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Jan 102016

This is the eighth post in a series on Formative Reading.  Background information on this series can be found in the first post Formative Reading | Introduction


by Richard N. Southworth


The Value of Formative Reading

I hope that it can be seen clearly the value I place on such reading for my own life and for anyone who might be entrusted to my care. It is critical for anyone engaged in the practice, formally or informally, of spiritual guidance to have a knowledge of the variety and richness of the literature of the Spiritual Masters. They need to be able to refer their directees to those individuals from both classical and contemporary literature that have dealt with and experienced the things they themselves are experiencing and struggling with. We need in this way to be able to help them come to realize that what for them seems so unique is so very common.

In my own life it has opened up a whole new world. While I would still “rather” read more contemporary authors, the confirmation and consolation I received from this reading of the masters will cause me to return to them many times, and it will open me up to others who come to my attention. Just in writing this paper I noticed that I have begun to return to scripture in a new way. Words simply will not capture the power and significance of this whole experience. As I stare at the computer screen in search of some means of expression there is what St. Teresa of Avila refers to as “the gift of tears,” something that in the past I would have experienced as pain, but because of my encounter with this “spiritual master” is now recognized as a gift of The Mystery.

This is the final post in this series.

Jan 082016

This is the eighth post in a series on Formative Reading.  Background information on this series can be found in the first post Formative Reading | Introduction


by Richard N. Southworth


The Awesomeness of the Task of Guidance

The real major discovery goes deeper than that. It has to do with the absolute awesomeness and critical importance of the project of spiritual guidance. When I look at the deformative effect of dozens of very learned and sincere people who attempted to provide guidance in my life, and when I see the overall deformative effect of a major faith tradition on my own spiritual formation I sense that there is a serious crisis of spiritual guidance in our faith traditions.

On the one hand this is a humbling experience. Who in the world am I to think that I might be a spiritual guide for anyone else. It fills me with a sense of sin for the many times I have plodded along in ignorance where angles fear to tread. Yet at the same time it fills me with a deep sense of calling. There is a critical need, and the very experiences that bring the awareness of the awesomeness of the task, bring too the calling and the gifts. It is the tension between these two that is the major finding of this paper. One can neither allow the awesomeness of the task to paralyze us, nor plod along in ignorant bliss. Spiritual guidance must be approached with all of the awe and reverence due the sacred enterprise that it is, and we must have a deep reverence. Yet one cannot take oneself too seriously either. In the end it is God himself that is the ultimate doctor of souls. Much of the deformative effects of some of those who attempted to offer me guidance was the result of taking themselves too seriously, and in the end God will have his way with me, in spite of them, and at the same time because of them.

The next post will include my overall importance of Formative Reading.  It will be the final post in this series.

Jan 062016

This is the eighth post in a series on Formative Reading.  Background information on this series can be found in the first post Formative Reading | Introduction


by Richard N. Southworth


The Importance of Consolations

All of that relates to confirmation and rootedness in the human epiphany, but I also experienced a sense of being cut off from God. I had the strong sense that God was leading me, yet it was much in the way of the carrot at the end of the stick. I had little or no sense of being consoled or really touched by God. I very much resonated with Jesus’ cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Each of us needs to be confirmed in a real way by The Mystery itself. Somehow we need to be touched by the very hand of God. In my dialogue with the spiritual masters I have discovered that, far from being abandoned by God, God has been touching and consoling me over and over. I simply could not see it. It is not the seeking of consolations that I am referring to here, for they are, and by definition, must be, a gift of The Mystery. What I am speaking of is the ability to recognize and acknowledge those gifts that are already a part of one’s spiritual life. I have not specifically dealt with this in the examples I have given, but it is a very important part of the experience. I have yet to find the words for this, but as a direct result of my reading and study I have discovered the other side of the pain and suffering that has permeated my spiritual life. It is a new way of seeing and experiencing. As the masters shared their experience and their way of seeing it has caused me to re-gestalt much of my spiritual life. Now I can see and experience consolations and thus confirmation directly from The Mystery itself. It is critical to our spiritual growth that this shift take place.

The next post will include my experience of the importance of spiritual Guidance.

Jan 022016

This is the sixth post in a series on Formative Reading.  Background information on this series can be found in the first post Formative Reading | Introduction


by Richard N. Southworth


The Importance of Roots

Much of the impotence I experienced had to do with a lack of any sense of belonging. This is related to confirmation, but it in a sense goes deeper. I felt abandoned in a sea of violence and suffering. In one sense I felt abandoned by the people and institutions that were part of my formation history, but this was transposed to The Mystery itself. While there was no doubt for me as to the existence of God, I often felt that I had committed my life to following his leading, only to be made aware of the awesome wonder of it all and left to drown in an ocean of conflicting experiences and struggles. I resonate strongly with a statement attributed to St. Teresa of Avila: “If this is the way you treat your friends, its no wonder you don’t have many followers.”

It is extremely important for each of us on the spiritual journey to have a sense that we are not in this thing alone. It is true that each of our spiritual lives are unique, and in that sense we will experience a certain amount of aloneness, but even in that we need to know that others have gone before us and have struggled and hurt as we have. One very important way of finding those roots is in reading the spiritual masters. We may still struggle with our commitment to our faith tradition as it exists now, but we can still, through these special people maintain our rootedness in the larger spiritual tradition.

The next post will include my experience of consolations through formative reading.

Dec 292015

This is the sixth post in a series on Formative Reading.  Background information on this series can be found in the first post Formative Reading | Introduction


by Richard N. Southworth


The Importance of Confirmation

In the past I have experienced an almost total loss of form effectiveness in regard to my spiritual life. I could neither develop my own unique spiritual life nor feel effective in sharing with others. Over and over I had significant experiences and insights that seemed very real and powerful. When they were not confirmed or were devalued, especially by my faith tradition, I lost faith in my own connection with The Mystery.

When through my reading and study of the spiritual masters and other writers, I found very significant blocks of my experience and understanding confirmed and celebrated, I began to open up to the depth and strength, and to the reality and power of my own connection with The Mystery. At this point I began to be freed from defensiveness and to accept correction and new insight from my reading and study without feeling angry or threatened. I could also disagree without being threatened, when something I knew to be true for me was devalued by others.

Each of us on the spiritual journey must find a place where at least the essence of our experience and understanding is accepted and confirmed before it is possible for us to either develop our own spiritual life or gracefully accept correction and oppression. From that safe place we can move out into the world and be a coforming presence for others. Ideally this should be within one’s own faith tradition, but the deformative potential of a dissonant faith tradition is painfully apparent in my own formation history. While the eclectic faith tradition that seems to be developing for me has its limitations, it does provide both the sense of confirmation and the sense of correction which is so very necessary for the consonant spiritual life.

The next post will include my experience of the importance of roots in formative reading.

Dec 202015

This is the fourth post in a series on Formative Reading.  Background information on this series can be found in the first post Formative Reading | Introduction


by Richard N. Southworth


Walter J. Ciszek, S. J.
He Leadeth Me:  An Extraordinary Testament of Faith

I spent sixteen years with the Virginia State Police, serving at different times as a Trooper, Sergeant, and Special Agent. My experiences of the violence and brokenness of the human epiphany were strong formative influences on both my spirituality and my understanding of the Mystery and its epiphanies. In my capacity as a police officer, I came into contact with much of the pain and suffering in this world. It was often my job to clean up the bloody and broken bodies which result from man’s inhumanity to man. I had to interact with all kinds of criminals and derelicts, and when I did talk to the “good people,” it was usually when they had just been raped, robbed, or beaten. I became painfully aware of the brokenness of the human condition. But it was not just seeing the pain and suffering itself that so affected my understanding and relationship to The Mystery. I also saw another side to these people who were so enmeshed in the violence and brokenness of the modern world. I became aware that these people whom I had always thought of as “bad” were still very much human. I was forced to talk with many of them, even some who had been involved in brutal murders and rapes, and I discovered that, far from being just mean, most of them had hurts and joys, disappointments and dreams just like I did. I discovered that much, if not all, of the violence and aggression grew out of very real needs that were legitimate, needs that I have found in my own life. I found that I could identify with the pain and suffering that grows out of these needs. I myself experience it, maybe in a different way, but I still feel it, and it hurts. All of that violence and aggression that I find so offensive, I find offensive precisely because I find it in myself.

All of this profoundly affected my relationship with God. Belief in God was no longer the question at all. Somehow I had experienced God in the very depths of my soul, and in the very midst of the violence and brokenness. That “still small voice” that I have come to trust and rely on, was screaming inside of me:


Photo by James Milliken

I must somehow embrace all of the brokenness. What stands out to me about Jesus is that he fully participated in all of life, including one of the most horrible deaths I can imagine. His single most distinguishing character trait was his caring compassion for people, from beggars and prostitutes to rich rulers and religious leaders. If they were hungry he fed them, if they were blind he gave them sight, if they sought after knowledge he taught them, and if they had sinned he simply forgave them. The message of the gospel to me is that Jesus has shown us what it means to be fully human, and to manifest the potential that God had in store for us from creation. I again took all of this back to my faith tradition. Again I found that I was in some cases not understood, in others ignored, and many times told in no uncertain terms that what I really needed was to “believe in Jesus Christ.” The incongruity of what I saw and experienced and this understanding of the gospel message was so traumatic that even as I write about it the pain goes through me like a knife. At first I stood up for what I saw and tried a kind of firm, open resistance. Later I got downright angry. The anger first surfaced as righteous indignation, but when I found little or no confirmation and little opportunity for form effectiveness, it became a kind of incessant rage that ultimately was transposed on others and on myself. Something inside of me wanted to scream, “I am not a Christian! I am not any kind of a Christian” On one level it turned to doubt of my own sense of reality and The Mystery that permeates that reality. Yet on another level my experience was so very real that it never left me. Deep down inside, in the very depths of my soul, that voice spoke, “be not afraid, for I am with you. Trust me and I will lead you where you dare not go.

So then I pick up Walter Ciszek’s He Leadeth Me, and I realized again that “He leadeth me” too. Here was a man who was even more deeply enmeshed in the violence and brokenness of the world than I was, and it was unleashed on him with a vengeance. God did not deliver him from it, but called him to give himself over to it, to “somehow embrace all of the brokenness” as I wrote in my reflection. Ciszek went through a conversion experience after which he talks of seeing God’s will in everything:

Across that threshold I had been afraid to cross, things suddenly seemed so very simple. There was but a single vision, God, who was all in all; there was but one will that directed all things, God’s will. I had only to see it, to discern it in every circumstance in which I found myself, and let myself be ruled by it. God is in all things, sustains all things, directs all things. To discern this in every situation and circumstance, to see his will in all things, was to accept each circumstance and situation and let oneself be borne along in perfect confidence and trust. Nothing could separate me from him, because he was in all things.*

He speaks of this in terms of God’s will, yet it is clear from the way it is incarnated in his daily life in the prison camps and communities in Russia, that it is not just God’s will that he minister to God’s people in these terrible conditions. Ciszek sees the presence and reality of The Mystery in all of the people, events, and things that make up his life. Much in Ciszek’s life was pain and suffering, violence and brokenness. Yet Ciszek saw God in it all.

It is also clear that he struggled with life and with God. It took him years of deep painful struggle and pain to reach the point of giving himself over to the unique epiphany of the Mystery that made up his life:

Then one day the blackness closed in around me completely. Perhaps it was brought on by exhaustion, but I reached a point of despair. I was overwhelmed by the hopelessness of my situation. . . . I despaired in the most literal sense of the word: I lost all sense of hope. I saw only my own weakness and helplessness . . . Uppermost in my mind was the hopelessness of it all and my powerlessness to cope with it.**

There is something in Ciszek that is not so much expressed in words, but rather seems to permeate the words and actions that make up Ciszek’s formative presence to the violence and brokenness all around him. It is at the very core of what I see in the life of Jesus. In Gethsemane Jesus, prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me: yet not my will, but yours be done.” And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. There is here the complete immersion in the very real pain and suffering and violence of the world, but yet seeing just as clearly the operation and very presence of The Mystery in it. This is what my police experience seemed to call me to. I simply could not relate to the way my faith tradition seemed to divide the world up into good and evil, with God in the good and Satan in the evil, and never the twain shall meet. Here I was strongly at odds with that tradition as it was incarnated in the churches I found myself in, and I experienced that same sense of at best being misunderstood, and at worse being condemned as a blasphemer.

Struggle has also been a word that seems to permeate my journal. My relationship with The Mystery has itself been fraught with much pain and struggle. Neither life nor God ever seemed nearly so clear as it did for many of my Baptist friends. And they seemed to see my struggle, not as both the proof and fruit of a deep and solid relationship that it was for me, but rather as an obvious indication that I was not “saved.” It seemed that they wanted to save me from the very thing that I sought. When one offered to pray for me, I said, to his shock and amazement, “Please don’t, I really don’t want what you are praying for.”

In Ciszek I found someone who seemed to have experienced some of the same things. Ciszek immersed himself in the very real world of pain and suffering and violence around him, and he found God there. Yet he also very profoundly struggled, with both the initial abandonment to that calling, and to discern how that abandonment would be incarnated in the people, events and things that made up his unique life. In that I found, really for the first time, the confirmation of my own experience and understanding. This has been another instance where God has very powerfully said, “Be not afraid, for I am with you.”


* Ciszek, Walter J, S.J., He Leadeth Me: An Extraordinary Testament of Faith, (New York: Image Books, 1975), p. 91-92.

* Ciszek, Walter J, S.J., He Leadeth Me: An Extraordinary Testament of Faith, (New York: Image Books, 1975), p. 86.

The next post will include my experience reading other spiritual masters.

Dec 122015

This is the third post in a series on Formative Reading.  Background information on this series can be found in the first post Formative Reading | Introduction


by Richard N. Southworth


The Soul’s Journey into God – The Tree of Life – The Life of St. Francis

A very central element of both my initial experience and recognition of God, and of my relationship to him, has been and continues to be, found in the cosmic epiphany. I have written much about it in my journal and in other papers. If I find myself separated from God, my first and immediate response is to go out into nature, away from the busyness of the modern world to renew that connection. I wrote of this in a paper over six years ago:

I could see new life sprouting up in the midst of the decaying evidence of death. Other plants had lived out their time or lost their struggle for life in a seemingly cruel environment. Now their remains provided shelter and nourishment for the tender shoots of new growth. The beauty of new life, and the inevitability of death could both be seen there in God’s place. But the continuity of life was just as evident. In the midst of that quiet wood, I caught just a glimpse of the meaning of eternity. . . I was filled with the awareness that my life is only an instant in the seemingly endless tape of time. . .I was overwhelmed and awed by the reality and mysteriousness of a God whose presence seemed to be woven intricately into the fabric of the universe.*


Image by NASA Wide Firld Infrared Survey Explorer

This and similar experiences have always been sacred to me, yet I have never felt free to share them. They formed an important part of the very foundation of my spiritual life. They were at best secondary, and at worst heresy in my faith tradition. For me they were a kind of secret compensation that I could seldom share. If I shared them in the context of a statement of faith, which in reality they were, the response was often, “But do you believe in Jesus Christ.” This left me unable to share my faith, and especially unable to celebrate it. In reality it left me unable to really accept it as real in myself, which raised the possibility that my entire spiritual life was an illusion. Yet even in that moment I would return to my walks in the woods.

Then our study of the spiritual masters began with St. Bonaventure. Of everyone we have read this semester, I think I identify with him most directly. I feel like I know him as a friend. I have a mental image of him that may be all wrong, but when I take my walks he is often present either focally or prefocally. I identify with his words:

The origin of things,according to their creation, distinction and embellishment, . . .
The magnitude of things, in the mass of their length, width and depth;
in their great power . . .
The multitude of things in their generic, specific and individual diversity . . .
The beauty of things,in the variety of light, shape and color . . .
The activity, multiple inasmuch as it is natural, artificial and moral, . . .
The order in duration, position and influence, 
leads us most clearly into the first and highest, the most powerful, the wisest, and the best.**

As I read Bonaventure I am there with him marveling at the awesome wonders of the cosmic epiphany. That celebration that was so painfully missing when I took this sacred part of my spiritual life to my faith tradition, rises to the surface and is at the same time expressed and demands expression. I want to scream, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” But I also want to scream with Bonaventure:

Whoever, therefore, is not enlightened by such splendor of created things is blind; whoever is not awakened by such out cries is deaf;whoever does not praise God because of all these effects is dumb;whoever does not discover the First Principle from such clear signs is a fool. Therefore, open your eyes,alert the ears of your spirit, open you lips and apply your heart so that in all creatures you may see, hear, praise, love and worship, glorify and honor your God.***

I could go on to develop my identification with Bonaventure through the other chapters of The Soul’s Journey into God: “On Contemplating God in His Vestiges in the Sense World,” “On Contemplating God through His Image Stamped upon our Natural Powers,”, etc. Each of these and other topics affirm important aspects of my spiritual life which have in the past been devalued and criticized.

Yet even another point needs to be mentioned. It is Bonaventure’s style, his unique mixture of analytical examination and ordering of experience and thought, combined with the sense of wonder and mystery that repeatedly causes him to lapse into poetry. Yet these two approaches seem to interpenetrate each other in a way that is very powerful. It seems that in many faith traditions we either devalue analytical thought in favor of inexpressible experience, or we devalue experience in favor of a statement of faith that is reduced to a set of intellectual beliefs. Bonaventure finds “the golden mean” between the two, or rather seems to merge them. I have experienced both extremes, and in each I have felt restless and boxed in. Again, Bonaventure opens up a new world for me and confirms and celebrates with me the vast richness of both the cosmic and human epiphanies.


* Southworth, Richard N., Unpublished Manuscript, circa 1980.

** St. Bonaventure: Bonaventure: The Soul’s Journey into God – The Tree of Life – The Life of St. Francis, ( New York:  Paulest Press, 1978) p. 65.

*** St. Bonaventure: Bonaventure: The Soul’s Journey into God – The Tree of Life – The Life of St. Francis, ( New York:  Paulest Press, 1978) p. 67.

The next post will include my experience reading Walter Ciszek’s He Leadeth Me.

Nov 252015

I recently pulled out some of my old writing, and came across a paper I wrote for a class on formative reading while I was working on my master’s degree at the Institute of Formative Spirituality at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA.  The paper had no date on it, but it would have been sometime in late 1986 or early 1987.  During that class we studied the writings of several saints and spiritual masters.  Near the end of the class we were asked to pick one of the masters we studied that had the most impact on our own spiritual life for a term paper.  I told the professor that it was not an individual person that affected me the most, it was the overall effect of all of the people we had studied that spoke most powerfully to me.  She told me I should write about that.

Richard On Mountain

Photo by Winnie Southworth

Reading this paper now I realized just how powerful these studies were in my spiritual life at the time, and just how much they still spoke to me some twenty-seven years later.  Reading this paper again calls me to want to go back and read some of the books again.  Maybe the most powerful insight this material had for me personally was to see these masters of the spiritual life struggling with many of the same issues I struggle with in my own journey.  I had always been turned off by the old language and style, but when forced to read the material for the class, it spoke to me in a very powerful way.

In my previous post A Religion of My Own | Waking Up — Again I talked about the fact that “what I found in the many churches I attended never really connected with that [my] calling or the way I experienced and lived my life”.  It is interesting to me that these ancient writings speak to me in a very powerful way, and yet what I experience in church does not speak to me much at all.

Reading this paper again also called me to want to share these thoughts and experiences with you in the hopes that they will inspire you to read some of the writings of the saints and spiritual masters yourself.  Over the next few weeks I will share parts of this paper in a series of blog posts.  I plan to share the material as it was written at the time without editing it, though I may offer comments on some.  It is fascinating to me to see where I was twenty-seven years ago, and to realize just how powerful it still is to me today.

Here are the topics that will be included in the future blog posts:

As you read each of these posts I encourage you to add your own experiences and thoughts so all of us can learn from each other.

Read, Reflect, Enjoy! Richard



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