Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Why Group Spiritual Formation

Having explored yesterday what I mean by group spiritual formation, I want in this post to offer a justification for it as a potential area of lay ministry in the Church.

The tradition of the Orthodox Church is incredibly rich in not only theological insight, but also anthropological wisdom. At the same time the very depth and breadth of the tradition tends to lull us into a mindset that assumes--wrongly I would argue--that the tradition is (to use a contemporary phrase) turnkey. All I need to do, so the thinking goes, is simply listen to my spiritual father, go to church, keep the fasts, go to confession and say my daily prayers and I am living an Orthodox life. Most Orthodox priests, and not a few attentive lay people, will tell you that this approach to the spiritual life is at best naive and at worst self-deceptive.

Living a wholesome spiritual life requires instruction and guidance. This is why Orthodox Christians place such a value on the office of spiritual father or mother. We all of us need a guide in the spiritual life. In my own pastoral experience however, I've found that my own ability to guide people is somewhat limited. In part this reflects my own limits both profound and mundane. Even assuming that I could overcome the more substantial of my limitations, I often find (as most priests do) that I do not always have the time or energy to offer guidance to everyone who might want my attention.

Beyond my own limitations though, I often discover real limitations in the people who seek guidance from me. At times these limitations are benign; a lack of sound catechesis being the prime deficient to be overcome. Other times there are underlying psychopathologies that are more appropriately engaged by a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist. And for still others, their motivation in seeking me out has little if anything to do with growing in the spiritual life and more to do with an almost compulsive need to have an external authority figure in their lives.

These, and other limitations, aside however it seems to me that the biggest pastoral challenge we face as Orthodox Christians (and I think this is also a problem for Catholics, Anglicans and any other Christian tradition that takes seriously the demands of the inner life) is our tendency to want to limit the work of spiritual formation to as few people as possible. In a word, we have clericalized (or maybe more accurately, monasticized) the work of spiritual formation.

Partly this has happened because of a lack of sound catechesis for the laity. Though we are the inheritors of a rich theological tradition, few among the laity have even a basic grasp of the catechism. Absent this knowledge, much of the work of spiritual formation necessarily becomes remedial in nature and so limited to "experts" if I may use this term in reference to the spiritual life.

But I also think that our limiting spiritual formation work to the clergy and monastics also reflects a fundamental lack of appreciation of the Mystery of Holy Baptism and the call of each of us to serve as priest, prophet and king in Christ. Even absent moral, spiritual or educational reasons that would preclude a lay person engaging in the ministry, we simply they are not capable of engaging in the work of spiritual formation. We live as if lay people are not able to offer guidance for one and other. But whether true or not, if this is our working assumption, what does this say about the spiritual state of the Church as a body of believers in general and about the effectiveness of the clergy in particular as spiritual fathers for our respective diocesan and parochial communities? If the laity cannot serve as priests, prophets and kings within the Church (albeit with the guidance of the clergy) how can they fulfill these same offices outside the Church in evangelistic or philanthropic ministries?

Establishing and encouraging the work of group spiritual formation as a lay ministry guided by the clergy, or so I would suggest, is potentially a way for parish priests help lay people come to appreciate not only in a general sense the baptismal call of the whole Body of Christ to serve as priest, prophet and king, but also to do so in a specific sense within the context of their own daily lives. But this raises a question: How do we do the work of group spiritual formation?

Unus Christianus, nullus Christianus, one Christian is no Christian. The very word "church," reminds us that our Christian life is lived as a member of a community, of a group, or fellowship of believers, called together in Christ, by the command of God the Father, and through the work of the Holy Spirit. Further, as the Apostle Paul reminds us, we are all of us given gifts, charisms, for the building up of the Body of Christ, for those men and women with whom we have been gathered together. In fact, let me push this further, not only are we given gifts for the Church, it is only through these gifts and their exercise, that we can in truth claim to be in communion with Christ and His Body the Church. The charisms are given to each of us in baptism and are the links, or if you'd rather, points of contact and communion between the person and the Church. Failure to exercise these charisms means that we fail to live the very communion we profess.

In tomorrow's post I will briefly outline the "mechanics" of how we can offer these gifts to each other in a group setting.

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

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory