I am going to be spending the next five days at St. Gregory's Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Shawnee, Oklahoma. The week is part of an optional two credit hour class being offered as part of my masters in theology degree program at the Perkins School of Theology at SMU.
The class was announced in March and piqued my interest. I mentioned it to my mom off-hand and she really encouraged me to take advantage of the opportunity. As a Protestant Christian I had not ever been exposed to monasticism, met a monk or nun, or even visited a monastery.
Fortunately, my church history courses this past year helped me develop a keen appreciation of the important role monasticism has played in Christianity as well as the development and preservation of Western civilization. Between the beginnings of the monastic movement in the fourth century and the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, virtually every important church leader, theologian, or mystic was part of the monastic movement.
I believe that God often sends his messengers – known as angels in the Bible – in the guise of humans, usually ones that are well known to us. How often do we wait for some kind of visionary answer to a prayer when perhaps God sent one of our close friends with the answer for us? In my mom’s encouragement I heard an opportunity to experience something I had not yet experienced, an opportunity to better understand one way that Christians have connected to God for 1500 years, an opportunity to participate in something that has been passed down from generation to generation, an opportunity to learn by participation, and an opportunity to make some new relationships.
The course is being taught by Dr. Fred Schmidt, who is director of the spiritual formation program at Perkins, and the director of spiritual formation for the abbey. Academic theology programs can concentrate so heavily on the informational side of the Christian experience that they often lose the experiential side of Christianity. The basic idea behind a spiritual formation program is that how we know God is just as important, perhaps more important, than what we know about God. A spiritual formation program helps students understand the spiritual disciplines – prayer, study, fasting, service, accountability, and others – that have historically helped Christians develop an improved sense of God’s presence in their lives. Perkins requires all students to participate in its spiritual formation program, which based on my experience of the last year I would say is an excellent requirement. In nine months I learned more about prayer, Bible study, and the other disciplines than I had in my entire life in the church. It has been a powerful experience that has deepened my relationship and conversations with God.
Part of the course requirement, as I understand it, is that I keep a journal of my experience. Because so many of my friends are curious about what will happen, I hope to be able to share my experience with them through this web-log (blog). I hope you enjoy it.