Thursday, September 04, 2008

The "Mechanics" of Group Spiritual Formation: Prayer & Text

Group spiritual formation is not group therapy, an adult religious education, or group sharing. Nor, I hasten to add, is it an occasion for sermonizing by either a lay or clergy leader.

It is rather a prayerful conversation in which the group members help each other discover and incarnate who they are and are called to be in Christ. In other words, the goal of the group is self-knowledge and self-mastery in Christ. The means of accomplishing this two-sided goal is a conversation that is both rooted in, and leads to, prayer.

The twin goals of self-discovery and self-mastery might see odd to many. In more typical Orthodox theological language we might say that the concern of group formation is vocation (i.e., self-knowledge in Christ) and ascetical (i.e., self-mastery in the service of living out who I am in Christ). In this post I am less concerned with the teleos of this process and more in briefly describing in a practical fashion the process of the spiritual formation group itself.

The formation group itself begins and ends with prayer. In an Orthodox Christian context there are a number of different options for the opening prayer. For a more formal beginning, we might gather to pray Vespers, one or more of the Hours, an Akathist or Moleben. Less formally, the group might recite the Jesus Prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner") with the group leader reciting say the first half of the prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God. . . ") with the group either singularly or corporately responding with the conclusion (". . . have mercy on me a sinner"). Another option is for the leader to read a short passage from Scripture or a spiritual text, followed by a time of silence. As a personal matter, I find the more informal approach, limited to 2-3 minutes, to be more effective than a formal service.

However the group beings, I find it best for the group to conclude with silence. Early on the group as a group may only be able to tolerate a minute or two of silence before people begin to fidget. As the members of the group become more familiar with each other the silence can be extended and take up a larger percentage of their time together. In a group that lasts approximately 90 minutes, 10 or 15 minutes or even more time can be given over to the concluding period of silence.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

As a practical matter, I find it best to focus the group's time together around a classical spiritual text. There is a wide-range of works that can be used and they should be selected with an eye not only to their centrality to the Tradition of the Church, but also the needs of the group members. This means that we need to take into account the difficulty of the text in terms of language and concepts, length, and the "existential" distance between the text and the group members.

So for example, in the first spiritual formation group I lead as a graduate student we used The Way of the Pilgrim. The text itself has come to hold a central place in not only Orthodox spirituality but is valued by Catholic and Protestant readers as well. The text itself is easy to read and is not overly demanding either intellectually or emotionally for the average reader. And while the Pilgrim whose adventures are chronicled is a Russian peasant wandering through 19th century Russia, the basic themes he addresses are very basic human themes, for example, grief, disappointment, and fear.

St John Climacus's The Ladder of Divine Ascent, on the other, is unlikely to prove effective especially for a beginning group. The work is long, culturally alien and is narrowly concerned with the experience of early Christian monastics. Again, this doesn't mean that the book shouldn't be used, only that it may not be as effective text for a general audience as say St John Cassian's On the Eight Vices which, while also quite challenging, is a shorter, more focused and accessible work for the average adult.

Also helpful are works of a more theological or systematic nature. I'm thinking here of Bishop Kallistos (Ware) The Orthodox Way, Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom), The Courage to Pray, Fr Alexander Schmemann's Great Lent: Journey to Pascha, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodox, or Of Water and the Spirit: A Liturgical Study of Baptism.

Novels and short fiction is also a possibility. And of course there is Scripture. But whatever text is used it must be not only generally accessible but classical text. We ought to avoid more marginal or specialized works.

Whatever is read, is best read according to a schedule so that the group members can focus their reading and thoughts on the same section of the text. Failure to do so usually results in some group members reading ahead, others lagging behind, and no one on the same page. When people really are not really basing their reflection on a common text there is a tendency to substitute one's own idiosyncratic (and not infrequently, narcissistic) views on the spiritual life for a shared response to the Christian tradition.

In my next post, I will look at how this shared response might be structured.

As always, your questions, comments, criticism are most welcome and actively sought.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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