Seeking God in prayer is the most important thing seminarians will pursue in preparing for ministry,
and it cannot be done solely in isolation.
By Molly T. Marshall
President and Professor of Theology and Spiritual Formation at Central Baptist Theological Seminary.
Twenty years ago few Baptist seminaries used the language of “spiritual formation” or “spirituality.” That was thought to be a Roman Catholic term, and while Baptists used terms like “discipleship” or “piety,” we had yet to probe the common pre-Reformation heritage of the church.
The quest for spiritual depth that has ensued over the past 30 years has broadened Baptist boundaries, and we continue to learn practices followed among other members in the Body of Christ.
Attending academies of spiritual formation, visiting retreat centers and reading the works of authors like Nouwen, Merton, Bondi and others has acquainted us with historical figures absent from our free-church identity.
Learning new forms of prayer has been at the heart of this quest. My primary teachers in this have been Benedictine monks -- first at St. Meinrad, Ind., then at St. John’s in Collegeville, Minn., and now at Conception Abbey in northwest Missouri. Hospitable communities, these monasteries welcome guests to enter the praying life of the community.
The staple of their prayer life is the Psalter, and at five liturgical hours of the day they gather to voice their praise, their lament and their petition as found in these ancient texts, which stretch over 3,000 years. This is the work of God (Opus Dei), “to which nothing is to be preferred,” according to the Rule of St. Benedictine, the guide for these communities for over 1,500 years.
Spending a sabbatical at St. John’s allowed me to participate in these daily rhythms of prayer. I soon learned that prayer frames the day more than work or mealtime. Whatever one might be doing, when the abbey bells sound, one makes her or his way to join the community in prayer. Ora et labora -- prayer and work -- closely interface and shape waking hours. Some might suggest that prayer begins before waking hours.
Communal prayer is not the only form of prayer, however. Individually monks practice lectio divina, a patient and prayerful reading of Scripture. Continuous reading of Scripture, taken in small portions, allows them to feed on the “bread of the word.” This allows Scripture to plow the soil of the heart, making it receptive to the movement of God. Scripture both speaks the word of God and gives grammar for one’s speech about God.
In my role as a teacher of spiritual formation, I introduce students to these places and practices of prayer. I want them to learn that seeking God in prayer is the most important thing they will pursue in preparing for ministry, and it cannot be done solely in isolation.
Roberta Bondi offers a winsome definition of prayer as “shared life with God.” This suggests that there are varieties of approaches to prayer -- silence being among them. Grounded in Scripture, community and friendship, fledgling ministers find sustaining nourishment for lives of service. Drawing near to God is also drawing near to others, as Dorotheos of Gaza taught; and drawing near to others propels us closer to God.
The monks know this well. One’s sister or brother, then, is not an impediment to knowing God, but is often the means. As my friend Fr. Killian put it, “how could I learn patience without sitting for 40 years in the choir by my brother who is both tone deaf and has bad breath?” Sharing in prayer prompts unity, and in the Spirit persons bear the strain of their differences.
A couple of times a year I take students with me to Conception Abbey to learn these lessons of prayer in their community. While I do not expect our seminarians to take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience -- at least not in the same form as the monks -- I want them to learn ways to seek God that will nourish faithfulness in life and ministry.
Praying with the monks has offered assistance in that, and these patient teachers mark their lives.