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."

July 23, 2006

Displaying 1–10 of 30 comments


August 29, 2006  1:04am

I don't know that I have much by way of substance to add to this conversation. But I do have my own experience. I served as a Dean of Men at Covenant Bible College in Canada for two years. CBC is an intentional community focussed on discipleship for college aged students. I have served the Church for 10 years and those two years were the only two in which I felt like I was actually a part of something that was really about spiritual formation. That is my 2 cents.

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Lyle SmithGraybeal

August 22, 2006  9:16pm

The Northumbria Community, which is rooted in and branches out of the Celtic Christian tradition, is another helpful resource for this conversation. They actually have their hands in two pots, the Celts and Anglicanism, so much so that they developed a resource called Celtic Daily Prayer (HarperSanFrancisco) which includes a daily Anglican style office with Celtic content and many helpful readings from Celtic saints. While they do have a worshiping community in NE England and the daily office that hold them together, companions and friends of the community are worldwide. For some, the community life is their church; for others, it is a supplement to local congregation participation. http://www.northumbriacommunity.org/

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Kevin Miller

August 05, 2006  9:22am

Thanks, Graham, for your kind replies. A few thoughts on your points: #1 and #2: I agree. I would not want to reduce spirituality to any one model. My point is that the monastic and monastic-like models offer value for today. #3: Yes, the original ascetic impulse, beginning in the third century, was heroic and to some degree elitist. However, that elitism was greatly tempered by Cassian and Benedict, and then even more tempered by the English Reformers (who kept morning and evening prayer) and others since then. #4: The Salvation Army and Puritans, while not being precisely monastic, are closer to the model than are almost any local churches today. #5: My read of monasticism in the Middle Ages is that it was both in the culture and countercultural. Which of those two dominated probably varied from house to house and region to region and century to century.

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Graham Veale

August 03, 2006  11:16am

Kevin, I've thought overnight, re-read the posts, and I think that I can sum up my concerns with a little more clarity. 1) I don't think that we can develop a simple six or seven step programme to Spiritual growth. The guidance of our Saviour and Paul seem to be much more complex. I think the New Testament teaching on Spiritual Growth resists reduction to a Model. 2) I think that this is because individuals and communities are too complex for one approach to Spirituality. 3) I think that the Monastic model was essentially elitist - it was always viewed as a higher path of devotion. That is why it was and is imitated. The imitating communities want in on the Higher Way. 4) If the Puritans and the Salvation Army are Monastic, so is everyone else. Family resemblance between spiritual practice in two groups does not mean that the different movements are essentially the same. If that is the case, Muslims are Jews, and Buddhists are Hindus. 5) In any case by the middle ages Monasticism was anything but counter cultural - it played an essential role in the culture of the day. The economic success of many of the Monastic communities marked them out not only for calumny, but also justified criticism. That said I have found your thoughts and arguments very helpful.

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graham veale

August 02, 2006  9:52am

Kevin - Thanks for the response, and for some tough arguments. That was a neat piece of Rhetoric siding me with Henry the Eighth. I'm concerned with what actually went on in mediaeval monasteries - or ancient monasteries for that matter. They produced quite a bit of corruption alongside spiritual growth - especially when they took on the important social role of saying masses for the confraternities, or the wealthy. My main concern, though, is with the very idea of providing a MODEL of spiritual growth. This seems very managerial, very American. Perhaps I'm misreading you, and if so I apologise. In any case, thanks for taking the time to argue back - I've found it very helpful

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August 01, 2006  8:56am

An American model in this style is the Church of the Savior in Washington D.C. It has struggled with and adapted the essence of the monastic life to fit the needs of the modern world since 1946. http://www.inwardoutward.org/?page_id=7

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Paul Goddard

July 31, 2006  2:49pm

I find the discussion refreshing, but want to add a more recent historical thought. It is interesting that some things come around again and again. Back in the 70's many young people seeking to love Jesus fully, gathered in communities to more fully understand and grow in faith. These experiments were not a panacea and sin often messed up good intentions. There was a "headship" movement also that sought to implement some of what has been discussed above. It too forgot to account for sin and often resulted in abuses of authority. I know of a couple who opened there home to young people to form a community of life and faith. It was refreshing and sweet. However, after many years their own children rose into leadership, decided to become Roman Catholic, and kicked their parents out of the community. Go figure.

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July 26, 2006  9:16pm

I have participated in 3 separate "retreat" days with small groups of women (5-6)using the Liturgy of the Hours to set the pace of the day. When planning the first one I was skeptical that we could accomplish all that we set out to do and keep to the schedule. We observed the hours from Lauds to Compline and incorporated quiet time, a service project, exercise, rest, play as well as cooking and eating together. To all our amazement the flow of the day went as planned and we felt at peace within and without. We often reflect on the perfect balance of the day and how to incorporate it into the daily life of today's culture.

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July 26, 2006  6:37pm

The thing about the Family, Janet, is that, for starters not everyone has the benefit of being immersed in family life. Second, the nuclear family is a recent development (the past 100 years or so).

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Jamie Arpin-Ricci

July 26, 2006  11:35am

It is interesting that you should mention YWAM, as I find it provides a good example of what you are mentioning. My desire, as someone who is part of the mission, is to see YWAM be more intentional about its monastic approach AND be more intentional in embracing those outside its immediate members. Great thoughts! Peace, Jamie

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