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An Introductory Course in Christian Spirituality

Critical Reflection
What is spirituality?
Christian Spirituality...
What are spiritual disciplines?
Contemplative disciplines
Reflection and Discernment
Prayer and Worship
Moral Action
Course Instructor

Critical reflection


An essential element of spiritual growth and transformation is the ability to reflect on one's assumptions, values, attitudes, opinions and beliefs which constitute those structures of meaning through which one perceives and interacts with the environment. Thus, a key focus of spiritual formation must be development and nurturing of reflective skills. If theology is faith seeking understanding, then critical reflection, as well as a more focused theological reflection, has an important place in spiritual formation. The goal is a deeper understanding of our faith, not so much in terms of theological propositions but rather in terms of the circumstances of our lives and ministry.


Both critical reflection and theological reflection begin with experience. Reflection should not be based on hypothetical cases or “what if”. Serious reflection is possible only when it is rooted in actual experience where the details and dynamics of the experience can be considered, as well as our responses to them. The first step in reflection is an actual experience that someone is willing to consider. The experience should be personal in the sense that it is percieved as important to the person describing the experience. This experience can be reflected upon by an individual or by a group. Since one of the goals is to examine assumptions, it is best to consider the experience as a group. The different perspectives of several persons are more likely not to be blinded by the same assumptions.


The volunteer should relate the experience in as much detail as possible. At a minimum this should include the who, what when, where and how of any good report. Since the experience is perceived as important to the volunteer, the persons feelings, reactions and thoughts should be described as well. The material can be presented in terms of an attempted transcription of what happened, role playing in an attempt to recreate the experience, an interview, or a simple report that one might enter in a journal. Commonly, the volunteer views the experience described as problematic in some way. Ultimately, the volunteer wants to understand what happened and how to do better the next time.


Once the volunteer has described the experience, the other group members are free to ask questions to clarify the experience. It is also important to clarify the volunteer’s feelings about the experience and what guidance he or she wants from the group. Next, the group attempts to identify the assumptions of all the actors, which helps to frame the experience. It is the assumptions that largely determine how the actors experience the events described. Are my assumptions inappropriate to the situation? Are my  assumptions the source of the discordance I felt during the experience?


The best way to give a sense of what is involved in this process is to provide an example. The following is a relatively common experience for clergy persons. The example is based on my personal experience.


Each Thursday was my day to visit the parishioners who were in-patients at the local Catholic hospital. One Thursday afternoon I noticed the name of a good friend on the list of patients I was to visit that day. He suffered from diabetes and was suffering from gangrene. One leg had been amputated at the knee and another was scheduled to be amputated. Every Sunday after Mass my family would spend a few minutes in conversation with my friend and his wife. We looked forward to those brief conversations. I had visited my friend frequently as he went from hospital to nursing home and back to the hospital as a result of his physical problems. It hurt to see this once robust and relatively healthy man wither away.


I saved my friend for the last stop on my rounds of patients that day, so that I could spend more time with him than I usually allot for visiting patients. When I eventually reached his room I found him moaning in pain. The second leg had been amputated at the knee the day before. His pain seemed to be coming from the part of the leg that was no longer there. I greeted him and his wife, as I entered the room. His wife explained to me about the amputation the previous day and invited me to sit near him, which I did. I expressed my concern over his pain and hope that recovery would be possible now. He slid into an uncomfortable position on his pillow, so I assisted his wife in moving him back into a better position. I also spoke with the wife, asking how she was holding up. She spoke briefly of the difficulties of the past few days and her hope that they had turned the corner in her husband’s recovery.


A friend of the couple was also visiting with them. She was a member of a near by parish. Earlier in the year she had been diagnosed with cancer and was not doing well, however through prayer and the spiritual support of the parish charismatic prayer group she was a member of, the cancer cleared up. She was there to visit but also to pray for our friend. During a period of especially strong pain, our friend begged us to pray for him. He wanted us to put our hands on his leg near the stump and pray for healing; pray that the pain would be taken away. We both poured our hearts out in prayer for our friend. What effect our prayer had on our friend is unclear, as he continued to moan. After this, I explained that I needed to go. I reminded my friend and his wife that if any help was needed to let me know. I said a prayer of blessing and I left.


As I left the room I was shaken. I felt totally incompetent. I could have stayed with them longer but felt so useless that I just wanted to get away before they realized what a fake I was. It was several weeks and under the instruction of a spiritual director before I visited my friend again.


Notice the elements of the narrative. I begin by explaining the context. I was visiting the patient because it was part of my assigned ministry but also because he was a friend. I give information about the actors in the experience: myself, my friend and his wife, as well as the other visitor. I describe what happened, that is what we each were doing during the incident. My feelings, reactions and thoughts are presented as part of the narrative. Obviously, the experience was meaningful for me and was problematic. In a group session the members would now attempt to clarify the narrative. It might be asked why I felt incompetent? Why I didn’t return to visit my friend until instructed to do so by a spiritual director? Perhaps questions would be asked about the depth of the friendship outside my role as a minister? Question about how I handled similar situations previously would be appropriate.


The goal is to get as clear a picture of the experience and its context as possible. As the discussion moves forward, it is helpful to draw out a fairly clear picture of the assumptions that I brought into the experience. Certainly, I perceived myself as visiting the family as a member of the ministerial team of their parish. This was an “official” visit, an act of ministry. Yet, it was more than just an “official” visit. The patient and his wife were friends. I was in pain watching my friend suffer. I wanted to be able to pray and bring down a miracle on my friend to at least stop his pain. Yet, when I prayed there was no miracle. He continued to suffer. My assumptions seemed to be that it was my job to do something to make everything better. When I couldn’t do that, then I was a failure as a minister; and perhaps as a friend also.


The person reporting the narrative may have sufficient insight to deduce his assumptions, if so then it is wise to probe if there are other assumptions operating as well. Consider the behavior and the context. Are there any patterns that suggest more issues to be considered? In this example, are any other assumptions suggested by the difference between my behavior on this visit and on previous visits? It might be worth exploring this difference. The only differences appear to be the extremity of pain my friend suffered and the presence of the woman who was praying. The extremity of pain enhanced my feeling of urgency and desire to do something to help my friend. The presence of the woman created a feeling of tension in me. She brought a charismatic gift of healing prayer to my friend all I could bring was my role as an official representative of the Church. What kind of a representative of the Church was I? While not introducing any major new assumptions, the additional probing revealed a greater depth of understanding my assumptions.


Now it is appropriate to explore alternate assumptions. This can be done several ways. One way is to take the perspective of another actor in the drama. Reconstruct the events from the perspective of my friend or his wife. What did they perceive? It is likely that they perceived their deacon and friend showing up in their pain. He is perceived as being interested in them and their pain, both as a friend and as a representative of their parish. He is perceived as being helpful in making the patient comfortable. He is perceived as sincerely praying for the patient. He is perceived as being concerned for both their wellbeing, as he inquires how she is holding up under all of the pressure. He is perceived as offering the blessing of the Church upon those present as he leaves. The assumptions of the patient and his wife do not deal with the ability of the deacon to do anything. Competence is not an issue. What is an issue is his presence. He cared enough to be present to them in their suffering. What is an issue is his role as a representative of the Church. His presence in their suffering represented not only his personal concern for them but the concern of the parish community and the universal Church. He needed to do nothing, except be there, as far as the patient and his wife were concerned.


What does this alternate assumption say about the my assumptions and their  consequences? Looking at it from the perspective of the patient, the only harm that came from the experience was the shame and sense of failure I experienced because it resulted in staying away from my friend for a while until my spiritual director talked some sense into me. They did not expect me to work any miracles. My ministry to them was simply in being there.


Everything that we have discussed so far is consistent with the process of critical reflection, as well as theological reflection. If this reflection were to be a theological reflection we would see two differences in the process. First, prior to considering alternatives, the experience would be considered in light of Scripture and theology.  


Are there any events in Scripture that sheds light on this experience? Is there anything in the theology that we have studied that would help explain the experience? Certainly, reference to the various healing miracles would be relevant. It would be helpful to explore the dynamics of the healing miracles and the dynamics of the experience. The beatitudes would also be helpful. It might be useful to consider St. Paul’s discussion of the different spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12-14). A brief review of the discussion on service and self-emptying would be appropriate. Was I operating from the needs of the patient and his wife or from an illusion rooted in my need to be useful and effective?


Second, after exploring the relevant theology and alternative assumptions, as well as identifying sources of dissonance in the assumptions I brought into the experience, it is necessary to identify an appropriate course of action. While critical reflection is satisfied with simply making one aware of the errors in one’s assumptions and promote a critical examination of those assumptions, theological reflections requires action. What course of action is appropriate in light of the insight gained. In this particular instance, the course of action was to visit my friend again. This time I visited him simply to be there for him with no illusions of being a miracle worker.


Critical reflection can be a useful tool for discernment, especially in a small group setting. It isn’t always necessary to have a full scale group critical/theological reflection. However, it is good to ground group discussion in actual experience. This keeps the discussion focused on real life and application of the theological concepts discussed. An important element of any discussion is to identify the assumptions that underlie a person’s perspective on a topic. For example, there may be a discussion over recent changes in the liturgy with some arguing in favor of the changes and others against. Such a discussion can quickly get stalemated unless the assumptions of each group are identified. What do they assume about the purpose of the changes? What do they assume about the purpose of liturgy? What assumptions cause them to favor one position over the other? While you may not be able to come up with a definitive answer to the issue, the participants will have a better understanding of why they feel the way they do and that others can feel just as strongly on the topic with a different conclusion. They may also be able to begin to question their assumptions and explore them more critically.



Resource List

Dietrich Bonhoffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, rev. ed. (New York: MacMillian Publishing Company, 1967), 203.

William T. Donovan, The Sacrament of Service: Understanding Diaconal Spirituality, (Green Bay, WI: Alt Publishing Company, 2000), 24.

Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, “Waiting at Table.” In Concilium, vol. 198, Service--Church for the Others (Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark, LTD, 1988), 89.

Ottmar Fuchs, “Church for Others.” In Concilium, vol. 198, Service--Church for the Others (Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark, LTD, 1988), 41-42

Walter Cardinal Kasper, “The Ministry of the Deacon,” Deacon Digest 15 (March/April 1998): 23.

Pope John Paul II, Deacons Are Called to a Life of Holiness: General Audience, October 20, 1993 (Vatican City: Internet Office of the Holy See, , 1999).


Making Faith-Sense: Theological Reflection in Everyday Life
Robert L. Kinast

Let Ministry Teach: A Guide to Theological Reflection (From the Interfaith Sexual Trauma Institute)
Robert L. Kinast

Fostering Critical Reflection in Adulthood : A Guide to Transformative and Emancipatory Learning (Jossey Bass Higher and Adult Education Series)
Jack Mezirow

Click here to visit Along the Way, a site of reflections, homilies and stories by the author of this website.

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