Spiritual formation is a rather hot topic these days (at least in some circles). This, of course, is a good thing as we are always in the process of being formed spiritually, even if we aren’t aware of it or, for that matter, don’t even care. There’s the rub: everything we do, say, think, desire, and whatever else, is forming us. Even if we were to go blithely on with our lives, never paying particular attention to anything remotely ‘spiritual,’ our spiritual lives would still continue to be shaped. This is because we are spiritual beings. Now, what do I mean by that?
I mean that in addition to our bodies, we have a soul. We are an embodied soul. And that soul is always being shaped and formed by all that we do, say, think, and so on.
Ultimately, though, there is only one thing that shapes us, and to which all our doing, saying, thinking, and so on, is directed. Happiness. Yes, you read that correctly! We all desire to be happy. Even you depressed and moody types out there! Everything we do, say, think, and so on, is done, said, thought with the goal (perhaps not even perceived by us) of bringing ourselves happiness. As St. Augustine put it a long time ago: “Is not the happy life that which all desire, which indeed no one fails to desire?” He also said this: “The desire for happiness is not in myself alone or in a few friends, but is found in everybody.” (Both quotes can be found in his classic, Confessions.)
Spiritual formation is about finding happiness. Now the question of happiness, or the happy life, has been the subject of much discussion, from the ancient philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle down to our day with authors such as Stephen Covey (see, for instance, First Things First). They all attempt to answer the question in their own way, some perhaps more successful than others. One particular answer has been to lead a life of virtue, or excellence. Four virtues have been pointed out as being the hinge on which all the others swing: Prudence (wisdom), Temperance (self-control), Fortitude, and Justice. These are good and well, and the person who lives by them will indeed live a mostly happy life.
What the philosophers fail to account for is the nagging sense that there’s something more. As good as living virtuously is, and as much as I do in fact recommend it, we still feel an inner restlessness. The philosophers generally held that you shouldn’t call a person happy until they were dead. How does that help me now?
There was one person, though, who differed from all the philosophers. And he, too, wanted to answer the question of happiness. But he did not direct people, as a matter of course, first to live a virtuous life, or to any type of technique, or to some kind of way to be more efficient. He directs us in all our restless and neediness to himself. He himself is the answer: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water,’” (John 7:37-38, emphasis mine). Jesus understood our restlessness and our search for the happiness and the happy life. Of course he did! As God incarnate, that is, as God who became flesh and dwelt among us (see John 1:1, 14), he understands us more than we even understand ourselves.
And he identifies with us in our weakness. And it is through faith in him, by putting all our confidence in him and clinging to him and following him in every aspect of our lives, that we have eternal life, life abundant, beginning here and now, and never stopping, no, not even after death. And so we will attain the happy life, which as St. Augustine put it, is found when “I seek for you, my God.”