July 23, 2006
Spiritual Formation: we’ve already got a proven model, but do we want it?
Recently friends from a major publisher of Sunday school curriculum called me. They were researching trends in spiritual formation, they said, and they thought I might help them.
After a few warm-up questions, they got to the heart of the matter: "What would you recommend for spiritual formation in our time?"
"The monastery," I said.
There was a long pause.
"I'm serious," I said.
Another long pause. "You're going to have to unpack that for us," they finally said.
"It's a proven model," I pointed out, "a model that includes everything we know brings about transformation. What would happen to your life" (I was now turning the question on them) "if you lived in close geographical community and relationship with other people; if you lived in submission to authority; if you practiced silence and simplicity and discipline; if you regularly read the Bible and prayed and meditated on what you read; if you made study part of your life; and if you worked hard in some daily occupation, seeing your labor as full of dignity and offering it to God?"
(I thought, but didn't say, that this is the same general approach followed by YWAM, which started in 1960 and now has 1,000 locations in 149 countries.)
"But not everyone can move into a monastery," they said. True, but we already have the solution: they're called oblates or tertiaries, people who live outside the monastery but who in their daily lives follow the same ideals of sacrifice, simplicity, and service. Or consider the parallel model of Opus Dei, the Catholic organization founded less than a hundred years ago: of its 87,000 members, both men and women, 98 percent are laypeople, and most of those are married.
In fact, to the extent that our local churches are changing people's lives, they're usually approximating this monastic ideal, recreating it on a smaller scale and adapting it for, say, married people who live in subdivisions.
"Okay, but what about the children?" they asked. "What do you do with the children?"
"Actually, monasteries were full of children," I said, "though usually starting at the age of elementary school. From the years 600 to 1000, a period that's been called ?the Benedictine centuries,' the monasteries provided much of the education in Western Europe. And any other questions about what to do with children have already been worked on by the cell-church and house-church movements."
My friendly questioners had a third and final concern: "But you're making it seem as if the culture is something Christians should retreat from, while the emerging church is interested in engaging that culture."
This took some explanation. I do think that as evangelicals we consistently underestimate the power of culture, and our attempts to "be relevant" usually end up as our weakness rather than our strength. But I believe in a certain type of counterculture - in Tim Keller's immortal phrase, "A counterculture for the common good." We create alternate communities that not only pray for the wider world, but also serve that wider world in acts of mercy and justice. Take The Salvation Army--an evangelical approximation of monastic counterculture and discipline, complete with distinctive clothing. In the mid-1880s the Salvation Army took on the audacious goal to end unemployment in Britain. They didn't succeed, but their experiment led to thousands of urban ministries today.
So I return to my original question: What would happen to your life if you lived in close geographical community and relationship with other people; if you lived in submission to authority; if you practiced silence and simplicity and discipline; if you regularly read the Bible and prayed and meditated on what you read; if you made study part of your life; and if you worked hard in some daily occupation, seeing your labor as full of dignity and offering it to God?
At least Saint Benedict thinks you'd become a healthier human being and godlier Christian. And 1,500 years of history would prove him right.