A Review and Endorsement of the Grace Institute of Spiritual Formation
Countless times, I look back on formative experiences in my life that I’ve only realized were formative as I look back on them. I’ve had that experience over and over; I find that the transformative nature of an experience is not immediately apparent, but only becomes clear after the fact. I’m guessing I’m not unusual in that sense.
The last two years, I participated in 8 two-and-a-half day retreats with the Grace Institute of Spiritual Formation. The Grace Institute promotes itself as a program “designed to immerse participants in core Christian spiritual practices,” with the goals of “deeper personal spiritual formation and development of skills in leading small groups in spiritual practices.” For years I had been getting the brochures and harbored some mild interest; a couple of times I even inquired about the cost and the timing of the retreats. I knew at some gut level that it could be an important and expansive process for me. I’ve always struggled with a regular prayer life. Probably even more significant, as my faith has matured and my theology and understanding of God have developed, I have come to see that prayer has to be more than a daily shopping list that I lay before God; I just hadn’t been able to figure out how to get out of that mold. I read books about prayer, but nothing seemed to grab hold.
In the spring of 2011, I took the plunge and registered for the two-year experience that was to begin in August.
I was not the most cooperative and malleable participant. I missed the first retreat because it happened to fall while family was staying with us, family who we only get to see for two days a year; they live in Europe. Every time the retreat came along, I was crabby about it. They came at the worst times. By the time the two years came to an end, I realized that in my overly busy and scheduled life, leaving for two and a half days was never convenient, a pretty significant learning in itself.
At most of the retreats my recalcitrance softened by breakfast on the morning after the opening of the retreat, and I was able to be present for the retreat. Part of that was the support and grace of my covenant group. At the beginning of the experience, each participant is put into a group of 6-8 that serves as the experiential core of the entire two-year process. What is learned in the classroom is talked about and practiced in the covenant groups. I felt like I was the least practiced pray-er in my group, but they handled my stumbling, my doubts, and my questions with genuine grace.
Each retreat has a different theme, and readings are intended to be completed prior to the gathering. For the most part, I did the readings between sessions; mostly, they were helpful. Each retreat incorporated 3 or 4 classroom-type presentations, mostly helpful, of variable quality, though always engaging. The variable quality shouldn’t be surprising or alarming in a two-year course. In fact, as one would expect, within our own covenant group, we often disagreed about the value and quality of the presentations. We we always all in different places. Some of the material went over territory I had traversed before. Some of it was new. Some of it was just so far outside my experience and my comfort zone that I found it difficult. Some of it I was able to incorporate and begin practicing immediately. Some of it, I’m still trying to learn and wonder whether I ever will. Worship was an integral part of each retreat, always well-done and always meaningful. Brad Hansen, a retired religion prof from Luther College, one of the founders of the Grace Institute, a wise and practiced man of prayer, had a presentation at most of the retreats. I would have been fine if Brad had been the sole presenter at every retreat. He is solid, empathetic, and speaks not as one who has arrived, but as a fellow pilgrim on a long journey.
I realize now that I entered the program with some pretty unrealistic expectations. I hoped for an kind of a fix-it approach to my struggling prayer life. Yeah, I know. Kinda dumb. Thankfully, I didn’t get that.
I left the last retreat with mixed feelings. There was no question that I was glad that I had participated. I had learned much. I had grown in my prayer life. I had learned and experienced things that would have been difficult to ever get to, except in the context of away from home experiences. I have always lived in my head; the heart and soul stuff has been much more difficult for me, sort of like a right-handed person being forced to write with his left hand. I’m not sure I would ever have gone to some of these places were I not essentially forced to and had not only guides, but companions. At the end, I didn’t feel a sense of closure. I had started something, and didn’t feel like it was finished.
Of course. That’s the point. This journey into God is not a destination; it’s a journey. It’s almost two months since that last retreat;the dramatically formative nature of the experience is only now beginning to settle in. Deepening my prayer life has never been as important to me as it is now, and I’m discovering that I have been given the tools that are serving me well in that work. I’m on sabbatical now, with the goal of continuing to deepen my prayer life. And it’s happening. Had I not had that two-year experience of formation, I’m not sure I would even know now to go about it. But I do. And I am. And it makes me so deeply, deeply grateful for that experience. I finally feel like I have gotten out of this stuck place in my prayer life. I am learning, albeit still somewhat stubbornly, reluctantly, and stumblingly, that there are riches of life with God that are just now opening.
What I see now is that Grace Institute was not intended to carry me to a destination, but to serve as a guide and companion for beginning the journey. How deeply grateful I am that I did not get what I was looking for, but it appears, just what I needed.
(More specific information about the Grace Institute for Spiritual Formation can be accessed on their website: http://www.luther.edu/graceinstitute/ )