Pieces of Formation: Closing Up the Series

Just a quiet moment by the tree.

Just a quiet moment by the tree. 

(Can you spot Diva?)

Hi, friends. 

I’ve been attempting to continue the “Pieces of Formation” series all week, and here it is — Thursday — and I still haven’t been able to do it. 

At first it was because of the Newtown shooting. I couldn’t just return to “business as usual” on the blog here, churning out a post per day like usual fare. I felt the Newtown Meditation ought to suffice for an extra day or two. 

Then it was because of the truth of where I am. I’m in a time of discernment about 2013 and how it concerns this space. When I think of the 12 months ahead, I have a substantial pile of ideas I’m holding in my cupped hands before God.

Off the top of my head, there are at least 8 ideas in the mix. All of them have to do with going deeper. Much deeper than any singular blog post — or string of blog posts, for that matter — can go. 

And so I’m holding them in my cupped hands. In silence. Listening. 

This formation series is in the mix of those ideas. I’ve loved picking up the many pieces that exist in our formation, finding together the ways we’ve been uniquely formed by them throughout our lives. There is still so much to say and discover about these pieces. I want to serve you well in that regard. 

To do that, for now, I’ve decided to close up the series in its current incarnation. I’m trusting that the discovery and examination of pieces will continue a bit later, in a way that will (I hope) serve you even better. I cannot wait to do that with you.

I’ll be going quiet on Still Forming through the holidays, not just for the holidays’ sake but also to honor this discernment process I’m in.

Much love, and Merry Christmas,


Pieces of Formation: Heightened Emotions


Yesterday we considered experiences that brought us peace. Today, let’s consider the more heightened emotions — anger, sadness, ecstasy. 

For me, anger emerged in instances of justice. Or, rather, injustice. Being blamed for something I couldn’t have controlled. Being scolded for a certain behavior while my classmate was allowed to continue doing it. These kinds of things made me feel that things weren’t right, weren’t fair, and should have happened differently. 

What about you? 

When it comes to the more heightened emotions of life, where did you experience them as you were growing up?

Pieces of Formation: School Life

Let's learn a bit.

What was learning like for you while growing up? Was it something you loved? Something you dreaded? Something that felt like wrestling with a huge and slimy sea creature? 

I know someone who slumped through school, garnering Cs and Ds at regular intervals, but it turns out he’s a genius. The traditional school setting and pace bored him. He didn’t see the point, and he needed much greater challenge. It wasn’t until a sixth-grade teacher saw him for who he was and gave him room to be himself and get creative that he began to gather a greater sense of self and confidence when it came to learning. 

I’ve already shared with you that athletics were a bust for me and that I learned to read at quite a young age. The schoolroom and books became a haven. I loved to excel at my studies, and I was the kind of kid who felt (mostly) safe in a classroom, sitting at a desk with my notebook and school supplies, learning from the teacher at the front of the room. 

Since this was the place I excelled, it eventually became quite tied to my identity. I thought being solid in academics meant I ought to be in an academic setting the rest of my life. I eventually made plans for doctoral studies and expected to live my days in the halls of universities as a professor.

It’s all I thought I was good at: books. 

It turns out there’s more to me than that. Part of my container analysis had to do with examining this part of my life, then deconstructing, then reconstructing my identity as it concerned these things. 

What about you? What was your school life like? How did it affect the way you came to see yourself?

Pieces of Formation: Your Family Credo

I just love her.

Just some cuteness for you.

Yesterday we talked about the individual roles we’ve played in our families and how they affect the people we became. Today, let’s talk about the family creeds that existed while we were growing up (and may still exist today).

These can vary widely from family to family. Some examples would be:

  • We don’t talk about our feelings.
  • We always talk about our feelings.
  • When we’re angry or sad, we don’t show it. 
  • When we’re angry, everyone knows it.
  • When we’re sad, it’s someone else’s job to make it better. 
  • People aren’t welcome in our home.
  • Everyone is welcome in our home.
  • Anyone who is “different” isn’t okay.
  • We learn so much from other people and ideas. 
  • It’s not okay to make mistakes.
  • Mistakes are how we learn.

What kind of credo — voiced or unvoiced — was at work in your family unit?

Pieces of Formation: Your Role in the Family

Lone bird.

I was the peacemaker in my family, and I was the listener. 

No matter who was fighting with whom — siblings, parents, siblings with parents — I seemed to be the one who not only got along with everyone but also had a way of making and preserving peace. I could help those who were fighting feel seen, heard, and understood. I could be a safe place to go. I often served as a go-between. 

And I knew how to hold the stories. My parents trusted me with theirs, and I often felt I knew my siblings better than they knew me. I just had an ability to listen. 

For a long time, after I went through my original process of looking at my container, I resented both of these roles I played in my family. Why should I have been the peacemaker? Why should I have held the stories? I carried anger, resentment, and sadness about these roles for a number of years in my adult life. 

But then, about three years ago, it changed. 

I came to see that beyond playing the roles of peacemaker and listener in my family, I am a peacemaker and listener. These are part of my nature. They are charisms God has given me.

Part of the reason I held those roles in my family is because they’re akin to my nature. 

Today, I love that being a peacemaker and listener are who I am. These gifts make up a large part of what I do with my life today, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

But it doesn’t work out that way for everyone. Some of us played roles in our families that were assigned to us and had nothing to do with who we really are or were. Some of us took up roles because we thought we wanted them, only to learn later that we didn’t. 

What role did you play in your family? How did it impact who you became?

Pieces of Formation: Faith Foundations


What was the faith component of your early years? Was there any? 

I’ve shared in this space previously some of my formative faith foundations — of always having had a sense of the presence of Jesus near me, of being raised Catholic until I was 9 years old, of moving to a nondenominational Christian church after that. It also made a real difference to my formation to be raised by a mother whose faith was personal and real. 

Sometimes I think about the presence of Jesus I’ve always felt near to me, even from my earliest memories, and I wonder why God saw fit to give me that kind of experience of himself. I don’t know the answer to that question. But I do know that the reality of this nearness I’ve experienced has deeply informed my sense of calling in the work that I do. I can see that my knowledge of Jesus and what he’s chosen to share with me of himself is meant to be shared with others. 

In that way, I hope to honor well the gift he’s given me of his nearness.

How would you describe the foundation of faith in your own life? What was your experience of God like in your early years?

Pieces of Formation: Activities and Commitments


I played city softball for three years with my younger sister, and it was pretty much a disastrous experience for me — one around which I felt much shame for many years. In three years of playing, I only hit the ball once. 


Part of the reason I kept playing was because of that secret hope, every time I stepped into the batter’s box, that this would be the time my bat would connect with the ball, this would be the time all those admonitions to “keep my eye on the ball” would make a difference, this would be the time everyone on the bench and in the stands would be surprised. 

But another — even bigger — reason I kept playing every year was because of the annual fundraising competition. It turned out that what I lacked in athletic ability, I made up for in salesmanship. In spades. Three years in a row, my sister and I won the grand cash prize for the most candy bar sales in the entire league.

I was so proud of that accomplishment. 

Side by side, these two realities sat: shame and pride. They taught me much about myself, for good and ill. 

What activities and commitments were part of your growing-up life? How did they impact you?

Pieces of Formation: Ethnicity and Extended Heritage


At a retreat I attended this past June with the artist Jan Richardson, we participated in an exercise on the opening night based on a poem by George Ella Lyon called “Where I’m From.” Through the exercise, we spent wrote lines and stanzas to describe the stories and pieces that make up who we are.

One of my stanzas went like this:

I am from Dan and Sue,

Bob and Dorothy,

Daniel and Frances,

from Mexico and the Irish country,

from potato famine to Minnesota farm country,

from O’Sullivan to Saban to Kack,

married to Serrato

to eventually make me. 

When it comes to my ethnicity and heritage, I come from two different worlds.

The large Irish-Catholic family on my mom’s side made for robust gatherings full of stories and laughter that grew louder as the nights wore on. It was a family of grounding — the Irish and the Catholic backgrounds both contributed to this sense of solid grounding — and it was full of people. (That’s what happens when eight Irish-Catholic siblings have several children each!)

My dad’s side was smaller. Quieter. His father didn’t say much, but I was familiar with his smile. His mother was small but fierce, breaking into Spanish whenever she got mad. They lived a simple life on half an acre in a small town known for its horses and dairy farms. We ate tamales on Christmas. And even though the core family unit of my dad’s family was small, the extended network of my Hispanic heritage often made me feel related to half our town.

Where are you “from”? What stories make up your family of origin?

Pieces of Formation: Personality and Temperament


My mom likes to tell the story that I was the kind of infant who waited patiently to be engaged by others. She would approach my crib or bassinet and find me laying there, awake and alert but quiet as could be, just waiting for someone to come get me. 

That quiet personality remains with me today. I choose quiet mornings. I invite others into stillness. I’m called to work in the deep places of the heart. 

Stillness and calm are two pillars of my true self, and they were with me from my earliest days.

What personality traits emerged for you early on? How have they shaped your choices and your path?

Pieces of Formation: Childhood Friendships

Farmhouse and life.

Flannery O’Connor famously once said, “Anybody who has survived childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days,” and I find this to be so true, especially when it comes to the work of spiritual formation.

Those are the years we took in so much sensory data about life, and what we took in — without our realizing it was even happening — formed and formed and formed us into the people we eventually became.

And so we’re going to continue peeling back the layers of childhood a bit this week, starting with childhood friendships. 

When I look back at my childhood friendships, I notice two main things. 

First, I tended to form one or two really good friendships rather than a lot of them, and this holds true still today. And second, my experiences with group friendships weren’t very positive. 

As connected as these two observations appear on the surface, and there is certainly some connection, they don’t form a perfect one-to-one correspondence. One reason I formed just a couple close friendships rather than many is simply because I’m a very high introvert. Large social gatherings aren’t my preference when it comes to making connections. I’d rather go deep than wide. 

This reality of who I am holds true today, both in my friendships and in the work I do. My life’s work is helping others go to the deep places, and I am best oriented to do that in one-to-one settings.

Concerning group friendships, I think a lot of my negative experiences had to do with the reality of what happens when you gather 7-10 girls in a room. Chaos happens. Backbiting happens. Jealousy happens. Gossip happens. Allegiances happen.

That’s never been my cup of tea. 

We can learn a lot from our childhood friendships. They teach us about ourselves — our preferred way of being in the world and with others — and they teach us how we learned to relate to the world around us, and what we came to believe. 

How did your childhood friendships form you?

Pieces of Formation: Significant Experiences

Shadow work.

When I was in first grade, a girl knocked me backward (metaphorically) with her cruelty, and I careened with shock.

When I was in second grade, a boy cornered me in an isolated area of the playing field at recess and ordered some of his friends to hold my arms behind my body and another one to lift up my dress. 

When I was in third grade, two girls a grade higher than me sneered at my family’s dilapidated station wagon the moment I ducked out of the car and stepped onto the curb outside the school office. 

When I was in fourth grade, my parents sat us down at the kitchen table to tell us they were separating.

Each experience took me by surprise.

I didn’t see them coming. 

And so, I learned to be watchful. 

Guarded. Alert. Untrusting. Prepared with extra contingency plans. Convinced that the world was an unsafe, cruel, cold place, and it was my job to protect myself against it.

It’s no surprise to you, I’m sure, for me to say that significant experiences form us. 

What significant experiences formed you?

Pieces of Formation: Significant Conversations


I learned to read when I was 3 years old.

And not just the rudimentary kind of reading. My mother tells the story that I asked my preschool teacher if I could read a particular book to the class and she — mistakenly — thought I wanted her to read it. When she eventually understood I wanted to read it myself, she thought I had simply memorized it. She was then amazed to discover I could read any book she pulled off the shelf. 

When it came time for kindergarten two years later, my parents wondered: Did I really need to go? So I took a test to determine if I could skip kindergarten and go straight into first grade. 

I remember the day of decision so clearly.

My mother came home from work, and I was playing in the garage. The light shone through the open garage door as she crouched next to me where I played. They’d gotten the results from the test, she said, and I had passed. What did I want to do? 

It took me aback to learn the decision was to be my own.

And so I asked questions. What would I miss if I didn’t go to kindergarten? Fingerpainting. Some fun. And learning to read. But I already know how to read. Yes, my mother said. What would happen if I went to first grade? I’d learn new things, she said. But I would be a year younger than everyone else, and that would be true throughout the rest of my life at school. 

It was a significant conversation.

I learned that my parents entrusted me with major decisions that affected my life. At 5 years old, that was quite something to take in. What trust and respect they had for me and my life. But it was a little scary, too. What did I know at 5 years old would be best for me? What if I chose “wrong”? 

In case you’re curious, I decided to skip kindergarten, and I’ve never once regretted that decision. But I think of that day often — how significant it was to my life. I carried that “younger by a year” decision with me throughout my school career. It was always there, underneath the surface, my being just behind my peers in age, development, and experiences.

What significant conversations of your upbringing shaped your life? What did those conversations teach you about yourself and about others?

Pieces of Formation: Your Family Unit at Birth

Framed by life.

What sort of family were you born into? 

Some of us were born into happy, healthy, and whole families — a mother and father who loved each other, loved us, and eagerly awaited our arrival.

Others of us were born into families less complete than that — a father nowhere to be found, chaotic living conditions, erratic employment, worries of how to survive. Into these conditions, we came. Our arrival may have compounded the difficulties our families faced. We may have been unwanted.

Still others of us were born into situations falling somewhere in between. Our parents were together, but they struggled. Money was tight, but they did the best they could. The list of worries was long, but they clung to God’s promises as they knew how. We were a “surprise” pregnancy, but we were loved.

What were the conditions of your family unit at birth? How did those conditions form the person you became?

Pieces of Formation: An Introduction

Life was here.

I mentioned in a previous post that when I couldn’t sleep one night, I listened to the first few chapters of an audio version of Richard Rohr’s book Falling Upward. I haven’t finished listening to the whole book yet, but an idea he presents early on has been sticking with me. And I’ve found that it makes for a great series topic for us to explore together here.

The idea Rohr presents centers on the concept of a container — namely, the container each one of us forms to make sense of life, our identity, and our interaction with the world. Rohr says the first half of life centers on building the container, while the second half of life concerns discovering what the container is meant to hold.

Basically, this has to do with formation. 

Or at least, that’s what it got me thinking about. 

The work of formation happens in two major phases.

First, it happens unconsciously. We take in data and experiences from the world, and based on that information, we become certain people over the course of our lives, beginning at our youngest age. We make decisions and agreements with ourselves — again, mostly unconciously, though sometimes consciously — about who we will be and how we will interact with the world and what we ultimately believe about it, ourselves, and other people and their relation to us. 

The second phase of formation is intentional. It’s a process of deconstruction and then reconstruction — of looking at the first phase and evaluating it, analyzing it, learning from it, and making decisions for how we want to move forward. 

Not everyone gets to this second intentional phase of formation.

They may be unaware the opportunity is available for them to live more intentional, examined lives. They may be disinterested in that opportunity. They may be flat-out scared. 

But those who choose to step into the second phase find it immensely rewarding. It isn’t easy, of course. Rewarding doesn’t necessarily mean fun. It’s hard work. It’s a long road. It can, indeed, be scary at times. Sometimes it feels, just like the title of Rohr’s book suggests, that we are falling upward with no sense of the ground’s true place anymore. We may discover that the ground is what we once thought the ceiling.

And inside this second major phase of formation, there are many smaller stages by which to move through it.

Despite the difficulty and courage such a journey requires, most who strike out on its path find it to be a rich and rewarding journey — and couldn’t imagine living any other way. Through this process, our lives become our own. We connect with our concept of God and our concept of self and how we fit into the mix. We discover what has been influencing us without our knowledge, and then can consciously pick up or put down those pieces once we’ve examined them.

As Rohr says, we discover who we are and are meant to be, and we live forward with that knowledge. Our lives become intentional.

And so, I’d like to take you through some of that second-phase journey here.

Each day of this series, we’ll look at the different pieces of our formation, a bit like we’re picking up rocks and turning them over in our hands, seeing the colors and shapes and textures. What have been our experiences of life? How have they formed who we’ve become? What do we make of that formation? What questions do we have?

Will you join us for this interior exploration? I hope you will.