In the decades bridging the middle of the second century A.D. with the middle of the third, the desert of Egypt transformed from an empty wasteland to a unique Christian community. Into the silence of the wilderness streamed men and women from the cities of North Africa, Asia Minor, and the Mediterranean basin. They came from varied backgrounds, but all sought the same thing―a hermit’s life of prayer and ascetic separation from worldly concerns.
Those concerns were many—and conflicted. The years of the emperor Diocletian saw, in 303, the last “great” state-sanctioned Roman persecution of Christians. By 313, Christianity in Egypt was legalized by Diocletian’s successor Constantine, and fast on its way to becoming not only culturally acceptable, but also culturally promoted.
Ironically, it was that promotion—not the former persecution—that galvanized the exodus of a few hermits into what became a major Christian movement. More and more seekers, disturbed by the compromises of church with state, felt the need to flee. And so they did—in the thousands. “The desert had become a city,” Athanasius would eventually write in his biography of Anthony, the great desert trendsetter. And so the desert had.
The “desert fathers and mothers,” as these men and women came to be called, would only be a footnote in Christian history though, if the initial pull to be hermits—individuals truly cut off from human connection for prayer—had won. Instead, in a movement that would come to shape Christian history, those who fled to the desert did not abandon community. In fact, even in the wilderness, community flourished. Beginning with informal clusters of hermits and solitaries coming together for the sharing of practical needs, prayer, and the occasional celebratory meal, small communities formed. These, as the seasons passed, became more organized, finding practices in community to support their individual journeys of prayer. As years rolled on, the desert monastics became a living legacy. Today, it is difficult to trace a Christian tradition that has not benefitted from their experience passed on through the centuries.
Individuals in Community
The desert fathers and mothers are the starkest example I can think of to illustrate a principle quietly at work in our own churches. It is this: our individual spiritual lives need community, and our communities need robust, vibrant, individual Christians. A great part of an effective leader’s contribution is learning how to promote the growth of both at the expense of neither.
Pastors and group leaders typically gravitate toward one option or the other. They either encourage and support the growth of personally vibrant, devotionally grounded individuals who cluster from time to time into loose groupings called “church,” or skew to the opposite pole, and create communities that scurry like ants, yet do little to promote a deep and personal spiritual life for their members once the frenzy ceases. (After reading that, take a moment to ponder which type of leader you are.)
Spiritual health, like so many truths of ministry, is found in the balance. There is nothing that can replace a personal and growing devotional life with God—a life of daily prayer and rhythm, of nurturing the profound inner secret of one’s faith in Jesus. To downplay this individual life and relationship means spiritual disaster for any of us, for we can only live Christ’s life when it is becoming our life, incapable of being truly described to another, so personal it is, so rooted in that place in our soul that is beyond language.
No inner journey, however rich it may be, can replace a life in Christian community. Followers of Jesus are called to others—called to eat with them, to drink with them, to feast and fast with them, to laugh and weep with them, to read and pray with them.
Many leaders experience this truth intuitively. However, we need to discover it intentionally. So how do we move from hoping that one or the other of this vital, two-pronged spiritual life will simply “happen,” to beginning to foster it? Without any suggestion these are the only practices to encourage, here are three things I am learning about encouraging our inner lives of devotion to intentionally mesh with our outer lives of community:
1. Let life start with you—and talk about it.
The temptation to fake spiritual maturity is persistent and venomous. Reject false appearances. There is no shortcut to true life. It grows organically. It cannot be forced or forged. It can only be encouraged and fostered. Embark on a continually deepening process of knowing yourself. Give yourself permission to set aside time for quiet. Invite the perspective of a trusted friend; “Where in my life can I grow?” is a powerful question.
Introspect—but with intention. Carefully consider how your personal devotional life and your life in community measures up to Jesus as the standard of spiritual maturity. In life and ministry, the Messiah showed us what it meant to live and work in the balance of personal prayer and community connection. Imitating him gives practical form to the doctrines of Christianity, and it sets a concrete, practical pattern for the people in your life to observe and imitate. “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ,” Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:1, and in being a learner-leader, sets the pattern for true Christian ministry. Leaders are not experts of the Way, they are fellow experiencers of it, offering themselves as examples of the trial and error of living in faith.
Ask “Who am I imitating?” and “Am I allowing myself to be seen in my real-life settings by those I care for?” Consider your internal life of devotion and your external life of prayer, and open yourself to true growth. Let life start with you.
Then, talk about it. Don’t showboat your spirituality, but make intentional links between the individual devotional lives of yourself and your people, and your group’s life together. Trace how any growth is our collective growth, and how our collective growth can support each of our individual spiritual lives.
2. Understand Christ as the goal of Christian life.
Building on Paul’s “imitation” language, embrace the true, clear goal of Christian faith—to be conformed to the image of Jesus. This is presented again by Paul in Ephesians with an intentional blurring of the line between individual and corporate. Ruminate on this mighty passage:
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work (Eph. 4:11–16, emphasis added).
We over-complicate ministry. It is very hard, yes, but it is also very simple. The way is clear if we can only remember it together—leading Christ’s church means joining the Spirit of God in conforming the people of God to the image of God, who is Jesus of Nazareth. Paul’s point can only be missed if we do not wish to see it. Leaders of the church are given to promote maturity. Maturity means growing to look just like Jesus.
Does that goal trickle back through every part of your vision, mission, and ministry? Is it the assumed goal of all that you live with your group? If not, consider what has replaced it. And, is what replaced it better? Assuredly, no. Nothing else matters when compared with the call to work for the conforming of all people to the image of God’s Son. That itself is something that bridges our inner health with our outer connection.
3. Search for the sources of the springs.
In Susanna Clarke’s fantasy classic Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a great distinction is made between “books about magic” and “books of magic.” Books about magic? Simple! They outline the theory of the book’s fictional system of magic, delineate its history in dry, dusty terms, and offer academic, hypothetical ideas. Nearly anyone could write one. But books of magic? They do not discuss, they are, and they are arguably far more interesting. And far more rare.
I carry these categories with me into the Christian aisle of my local bookstore. Shelf after shelf of books on display. The bright new releases? Mostly books about—seeking to reframe my thinking, explain a particular doctrine, ponder a cultural idea. However, the classics shelf is filled with books of. I pick up, say, John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul, and I have found something that has been handed down through the centuries because it is a work of true substance. It is of, not about. It is invaluable wisdom from someone on Christ’s path before me.
Many of us have become accustomed to the new and bright instead of the tried and true. We drink, as it were, from the streams of another’s life or reading, instead of continually moving upstream. There are many rich springs in the 2000 years of Christian history. There are springs for the mystic and for the scientific mind, for the emotive and the rational, the artist, the poet, the engineer, the researcher, the parent, the laborer, the child. The true books “of” give a sense of real connection to God. They show real experience, real wounds, real struggle, real victory. They are profoundly original, and deeply formative. They have been preserved for good reason. This is not to say no modern work is in this vein (for the sake of my own writing, I hope it may be!), but time winnows thoughts, and only the best stay with us.
In your work and ministry, go upstream! Always move toward the of not the about. Why? Because the about is limited to information. The of invites us to formation. There is nothing wrong with information, but it’s in the specific, forming action of God’s Spirit and Word that we truly deepen into life.
In any of our groups right now, there is a deep gap. It is between the life that is, and the life of Christ that could be. This should not discourage us—only compel us to a joyful pursuit of patient growth. Devotion together is the path—finding the postures and practices that promote both a vibrant inner personal life and an honest and engaged community life with other Christians.
“The more one is united to his neighbor the more he is united to God,” said Dorotheos of Gaza, whose deep life of personal prayer only drove him to deeper life in community with others. At the center of his saying is a paradox that only deepens the more you think about it: we are strongest alone when we have been together, strongest together when we have a true and vibrant life alone. It doesn’t take a life in the desert to show you that.
—Paul J. Pastor is author of The Listening Day: Meditations on the Way (Vol. 1) (Zeal Books, 2017), and deacon of spiritual formation at Theophilus Church in Portland, Oregon. Get your free discussion guide for The Listening Day here.