08 October 2008

Vocation and call: The roots, shape and fruits of priestly life

Patrick Comerford

Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. – (I Peter 2: 4-5, 9)

Introduction to the course

During the course Spirituality for Ministry (TH 2027) we plan to engage in:

● an in-depth examination of the concepts of vocation and call, of the use of time and resources in individual and corporate prayer life, and of spiritual direction.
● practical and critical examinations of selected spiritual practices, including Lectio Divina and the Jesus Prayer.
● seminars on selected topics, including time management, developing a rule of life, sexuality and spirituality, spirituality and personal growth and spiritual direction.
● selected readings.

At the end of this course, we should be able to:

● demonstrate a familiarity with the roots, shape and fruit of priestly life, and an understanding of various spiritual practices and the tools of spiritual direction &c.
● demonstrate an understanding of the resources for and variety of practices in individual and corporate prayer life.
● relate creatively to the skills and resources required to help others to pray.
● show we have a personal journal and/or scrapbook.
● outline the way spiritual formation can be integrated with other aspects of theology, including Biblical studies, liturgy, dogmatic theology, pastoral practice, and the place of spirituality in Church history.
● demonstrate the development of a holistic Spirituality for ministerial practice.
● evaluate different aspects of prayer life for individuals and for communities of faith.

The teaching and learning methods

The teaching and learning methods on this course can include:

● lectures on the spiritual dimensions of theology, history and development of the spiritual traditions of Christianity.
● seminars on selected topics, including time management, developing a rule of life, sexuality and spirituality, and spirituality and personal growth.
● workshops on the varieties of personal and corporate prayer and experience, and on the inter-personal skills needed for spiritual direction.
● opportunities for retreats and/or visits to other communities of prayer.
● keeping a personal journal and/or scrapbook.
● discussing and working on a rule of life.

Assessment modes

The Guidebook of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute points out (p. 39) that the assessment modes for this course are:

● active participation and engagement in the lectures and seminars and and visits;
● One essay, project or book review based on the course material, or one seminar presentation.

Course mark

The material of the module is a constituent part of the Pastoral Portfolio. The Portfolio forms 50% of the end of year pastoral mark.

Coursework submission date

The final date for the submission of coursework on this module is 12 December 2008.

Holistic spirituality for ministerial practice

What is Spirituality?

“Spirituality is not knowing what you want but understanding what you do not need.”

“To succeed in the adventure called spirituality one must have one’s mind set on getting the most out of life. Most people settle for trifles like wealth, fame, comfort and human company.”

As pervasive and encompassing as the air around us, our spirituality is an essential part of us. And as with the air we often take for granted, we can lose something of the profound influence spirituality has in our lives. How often do we stop to reflect upon and appreciate the wonder that air is? It is an interesting point to ponder and one that would offer as many insights as there are people to contest such an issue.

I have been blessed with the opportunity to explore a variety of expressions of spirituality and prayer in my faith journey.

Spirituality, similar to air in that it is intangible, is both a quality and influence in our lives. Your ability to be able to see and appreciate your spirituality, as well as to explore and adopt new ways of deepening your faith journey – particularly as your prepare for ordained ministry, but in the years after ordination too – along with the potential of deepening your faith journey through this awareness are the potential rewards in this unit or course.

It will be important for you to note your own feelings and reactions as we journey together in this course, to note your prayer life, and while maintaining the confidence of your journal, to feel open and free about sharing your observations.

Next week, I hope we have the opportunity to look in detail at keeping a journal. But I would like those of you not keeping a journal to start immediately. Next week, we will discuss and share the practicalities of that, share some experiences, and look at some guidelines. But consider starting now, before you ever get guidelines that you feel are too prescriptive or limiting, or that allow you to take short cuts. Try to start journaling immediately or as soon as possible if you are not doing so already.

But before we move on to that next week, I’d like to spend a little time by beginning to explore our own understanding of what spirituality is.

What is Spirituality?

Spirituality is distinct from “prayer.” I can describe prayer as making myself available to God for some sense of communication or communion, either as individual or as part of a wider group, such as a Sunday morning congregation, a as a group of students and staff in chapel, in a prayer group or in a tutorial group.

On the other hand, spirituality is concerned with how my spirit makes this communion. It is concerned with my “disposition” of spirit in our relation with God. For example, I might want to communicate with God by my art – that is a question of prayer style. How I make that communication through my art – for example, do I seek the God in the world around me or use my art to transcend what I see about me? – is a question of spirituality.

Styles of Spirituality

Spirituality types, based on the work of Corinne Ware and Urban Holmes

Spirituality is subject not only to particular individual needs but is subject to local culture and even to fashion. My spiritual tradition has been influenced by my upbringing, by my faith journey, and by particular fashions that were dominant at crucial moments during that faith journey.

There are two ways of classifying spirituality.

Firstly, we can understand it according to whether the prayer is filled with words, images, feelings and emotions. This is a prayer of fullness, known technically as kataphasia.

Alternatively, the goal of the prayer can be to empty oneself of all thoughts and feelings, called emptiness or apophasia. Prayer can also be classified according to whether it is principally an exercise of the mind, thought and imagination, which is known as speculative (what we will call mind prayer), or an exercise of the heart, feelings and emotions – what we can refer to as an affective or emotional approach. For example, traditional Roman Catholic devotions – such as Novenas, Benedictions and processions – could be seen as examples of kataphatic affective spirituality. This is prayer of fullness and emotion, filled with words, images, feelings and emotions.

Can you think of examples within the Protestant spiritual traditions or other traditions?

Charismatic spirituality could also be classified as using prayer of fullness and emotional emphasis.

The diagram above tries to illustrate the variety of spirituality types and where they might appear on the circle of sensibility, or on what might be referred to as the Spirituality Circle.

Obviously there is a wealth of spirituality available with which many people have never experimented, either through ignorance or hesitation in trying something that is seen as “different,” belonging exclusively to other traditions, or even as being superstitious or heretical.

We all know that the world and our society, even the Church, are going through times of real change. Old symbols and language now struggle to communicate effectively with young people. But this also presents us with a challenge and opportunity to explore other varieties and expressions of spirituality.

We are all aware, for example of the resurgence and popularity of other ways of approaching spirituality. Armagh Cathedral has managed to incorporate Celtic Spirituality into its life and ministry. But are all Nature Spiritualities just for New Age practitioners? Or has our neglect of them partly explained why we fail to engage in spiritually alive way with many current issues such as Global Warming and the environment?

Let us take a quick look at a few varieties of spirituality and see whether you are able to name some whether you can name some other forms and expressions of spirituality that you may come across, and that your parishioners and those you meet pastorally are likely to raise questions about.


Spirituality for ministry

Now that we have some picture of what spirituality is, we should ask whether there is an appropriate spirituality for priesthood or ordained ministry.

Have you reflected recently on the shaping and development of your spirituality through the years of your life?

Have you spent some time looking back at your different experiences of or explorations in spirituality?

Are there areas that you feel resistance to or feel threatened by?

What could be the reasons for this reaction in you?

Are there spirituality types that attract you?

What are the strengths and weaknesses of your spirituality as you see understand it?

Developing an understanding and a greater appreciation of my own personal spirituality is essential in helping me to appreciate and accept other people’s spirituality. Too often we can fall victim to the mentality that “what is different” must be “wrong.” We all have a unique relationship with our God, and each person is called to journey with God in a way that is unique and particular to that person.

How often have people said to you over the last few years: “Oh, I see you’re entering the Church.” How many of your former colleagues think you must have reached a new spiritual plane as you disclosed your plans and reasons for coming here? How many of you think or have noticed your spirituality is changing, growing, deepening, being challenged during your time here?

Which of those words best describe that process:


Which of these processes do you expect to experience, to encounter in your years in ordained ministry?

Unless we seek to develop a spirituality that is appropriate for our ordained ministry, unless we are in touch with changes in that personal spirituality, how can we help others to get in touch with their spirituality and to grow and to be aware of the opportunities for growth, for change, and for deepening their own spiritual lives?

But we also need to be aware of the need to develop a spirituality that is appropriate for our new roles in life. The particular spirituality appropriate to a banker or a farmer is not necessarily appropriate to the priest or the person in ordained ministry.

Archbishop Rowan Williams has rightly observed: “There is no one way of being a priest.” Each parish and each context is different and unique, and each person, each person’s story, is different and unique. As part of the process of formation for ordination, the process of spiritual formation, each of us needs to be aware of:

● The need to find time for personal prayer, study, and silence;
● The need to find time for recreation, family and hobbies;
● The need to find time for holidays and retreat (and to know the difference);
● The need to find time for cultural development;
● The need to realise the changes within:

And we need to know – as one bishop succinctly put it to me – the difference between: “The Law of Supply and Demand” and “The Law of Demand and Supply.”

Supply and Demand, Being and Doing

The traditional expectations of ministry include: Prayer, Study, and Work. But too often those in ordained ministry find that people expect us to do – to be able to do everything, to do everything, and to do it when they expect it, whether or not those expectations relate to what we have been ordained for.

If you don’t prepare and plan for your spiritual life in ministry, as priests, if you don’t plan nurture it, grow it, and rejoice in its unfolding and development, you will too easily forget what we are ordained to supply and encourage others to demand it, and instead end up responding to the demands of others and supplying those demands.

What is priesthood, and what is an appropriate spirituality for priesthood?

Before we start discussing that, let me quote from The Temple (1633) by George Herbert, one of the great figures in Anglican spirituality we looked at last year:

Love. (III)

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guiltie of dust and sinne.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack’d any thing.
A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
My deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.

Sotirios Christou (an Anglican priest in Cambridge), in his book The priest and the people of God: A royal priesthood (Cambridge: Phoenix Books, 2003), neatly summarises three images of priestly formation.

First, he describes the Trinitarian images of priestly formation as involving: 1, The Image of Grace; 2, The Image of Knowing Christ; 3, The Image of Knowing the Spirit; 4, the Image of Trinitarian Qualities; 5, the Image of Reconciliation; and 6, the Image of Prayer.

Secondly, he points out the traditional images of priestly formation, involve these (and they are words you will hear at your ordination to the priesthood): 1, Steward; 2, Watchman; 3, Messenger; 4, Shepherd; 5, Mother/Father.

And thirdly, Christou lists the Biblical images central to priestly formation: 1, Pioneer of Faith; 2, Builder; 3, Navigator; 4, Freedom Fighter; 5, Evangelist; 6, Holiness; 7, Worshipper; 8, Offering sacrifices; 9, Suffering; 10, Servant; and 11, Prophet.

Being and doing: Socratic wisdom on sale in the Plaka in Athens (Photograph © Patrick Comerford 2008)

You can see the emphasis on being rather than doing. One of my favourite T-shirts, seen in the Plaka in Athens, said: “To do is to be, Socrates. To be is to do, Plato. Do-be-do-be-do, Sinatra.” When we make our priority in ministry one that puts its emphasis on being rather than doing, some may we are be putting things on their heads. But I disagree. Emphasising being rather than doing is getting back to what we should be as priests and in terms of our spiritual lives, spiritual priorities, spiritual values, our spirituality.

Christopher Cocksworth (right, former Principal of Ridley Hall and now Bishop of Coventry) and Rosalind Brown (below, Canon of Durham Cathedral), in their book, Being a Priest Today: Exploring priestly identity (Cambridge MA: Cowley, 2002; Norwich, Canterbury Press, 2nd ed, 2006), provide some useful categories for thinking about the root, shape and fruit of the “Priestly Life.”

Firstly, the Root of Priestly Life is found in: 1, Being Called; 2, Being for the Other; 3, Being for God.

Secondly, the Shape of Priestly Life is found in: 4, Being for Worship; 5, Being for the Word; 6, Being for Prayer. Thirdly, the Fruit of Priestly Life is found in: 7, Being for Holiness; 8, Being for Reconciliation; 9, Being for Blessing; 10, Being Sent.

That emphasis on prayer, worship, holiness and blessing was also at the heart of Archbishop Michael Ramsey’s understanding of priesthood and spirituality. In his seminal book, The Christian Priest (London: SPCK, 4th impression, 1992), he summarised the definition of the priest as:

1, Teacher, Preacher, the person of Theology; 2, The minister of reconciliation; 3, The person of prayer; 4, The person of the Eucharist; and: 5, The Absolver.

And so, over the next few weeks, I hope you’ll see this module as part of your journey in spiritual formation for ordained ministry, and that we can journey together.


Bloom, A., School for prayer (London: Libra, 1972).
Brown, R., and Cocksworth, C., On being a priest today (London: Canterbury Press Norwich (2nd ed), 2006).
Edwards, T., Spiritual director, spiritual companion: guide to tending the soul (New York: Paulist Press, 2001).
Ramsey, M., The Christian priest today (London: SPCK, 1992).
Sheldrake P. (ed), The new SCM Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (London: SCM Press, 2005).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This paper is based on notes prepared for the introductory lecture in the Year II course Spirituality and Ministry (TH 2027) on Wednesday, 8 October 2008.

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