but perhaps it will make you hungry to read more…

Dahl (who writes this chapter) suggests that we first note that formation is NOT

  1. Solely our responsibility. Perhaps because the goal of spiritual formation sounds so noble, we sometimes delude ourselves into thinking that it is fully within our grasp. But this can be a poor (even arrogant) attempt at control, which will ultimately prove exhausting and discouraging. Dahl reminds us of Paul’s promise that the one ‘who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus’ (Phil 1:6). It isn’t all up to us.
  2. Solely God’s responsibility. This is the simple balancing reminder. Just because it doesn’t all depend on us, does not mean that we should be lured into passivity. We should orientate ourselves towards God, using spiritual practices that have stood the test of the centuries, so that we can receive the healing, comforting, challenging, nurturing and illumination we so deeply need.
  3. Inevitable. Dahl warns that developmental theories often lure us into the mistaken belief that progress is inevitable. But spiritual formation is not the same as physical growth. Given time a child adds on some inches, but in our formation, we might not grow at all, and could even decline. Changes do not occur simply because time passes.
  4. Linear. Spiritual formation is not a process of upward and onward. It often involves recapitulation, or going around and around albeit slowly progressing upward… so the song of our life might remain essentially the same, but growth comes when we sing it more melodically (rather than when we try to sing a different song).
  5. Unrelated to context. Our context, including the people in our setting and the culture which surrounds us, will all help shape our formation. There is no program for formation that can exclude context. Rather than wish it away, view it as the place which helps form you – a friend, rather than a foe.

Dahl then explores what she calls ‘Five helpful dispositions for becoming’. I like the idea that they are dispositions, attitudes that we can work at cultivating, which in time produce a worthy harvest. They are:

  1. The willingness to hear God’s invitations in the voices of others. Even though these voices might seem to distract or to offer little, they are often ‘veiled invitations from God to look more deeply into our impatience, disagreement, and judgmentalism in order to allow God to work in new ways.’ (p21)
  2. A tolerance for ambiguity. Dahl helpfully notes: ‘Formation work can be unsettling, but being able to function in the midst of ambiguity requires more faith in the God of our beliefs than in the beliefs themselves.’ (p22) Paradoxes abound, and are never far when real growth takes place.
  3. A spirit of exploration. While we might face challenging ideas, ‘it is possible to hold convictions deeply and still be willing to examine them critically’. (p22)
  4. The capacity to live in the moment. Or remembering the Rilke quote I posted on a while back ‘And every step an arrival’.
  5. The ability to manage anxiety. While anxiety can be a friend, alerting us to danger and threat, it can inhibit rational thought and openness, causing us to default to reactivity, rather than to patterns that lead to growth and development. Dahl suggests we learn to note when anxiety starts to escalate, so that we can interrupt its potentially damaging progress by intentionally calming ourselves.

Hope that one or two of these headings sparks something that can lead you on in your journey of becoming whole and holy.

As always, nice chatting…


  1. I get a great deal from your blog, Brian; not least the moments to grow, wrestle and transform along the way.

    I pick up on Dahl’s suggestion regarding anxiety at ‘5’ above. Such behaviour is an area of interest for me, and I trust that what I say next will be received openly and with a view to greater love and compassion for those who either suffer anxiety or care for someone with anxiety.

    It may be that Dahl goes on to include and cover in the book what I am about to say; I shall discover this when I read the book, and ask that, having not yet read the book, this also be taken into consideration for what I am about to say.

    By experience of self and others, I have come to see that intentionally calming the self can also lead to a capacity for tolerance that goes above and beyond the deemed ‘norm’, especially where the person has been pre- conditioned by culture, experience and/or tradition.

    It is the escalated anxiety in a human being that communicates to those around that there is something not quite right for that person. When anxiety escalates, help is required for that person, because it is obvious the person cannot reduce the anxiety by themselves; they require help. Most importantly, the person requires to be heard and listened to (and if anyone has ever tried to hear and listen to a highly anxious person, they will immediately recognise that this is often a difficult task. On the other hand, for the anxious person, he or she struggles to see why the words he or she says are not being understood.)

    However, once the anxious person is listened to, anxiety in the person decline’s; yet, it is only when truly heard that there is hope for that person to return to ‘normal’.

    When the anxious person is not heard, they may either:

    increase their tolerance to the anxiety level and then move on in a new ‘normal’ state, whereby future anxiety is likely to begin in an escalated mode; or

    visit the GP to be provided medication to intentionally subdue the alert, which can go on for years where there is a lack of monitoring of the condition by either the patient of the GP, the GP, or both. As a patient they cannot be expected to be held 100% responsible. Yet, neither can the GP be 100% responsible; at times the GP may have only one option, and that is to no longer see the non compliant patient, in the hope that the action of refusal will communicate to the patient he/she is not helping him/herself: as to what happens for the patient continually held on prescriptive medication for unusual amounts of time, one trusts to monitoring by the medical body and its systems: and

    Perhaps the best option (and possibly most frowned upon by society or certain societies), the person continues in a state of rising anxiety until someone actually hears them, connects and sets out to walk alongside, connecting them further to other help, as the person comes to understand himself or herself, and how to work with the self rather than against the self, just as each and every person was first ever created to do.

    I agree with Dahl’s suggestion that we learn to note when anxiety starts to escalate; most importantly, that we come to know why for each and every event; that we can connect the event to the emotion for complete understanding of the self.

    In gratitude for the space to chat.

    • Thanks Nina for these very significant comments. I am grateful for your insights.

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