Tuesday, September 02, 2008

What is Group Spiritual Formation?

In the next several posts, I want to offer some theoretical and practical thoughts about group spiritual formation. Maybe the best place to begin is by asking what I mean by "group spiritual formation"?

All Christian life then is communal and all of us have been called by God to help, each in our own unique and personal way, foster this share life in Christ. In light of this, group formation is simply a practical means of exercising this shared responsibility given to each of us in our baptism.

Unlike say group therapy or a support group, group spiritual formation is built on a shared adherence to tradition. (In the current example, this means the Tradition of the Orthodox Church, likewise for a Catholic or Protestant group. ) But while there is a shared commitment to a tradition, the exploration of this tradition as such is not the goal of a spiritual formation group. The goal rather is to allow that tradition, as expressed by the insights of the group members, to serve as a guide for how we live our daily lives.

One touchstone of group formation then is the tradition of the Church as an objective standard. Again unlike psychotherapy that is concerned with the identification and correction of psychopathological tendencies through the strengthening of the ego, group formation is concerned with helping people stand in appreciative openness and gratitude toward the tradition of the Church. Or, to put the matter more directly, the goal of group formation is to make Orthodox Christians who are Orthodox Christians not only in name but in fact.

The other touchstone of group formation is actual life experience and the concerns that emerge from daily life (therapeutic group or support stop here). One brings to the group then not simply insights about the tradition we share, but also how our understanding of that tradition and our life experience mutually interpret each other.

Let me explain.

The Orthodox Church has a very rigorous tradition of fasting. Followed strictly, this means that for something like half the year we don't eat meat, chicken or dairy products, we don't drink alcohol, use olive oil to cook, or (if we are married) engage in sexual relations with our spouse. At the risk of understating the matter, few Orthodox Christians follow this tradition rigorously but our lack of rigor does not admit to only one explanation and, for this reason, only one solution that can be expounded in a Sunday sermon.

In a group formation setting, however, the role of fasting in my spiritual life can be explored with more specificity. How? Well, say the group reads together the various biblical references to fasting, as well as a selection of works from the fathers on fasting. If this was all they did, this would be merely a "group" sermon or catechesis on fasting. What they might also do is have discuss on the demands of their daily life and how, within the limits of that life, they are able in good conscience fulfill the ascetical tradition of the Church. Going beyond this, they might also appropriately challenge each other to a more rigorous asceticism. But just as likely they might also challenge each other to a more balanced approach to asceticism that acknowledge the concrete demands of their own life circumstances,

The point here is this: One's adherence to the Tradition is shaped not only by one's own, personal, views and life circumstances, but also how they are discerned by a small community of brothers or sisters in Christ. As we will see, grounded in a common faith and the grace of baptism, in and through the group, through our times of corporate prayer, silence, reading and mutual reflection, there emerges in and through the group a direction for my life. This isn't to shift responsibility for my life to the group. Nor does it mean that my parish priest, as the spiritual father of the community, has no role in my life. It means only that the spiritual formation group serves to help me be evermore faithfully in the appropriate application of the wisdom of Holy Tradition (which includes the Scriptures and the Fathers) to the concrete circumstances of my own life.

In tomorrow's post I will offer a theological justification of group spiritual formation as a lay ministry grounded in Holy Baptism.

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

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory