In all my time at seminary I don’t recall anyone saying to me, “To learn how to be a minister, you should pray.”
Nor do I recall anyone saying, “You will need to attend to your own spiritual practice in order to sustain your vocation.”
I might not have been listening.
It is entirely possible that someone spoke this way. And I completely missed it.
I’m pretty sure, however, that not a single person said to me during those years . . . “the most profound way to pray will be in complete and total silence and darkness.”
(For the Baptists reading this post, you now recognize that I did not take Glenn Hinson’s courses. Any of them. Which is worth a long lament all by itself.)
Now I did hear prayers. In class. And I studied some, and I wrote some. I studied those who did pray as a vocation, like John of the Cross and Julianne of Norwich. I led worship and prayed in class and for the community. All this in seminary. And yet . . .
Okay. So I just looked. Turns out I read and underlined the chapter “The Spiritual Development of the Minister” in my copy of Formation for Christian Ministry, a book written and edited by Southern Seminary professors. The chapter was written by Bill Leonard. And it makes some really fine points, including those above that I don’t recall ever hearing. Even though I read them, apparently. Twice in fact. The marginalia includes both pencil and red pen. . . .
This moment brought to you by “Learning is a Slow Process, International.” I am their poster child.
Actually my failed memory makes my point.
Learning to pray is no simple matter, and even when teachers teach, we often miss the point. And if you grew up in a noisy tradition as I did, it is hard to find enough silence to begin the deeper work of prayer.
Another of my teachers, Dan Aleshire, did say, indirectly when he assigned Richard Foster’s book Celebration of Discipline, that prayer is important. My fellow classmates and I read it and tried to find our way in it.
Actually that book put me on an important pathway of prayer. It was not actually one of the 12 paths commended by Foster, but rather it was journaling. I was already accustomed to writing my way out of things, to writing down things I’d done, to writing prayers. So what Foster’s book did was urge me and encourage me to make a daily habit of it.
When I set out on my summer of field education after my first semester of seminary in 1990, I dedicated myself to journaling every day. The practice has served me and nurtured me for over 20 years now. (Dang that makes me feel old.)
That form of praying authentically – through writing my life – has led me slowly, sometimes painfully, to other deeper practices of spirituality. I tell pieces of that story all over this blog. You can search “prayer” or read a bit of it here.
Now when I teach I try to say to my students
* To learn how to be a minister, you should pray.
* You will need to attend to your own spiritual practice in order to sustain your vocation.
* The most profound way to pray will be in complete and total silence and darkness.
More importantly, I try to lead them through experiences of prayer that help them conclude these things for themselves. But I say them, too. Because when we are beginning something new, we need to hear the rules, the advice, the proverbs of wisdom. We only learn what they mean over time as they sink into our bodies and minds, as we participate in “Learning is a Slow Process, International.”
I ran across this today while preparing to write a paper on ethnography and theology grounded in the practice of shared silence. Thomas Merton wrote to a friend:
“The message of hope the contemplative offers you . . . is . . . that whether you understand or not, God loves you, is present in you, lives in you, dwells in you, calls you, saves you, and offers you an understanding and light which are like nothing you have ever found in books or heard in sermons. The contemplative has nothing to tell you except to reassure you and say that if you dare to penetrate your own silence and risk the sharing of that solitude with the lonely other who seeks God through you, then you will truly recover the light and the capacity to understand what is beyond words and beyond explanations because it is too close to be explained: it is the intimate union in the depths of your own heart, of God’s spirit and your own secret inmost self, so that you and God* are in all truth One Spirit.”**
This bit from Merton gets close to the deeper reasons buried in my practical advice to those contemplating a call to ministry. It comes closer to saying why I keep at it morning after morning, week after week and year after year.
4. Pray. Every. Day. Figure out what form of prayer you are called to, and do it. Twenty-one days to start. Don’t miss a day in that first three weeks if you want it to last. Don’t just dabble. Find a practice that engages you and let it begin changing your body and mind and heart by helping you attend to the presence of God every day, every breath.***
* changed for inclusive language
** “Letter to Dom Francis Decroix, August 22, 1967, HGL 159” in Thomas Merton, Essential Writings (Orbis, 2003), 53-54.
*** This post is the fourth in a series which unpacks my “practical advice for young women (and others) considering a call to ministry.”