“LORD, grant me the grace that all my intentions, actions, and operations may be ordered purely to the service and praise of Thy Divine Majesty.” These words resonated deeply with me as I listened to them from my daily Pray As You Go podcast (www.pray-as-you-go.org).
It was the feast day of the author of the prayer, St Ignatius of Loyola (31 July): 30 years ago, I had just finished my penultimate year of ministerial training. Now, during a sabbatical period away from the daily demands and delights of ministry, I look back over almost three decades of service, and wonder what wisdom I would share with my younger self.
THE personal discipline that I would encourage my fresh-faced self to adopt early and well is that of reflective practice. Such practice is a deliberate attempt to interrupt the action-reaction dynamic that is typical of the non-reflective habits that we all unconsciously acquire in life.
In an ecclesial context of apparently ever-increasing demands and challenges, we can easily be driven by the speed of change to become more reactive and less reflective; so that our ministerial “intentions, actions, and operations” become misaligned.
This may be nothing new. St Paul observed: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7.15), and (variously attributed) “We judge others by their actions but we judge ourselves by our intentions.” This all might suggest that the intentions/action misalignment is an intrinsic part of the human condition.
HOW, then, might we more consistently close the gap between intentions and impact in Christian ministry and practice? As part of a course in practical theology, I have been required to acquire and develop formal skills and habits in reflective practice.
One method for reflection was developed in the 1970s, to help improve learning from experience. Originally known as the “action-learning cycle”, it was adapted in various forms to become the “pastoral cycle” in theological reflection.
This cycle seeks to ensure that adequate time is given between an experience and our response to it, to allow for appropriate analysis and reflection. Analysis enables us to deepen our understanding; reflection then draws upon prayer, scripture, tradition, reason, and prior pastoral experiences to shape and direct intentional action, thereby lessening the chance of a reactive and ill-considered response.
ALTHOUGH it is nowadays a key component of ministerial training, I left theological college in the 1980s without being adequately aware of such reflective practice. Lately, it has been further developed as a result of noticing the part played by the “self” in this reflection-action dynamic.
In the issues that we face in ministry, we are part of both the problem and the solution. Frank self-understanding is crucial for closing the gap between actions and intentions. As the pastoral theologian Ewan Kelly puts it: “The greatest asset which any of us offers to another in caring relationships is ourselves, or, to be more precise, our reflexive selves — the self which we have reflected upon” (Personhood and Presence: Self as a resource for spiritual and pastoral care).”
This is double-loop learning. Single-loop learning takes a subject-object stance, and gazes in on a problem, often blind to the contribution (both good and bad) that our “selves” make to the issue. Double-loop (or reflexive) learning recognises and reflects on “me in the mix”.
THIS reflective self-examination (“reflexivity”) is a spiritual practice that has a long history, as exemplified in the Ignatian examen. Besides public worship, Bible study, and private prayer, I have found regular journaling (using a smartphone/tablet app), spiritual companionship, and pastoral supervision (with a trained counsellor) to be helpful ways of reflectively foregrounding the part my “self” plays in my ministerial practice.
For example, one of the benefits of these practices has been to enable me to recognise how the effects of some negative childhood experiences, if they remain unexamined, can still play an unhelpful part in my adult ministerial responses.
A desire to deepen self-awareness is not spiritual narcissism, but an attempt faithfully to narrow the gap between intentions, actions, and impact. As John Calvin wrote, “Nearly all wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists in two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves” (Institutes, 1.1.1).
The slowing down of the process which flows from intention through action to impact does not guarantee ministerial perfection, but it does allow more reflective space for the acknowledgment of God’s grace (as well as our own strengths and weaknesses) so as to shape our intentions, besides directing our actions more consistently.
ONE book that I would recommend to my younger self — and anyone considering undertaking this reflexive journey — is Parker J. Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the voice of vocation (1999). Noting the wisdom of ancient traditions that have valued a reflexive discipline, he comments, “Go far enough on the inner journey, they tell us — go past ego toward true self — and you end up not lost in narcissism but returning to the world, bearing more gracefully the responsibilities that come with being human.”
A worthy ministerial intention to give my younger self, and one that I commend to all ministers, lay or ordained.
The Revd David Kirk Beedon has served as both a parish priest and prison chaplain, and is currently completing his doctoral studies at the University of Birmingham.