Have you thought of the spiritual life as a journey, a pilgrimage? I have, but only as a general idea. In One Step at a Time: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Spirit-Led Living, Tim Geoffrion offers readers specific stories about his own pilgrimage, reflections on the journey, and suggestions about our pilgrimage. Tim’s book is one I am looking forward to sharing with others. Having taught and practiced spiritual formation for thirty years, I find this a great addition to the theory and practice of helping people to be formed by God.
Tim tells his story of being on pilgrimage in Spain for thirtyseven days. Before he ultimately decided to make the journey, he had not been particularly amenable to the idea. His wife, who writes books about labyrinths, had asked him a couple of times to go. Then suddenly to his surprise, the next time she asked he said yes. It was a good time for him to make such a journey, a time when he was in a major life transition. He had ended his role as the CEO of a nonprofit organization and needed some time to think about what to do next.
The pilgrimage was really a metaphor for the spiritual life, Tim found. It was far more than a way of getting clearer about what to do next. It led him to make profound changes in his life and gave him clarity about significant matters. Perhaps, he began to think, he couldn’t solve the next issue in his life without changing his old way of perceiving things.
And Tim changed. I have seen the change as I have listened to and watched him in the two years since he came back from Spain. In this book, he also has reflected on his experience in a way that can help us all, partially because his growth wasn’t a matter of enjoying a “quiet time” and then going back to ordinary life. Rather, the journey seemed to be a matter of moving within ordinary life and then praying and listening. Tim shares stories, theology, scripture, and practical exercises to help us do that. He puts four pieces together:
- His experience on his pilgrimage, warts and all. He shares his deepest feelings. His stories are not nice little vignettes of insights received, but are often about wrenching experiences.
- His theological reflections on pilgrimage as metaphor for the spiritual journey. He wrestles with how to understand what is happening. What might the Spirit be doing?
- His understanding of Scripture’s viewpoint. He quotes appropriate Bible passages and comments on them and connects the passage with thinking and feelings.
- Suggestions for the reader. His practical suggestions are broad and appropriate for many styles of spirituality. The reader is encouraged to keep a notebook and to read, try the exercises, and write about what happened.
My attention was grabbed by Tim’s stories, and the rest of the book flowed from these stories. He rightly reminds us that growth in the spiritual life, like a pilgrimage, is not linear, straight progress without emotional and spiritual ups and downs. His realistic depiction of this “map” of pilgrimage and growth is better than most charts of the spiritual life that I have encountered, much more real and encouraging than the ones I have used in teaching and writing. He found that the process was a spiraling one for him, which I have noticed as well. The spiral hits certain themes again and again, but every time at a different level.
Tim’s thinking and attitude toward his work and other people has been deeply reoriented by the work of the Spirit. This also is quite different from guidance I read in many books on the spiritual life. Many of these books just tell personal anecdotes and give a conclusion that supposedly fits all. Or they provide an “objective” or theoretical approach without sharing the experience of the author. Tim connects the reader to real life and feelings, theology, and the Scriptures, and makes suggestions for those who read. His approach is that of a thinking person’s guide to the spiritual journey. This is lived theology.
Tim says that the way he was taught to preach and teach was to start with Scripture, think about it, and interpret it according to his tradition and his teachers. His new approach is to pay attention to life, think, listen to the Scriptures, and then follow the Spirit’s leading. This is quite radical for many of us but makes a lot of sense as Tim writes. It is far more alive, far more open to the Spirit, far less intellectually abstract than the old way.
Tim’s approach goes along with his discovery and belief that God is already in our lives. If we pay attention, God’s gifts and invitation grow increasingly clear. Tim shows us how to look at our experience, think about and listen to what God might be doing, and then do what we have heard or been invited to. Ignatius of Loyola, the practical Spanish mystic who founded the Jesuits and who has written the “Spiritual Exercises,” would, I believe, agree. Ignatius told his disciples to first pay attention to their experiences daily, which would keep them better attuned to what God was doing than saying their daily office or reading the Bible, because the practice was rooted and grounded in what God was doing in their lives. It is also the pattern in the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, where the maintenance steps of the program start with a daily inventory and are followed by prayer and meditation.
Tim also asks questions and encourages us to do so. There is no easy answer to his sorrow, the hints he encountered that he needed to grow, and what he learned through connecting with his family. But he found part of the secret in noticing the Spirit’s work as he let go and let the Spirit guide, as he gave up his agenda and paid attention to the reality others presented to him. He changed his desire to control and be in charge and found freedom.
I remember having seen Tim discover the power of letting go while setting up Faith, Hope, and Love Global Ministries with his wife, after he had learned how to be more fully guided by the Spirit. Instead of having independent ministries, he and his wife now coordinate his teaching with her leadership of labyrinth prayer and have done so in Burma, France, and the Congo.
Tim’s book is designed to help people change for the better in their relationships with God, others, their ministries or vocation, and themselves. This book, along with Tim’s previous book, The Spirit-Led Leader, can be of use to pastors and laity alike. Pastors may find it useful for their own reading and spiritual formation. They may find it very useful as they preach or lead groups. I can see parts of this being used for a new members class or for a Lenten study. I can imagine staff or clergy groups using the book as the focus of a weekly or monthly study.
Church and business leaders urge others to listen to the small voice in our heads and hearts, but they often give little guidance about ways to do this and how to distinguish their wisdom from the Spirit’s. We can learn to listen and walk step by step. Tim can help!