An Example of Theological Reflection: Preparing for Advent

The outline that follows this example is designed for use in Advent but can be configured to suit any season or occasion. It is loosely based on “Beginning with Tradition I & II” from Patricia O’Connell Killen and John de Beer’s book, The Art of Theological Reflection. Your group may wish to meet over the course of three consecutive weeks, days, or complete the reflection as part of a full-day retreat.

If you are interested in seeing the complete outline of this fictional example, or would like to commission me to design an outline for use in your church for any season, please contact me using this form.

It is the first week of September and the parish art committee is gathering for the first of three meetings to reflect on the season of Advent.

With eight weeks to plan and create a single installation of art that will adorn the church during Advent, everyone present understands the first step is to reflect on the meaning of Advent, to break it open, in a way that inspires the creation of that season’s liturgical art.

The group has been instructed to leave their preconceived ideas at home and to be open and present to the group process. What emerges can never be predicted; therefore the necessary posture of each participant must be an open mind, an un-rushed, spacious and generous attitude toward the wisdom of the group.

Prior to the first meeting, the facilitator and the liturgy director met to discuss the pastor’s focus for Advent. The facilitator, who is familiar with the culture of the parish and the issues that are important to them, then designs a theological reflection that respects both details.

The room has an adequate number of chairs arranged in a semi-circle facing a plain wall that is large enough to hang several poster-sized sheets of white paper. The size of the room should be able to accommodate four small groups. Supplies needed are thick markers of various colors (protect your walls and avoid permanent markers, or use easels—you will need one for each small group), a pad of plain white presentation paper, strong removable poster tape, and enough printed copies of the opening prayer and the Scripture passages.

Because the facilitator understands that good hospitality includes ensuring every person feels welcome, she begins with an icebreaker and introductions. Next she restates the purpose of the reflection, gives a brief instruction on the process, and leads an opening prayer.

The goal is to identify a symbolic or illustrative image or metaphor from the Advent readings which can be used to create Liturgical art. In the process, some members may discover new truths related both to the Advent season and their own personal experiences.

Briefly, the group will begin by exploring selected readings for the four weeks of Advent from which they will locate a common theme, feeling, or experience (the “Heart of the Matter”). Next, members will reflect and share stories or experiences that resonate with the theme. Feelings which emerge from the telling of these stories lead to the identification of symbols, images or metaphors which can be translated into meaningful and contemplative art in service to the Liturgy. Art may then be created by the group, an art and environment committee, or commissioned to an artist, or created in community under the direction of an artist.

……

SESSION ONE:
Breaking open the Word and Identifying the Scriptural “Heart of the Matter”

Preparation:

  • Room is set up with chairs arranged in a semi-circle facing a plain wall.
  • Have several large sheets of presentation paper or an easel pad positioned in the front of the room, a roll of masking tape, and a variety of large colored markers.
  • Prepare handouts with the readings, or have adequate quantities of the Bible available.
  • Place a single candle on a draped table for the environment if desired.
  • Locate or write a simple prayer to begin your session.
  • In order to avoid influencing the direction of the reflection, do not add any additional symbols to your environment or the opening prayer.

1: Opening prayer and goal setting. The facilitator opens with a prayer, then welcomes everyone (optional icebreaker if it’s a new group), states the purpose of the Theological Reflection, and introduces the work of the first meeting: contemplating the four Advent Gospels.

2: Read the Scripture: The first of the four Advent Gospels is read aloud. Group members are instructed to hear it as if for the first time, with the ear of their heart, and to envision themselves as witnesses to the action. After a moment, the Gospel is read a second time. Allow a few moments of silence.

3: Break the story open:Next, the facilitator poses the following questions to the group and records the responses on a large sheet of presentation paper hung on the wall or propped on an easel. Divide the paper into three sections, one section for each question.

  1. What is happening in the story, what is the progression of what takes place? (Identify who, what where, when, but do not interpret its meaning.)
  2. What might the characters have experienced? (If needed, name the characters and assign the feelings to them.)
  3. What feelings did you experience when hearing the story?

4: Repeat steps 1 and 2 for each of the four Gospels: There should be four sheets of paper, one for each of the four readings. [Note, to save time the larger group can also be divided into four smaller groups, each taking one of the four gospel readings, but individual experiences will be less cohesive.]

5: Correlate the findings:The group now begins to review, discuss, and identify common threads across all four Gospels.  As correlations are identified, they are circled.

6: Identify the Scriptural Heart of the Matter: The group is instructed to identify, by a vote, the one common feeling or theme for all four readings. This is called the “Heart of the Matter” and it is written in the center of a new sheet of paper.

  1. For example’s sake, let’s say the Heart of the Matter is “Be Prepared.”

7: Homework is assigned:  Participants are given an assignment to write a brief 100-150 word narrative, focusing on the facts (who, what, where, when) and avoiding the use of adjectives (feeling words) that resonates with the identified “heart of the matter.” A starting point is to ask, “Think of a situation in my life when I felt, experienced, and/or witnessed something like the “heart of the matter.” These narratives will be shared in the second session. The goal is to allow the feelings of the listener to emerge as they enter the story being told by the author. (much like how we hear the Gospels)

As an alternative starting point, participants can be invited write about a public, local, or global situation or something dear to the community that connects the heart of the matter to the larger community. Regardless of the source of the stories (personal or communal), each participant must do the same thing. If this TR is taking place during a full day retreat, allow participants 45 minutes to an hour to complete this part.

(End of session one)

If you are interested in seeing the complete outline of this fictional example, or would like to commission an outline for use your church for any season, please contact me using this form.

RECOMMENDED READING: Several books on Theological Reflection are available, but the above fictional example was based on the model found in Patricia O’Connell Killen and John de Beer’s The Art of Theological Reflection. Others include Method in Ministry: Theological Reflection and Christian Ministry by James D. Whitehead and Evelyn Eaton Whitehead, and What Are They Saying about Theological Reflection? by Robert L. Kinast.  This website cannot do justice to the limitless combinations of sources, materials, questions, determinations, correlations and only seeks to provide a definition and sample illustrations.


[1] Patricia O’Connell Killen and John de Beer. The Art of Theological Reflection. (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1994)

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