The connection between the New Age and the spiritual formation movement is often disguised. Many are being persuaded to believe that the teachings of spiritual formation are a new Christian development. But this assumption couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, these techniques can run exactly contrary from Biblical teachings. The interesting thing about spiritual formation ideas is that the concepts behind them are not negative. Gerald G. May, in his book Care of Mind, Care of Spirit, says, “Spiritual formation is a rather general term referring to all attempts, means, instruction, and disciplines intended towards deepening of faith and furtherance of spiritual growth.”i This sounds like a Biblical pursuit, but when we are provided with a closer look at the methods that spiritual formation uses to further spiritual growth, the error becomes apparent.

Statue of St. Ignatius of Loyola at Gesù Church, Rome. CC Sharealike Roy Sebastien,_Church_of_Ges%C3%B9,_Rome,_Jan_2013.jpg
Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, published his Spiritual Exercises in 1548 and intended to use them at a retreat as part of the central first year training for Jesuit novitiates.ii Included in the exercises were long periods (up to 30 days) in solitude and silence. Ignatius himself had gone through a spiritual formation much like the one he prescribed for his Jesuit initiates. During his recovery time after being injured in a battle against the French, he was brought stories about the saints to read and he realized that he wanted to have the peace that they achieved. He thought that in order to do this he would have to rival the penance of all the saints. He gave up his position in the army, and after praying all night in front of statue of Mary, he was shown to a cave wherein he retired for prayer, austerities, and contemplation. He often starved himself to the point of severe malnutrition, and had suicidal thoughts.

By the end of several weeks, his confessor begged him to stop lest he kill himself. Finally, when he was on the brink of starvation and mental instability, he received “visions” and presumed that God had granted him peace.iii It is more probable, however, that he was hallucinating. Ignatius’ Exercises have been in recent years used as a “retreat in daily life” for laypeople. They also include a month-long program of daily prayer and meeting with a spiritual director and a compilation of meditations, prayers, and contemplative practices to help deepen a relationship with God.iv

The problem with Loyola’s method is that Biblically, supernatural experiences are initiated by God, and do not require that the body be weakened by self-inflicted torture. 1 Corinthians 6:19 says, “Don’t you know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own.” Fasting is certainly permitted as a way of clearing our bodies from foods that have clouded our minds, and it is healthy up to a certain extent, however not to the point of starvation; this would be considered abuse.

Spiritual formation may mean different things to different individuals, but many of its variations tend to shift the focus of spiritual discipline from God to self. Generally speaking, there are two basic elements present that make its practice unacceptable to the Christian. First, the practices in spiritual formation place the spiritual experience of the Christian squarely into the realm of experience to the detriment of rational thought, higher levels of abstract thinking, and faith and trust in the written Word.

Second, it places the center of control with respect to spiritual experience and a relationship with God within the believer. This is in direct contradiction with Scripture. In the Bible, we find that supernatural experiences and events are initiated by God with the individual and not the other way around.

The research with respect to spiritual formation is as vast as an ocean. The names of its many proponents, its critics and their personal beliefs, the various elements of the practice of spiritual formation and its exact origins can be a confusing area. However, a negative reference to spiritual formation by Christians often includes an objection to spending vast amounts of time in silence. It further includes an objection to centred prayer or forms of prayer that include meditating with an empty mind, or mindlessly repeating phrases. Christ warns against repetition while praying and instead provides a narrative for petitioning God in prayer that is much like talking to an earthly Father.