Wednesday, January 11, 2023

From Solitary Prayer to Community, and Back Again

(Dan and Linda,
crossing the Staits of Bosphorus in Istanbul, Turkey)

When I teach my Spiritual Formation classes I structure them in a back-and-forth ("dialectical") movement from solitary prayer, then to small group, then to 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, until the time period ends with large group sharing. 

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, in a month, at Payne Theological Seminary, I will begin our first class session like this.

1) Instruct students to find a quiet place to go alone to pray, using Psalm 23 as their meditative focus. I say, "When God speak 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. Form small groups of 3-4 people. Each person shares what God said to them. One person take notes of this sharing time.

3) After a half hour of doing this, return to class. Each note-taker shares with me and 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, and powerfully. 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 all my seminary students have in common, in spite of our many 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. Many good things happen at that point.

I like the way Henri Nouwen talks about this, in his book 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. Prayer in the spiritual life leads to community, and community to prayer. In community we learn what it means to confess our weakness and to forgive each other. In community we discover our own woundedness, but also a place of healing. In community we learn true humility. Without community, we become individualistic and egocentric. Therefore, spiritual formation always includes formation to life in community." (K 300)

Journey inward, journey outward. Such is the Spirit's movement in authentic Jesus spirituality.