Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
One of the rites of passage for seminary students is to write and talk about your walk of faith. The first time it comes up it is intriguing and highly personal. After a while the task becomes more laborious and a bit intrusive. Why do committees keep prodding me about my journey of faith? Richard Peace’s book, Spiritual Autobiography, provides some welcome guidance.
Peace cites three things that one can learn in writing a spiritual autobiography:
- To examine your life in order to understand the ways that God has been active.
- To notice the activity of God in your life and in the lives of those around you.
- To share with others what God has been doing in your life (7).
Later, he also observes that writing a spiritual autobiography provides a sense of direction to life (61). Along the way, Peace uses the example of the life of Abraham to illustrate his points. He also draws on the lives of Augustine (Confessions) and C.S. Lewis (Surprised by Joy) at different points in his writing.
As explained in his introduction (How to Use This Guide), Peace organizes his book into three broad sections: “A Small Group Guide”, a description of “How to Prepare a Spiritual Autobiography”, and “Leaders Notes” (7). Peace recommends breaking up a group study into seven sessions: pilgrimage, call and blessing, encounters, relationships, testing, presentation, and celebration. The preparation covers the role of the autobiography, content, process of writing, special issues, and the “spiritual discipline of noticing” (3).
Peace writes on spiritual autobiography following 20 years of teaching a class at Fuller Theological Seminary entitled: “The Pursuit of Wholeness”. As a professor of spiritual formation, Peace is responsible for helping aspiring pastors develop their own spiritual awareness and voice. It is interesting that Peace occupied the Robert Boyd Munger chair. Munger was also a faculty member but is best known for a sermon: My Heart–Christ’s Home. Munger was also my pastor when my father studied at Berkley University and when I was a toddler.
For me, the chapter on the content of a spiritual autobiography was an eye-opener. Peace advises the writer to divide one’s life up into periods either by age or by periods reflecting the search for God (65). In turn, divide these periods into sub-periods—eight to twelve altogether (67). Examine these periods for encounters with God, crises of faith, and growth outcomes (71). Then, describe the periods with information that you remember or gather from journals, photos, and letters. Peace’s explanation of this process is worth the ticket of admission because it is a method for uncovering unresolved issues—the pains of life that form us and, if they are unprocessed, limit our growth intellectually, emotionally, behaviorally, and/or relationally (76-77).
Pain’s book, Spiritual Autography, is most helpful in understanding and talking about the faith that you already possess. We paint the world in colors that we draw from the palette of our own experiences. When we can talk about those experiences, we own them; they no longer own us. Pain’s writing is accessible to maturing Christians and small groups should consider using it as a Lenten study.