Friday, March 31, 2017

From Solitary Prayer to Community, and Back Again

Woodlawn Cemetery, Monroe

(This post is from my book, Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God. Ch. 10, "Praying and Community.")


When I teach my Spiritual Formation classes, I intentionally structure them in a back-and-forth (“ dialectical”1) movement from solitary prayer to small group sharing to large group sharing, then back again to solitary prayer to small group sharing to large group sharing, to solitary prayer… and so on, round and round.

I begin with solitary prayer, and end with sharing in community. It’s a movement from solitude to community, then back into solitude, which leads to community, and so on.

When I teach a seminary class I begin our first session like this.

1) I instruct students to find a quiet place to go alone to pray, using Psalm 23 as their meditative focus. I say, “When God speaks to you, write it down.” (Warning: do not over-direct at this point!)

2) After an hour of alone-prayer with God, return to class. We form small groups of four to five people. Each person shares what God said to them. One person takes notes of this sharing time.

3) After a half hour of doing this, return to class. Each note-taker shares with the entire group the bullet points of what God said to the individuals in their group. During this time, I begin teaching and coaching, and discerning what God is doing.

I’ve found this works well. The energy level of the students is high. The sharing is electric and inspiring. We’re experiencing true Christian community, authentic koinonia.

Koinonia is the biblical Greek word for “community,” or “fellowship.” It comes from the root word koine, which means “common.” True community is formed around commonality. What I and my seminary students have in common, in spite of our many external differences, is Christ in us, the hope of glory. The experience and the sharing revolves around this, and we are captured by it. What happens in our solitary alone-times with God gets shared in community. Good things happen at that point.

Henri Nouwen talks about this in Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit:

"Spiritual formation requires taking not only the inward journey to the heart, but also the outward journey from the heart to community and ministry. Christian spirituality is essentially communal. Spiritual formation is formation in community. One’s personal prayer life can never be understood if it is separated from community life." 2

Solitary praying transforms the heart into a heart for others. A heart for others compels one to engage in community. Without a heart for others, community relationships degenerate into individualism and competition. Spiritual formation always leads to formation to life, in community.

Journey inward, journey outward; journey alone, journey together. Solitary praying is the foundation for authentic community.

(Piippo, John. Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God (Kindle Locations 3188-3212). WestBow Press. Kindle Edition.

1. I like using words like ‘dialectical’ when I teach at seminary. I want students to feel they are getting their money’s worth. "Dialectical" - a back and forth, back and forth movement that, with each movement, goes forward.

2. Henri Nouwen, Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit, Kindle Location 300.