Thursday, August 14, 2008

Theology Isn’t Enough, We Need Spiritual Formation

It was the spirituality of the Church that attracted me first to Orthodoxy.

By spirituality, I mean the whole package of the Orthodox Christian life: not only Liturgy and theology, but fasting, icons, art, architecture and music. Truth be told, even though I became Orthodox later in life, I also find the various and sundry ethnic customs (at least in small doses) to be life-giving.

From a more systematic point of view, what I was attracted to was the anthropological vision of Eastern Christianity. Above all, it was the idea that salvation as theosis, that is deification or participation in Divine Life and the spiritual life as therapeutic, that really captured my heart.

Begging your indulgence, I'll skip the examples, and simply say in recent years I've come to the rather uncomfortable conclusion that the things which most attracted me to the Eastern Church are honored more in the gap then in practice by most Orthodox Christians.

As I have thought and prayed about this state of affairs, I have found my own priesthood more and more concerned with the spiritual formation of the laity. Especially in the parish, it is spiritual formation, which is most neglected in the life of the Church or so, I would say based on my own pastoral experience and my conversations with both clergy and laity.

What, you might ask, do I mean by spiritual formation? Simply, spiritual formation is the art and science of helping people shape their lives according to the Tradition of the Church in light of their own vocation and the concrete circumstances in which they live. Or, to put it more simply, spiritual formation is about the application of faith to daily life.

This then becomes the central question of my own ministry as a priest and scholar: Together with the whole Church, how do I help the people Christ has entrusted to my care apply the faith and spirituality of the Church to their daily lives?

Answering this question in practice is significantly more involved than simply celebrating the various liturgical services of the Church and teaching people the catechism. Yes, the services and the catechism are important—but their importance is structural. They provide us with the grammar and vocabulary of the Christian life to be sure and so are essential. But as anyone who has tried to learn a foreign language (and I have failed to learn, in order, Spanish, German, Latin, Hebrew and Greek), competency, much less fluency, requires much more than simply knowing grammar and vocabulary. As for eloquence—while this requires that we not simply think in German, for example, but do so "thoughtlessly"—that is, without effort, naturally and fearlessly.

And this brings me back to the formation of the laity (and we ought not to forget, since we draw our clergy from the laity—a deficit in lay formation means a later deficiency in the spiritual formation and leadership provided by the clergy for the laity). While the tradition of the Orthodox Church is almost unimaginably rich, it seems to me that we seriously neglect the formation of our laity (and so necessarily of our clergy, but that is for another day). While some would object to this, I would simply point to the findings of the recent Pew Charitable Trust study of religion in America. Almost a third of those baptized as infants leave the Church as adults. Only about a third of all Orthodox Christians attend Liturgy on a weekly basis. And how can we think we are succeeding in the formation of the laity when over half those who joined the Orthodox Church as adults will eventually leave?

Whatever may be the tradition moral teaching of the Church, the findings of the Pew Survey reports that we are, in the main, a pro-choice and pro-gay rights community (these later two, I should add, have not gone unnoticed by those outside the Church. See for example the posts found in the Catholic blog The Black Cordelias, here and here.) Combined all this with the relatively low rates of participation in Holy Communion and even fewer who come to Holy Confession and a picture of a spiritual weak laity comes quickly into focus.

Somehow, for all that we talk about the Fathers, about being the Church that never changes, about being the True Church and holding to the Historic Christian faith where are found the fullness of the means of salvation, for all that we easily, even glibly, point out the failures of Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Mainline Protestants, Evangelicals Christians, in practice Orthodox Christians are often no better and in some case worse.

As I said in an earlier post on preaching, spiritual formation needs to be Christ-centered and systematic. It must also take into account the unique vocation and life circumstances of the person and/or community. Too much of what we do, I fear, is not done systematically and done with only a vague understanding of the life circumstances of the laity. As I pointed out in an earlier post on the response of the Orthodox Church to same-sex marriage, to simply assert that an issue is not compatible with the tradition of the Church, or, as the Orthodox Peace Fellowship did in response to the US invasion of Iraq did with the just war doctrine, assert that a given moral issue is not addressed in the tradition, is insufficient. As with Bishop Hilarion argument about theology so to the pastoral life with the Church: "It must be patristic, faithful to the spirit and vision of the Fathers, ad mentem Patrum. Yet it also must be neo-patristic, since it is to be addressed to the new age, with its own problems and queries."

Orthodox spiritual formation is, or rather should be, both patristic and neo-patristic. Especially as it pertains to historical, dogmatic, and liturgical matters we excel as a community on the patristic side of the question. But we have very far to go in fulfilling the "neo-patristic" dimension of our tradition, especially as it pertains to parish ministry.

In the next few post, I hope to address this lacuna in Orthodox practice by looking at (1) the contribution of the social and human sciences to spirituality,(2) the practical elements of spiritual formation in groups, and (3) some ecumenical possibilities that I think are worth exploring.

As always, your comments, questions and criticism are not only welcome, but encouraged.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Print this post