I first heard about the School of the Spirit Ministry from someone who had been a student in its program On Being a Spiritual Nurturer. I wanted to know more, but it seemed that people had difficulty explaining it to me. Perhaps the problem was with my listening: I’d been a convinced Friend for 20 years but still struggled with faith. At that time, I would not have told you that the compulsion I felt to enroll in this mysterious program was a divine leading; I will tell you that now.
I knew that I wanted a more focused way to wrestle with my resistance to belief in a caring, loving God. I wanted to engage in a more disciplined life of prayer. But what did it mean to be “a spiritual nurturer”? I was full of uncertainty about what I should do next in my life; I didn’t plan to become a recorded minister or spiritual director. It turns out that this liminal space, this perception of being on the brink of unknown change, is the place from which many people turn to the School of the Spirit Ministry for the first time. Whichever of its ministries they come to—I’ll be talking about the spiritual nurturer program here—they discover that spiritual nurturing results when the heart is open to God and, consequently, to other people.
The program to which I was being led was founded roughly 25 years ago by Sandra Cronk and Kathryn Damiano, who wanted to help Friends center their lives in prayer and find the confidence to provide ministry, eldership, and spiritual companionship to others. With Fran Taber, they were the founding core teachers. Nine classes have been through the program On Being a Spiritual Nurturer (SN) since then, under the prayerful leadership of successive teams of core teachers, who shape the loving and challenging space into which students are invited. The School of the Spirit Ministry has no physical home, nor does its SN program. It convenes in retreat facilities operated by others. There are no light bills to pay, no buildings to maintain. A board of guiding elders meets in prayer and worship, as do the various committees that have formed to sustain its work.
At present, Spiritual Nurturer classes meet four times annually for two years. The residencies are held during long weekends, four five-day and four three-day gatherings. Between residencies, there are books to read, spiritual reflection papers to write, and other projects to undertake. Some Friends are attracted to the SN program by its academic component but find that spiritual fellowship is at its heart. Others come in spite of the reading lists but find books they might have opened with reluctance causing them to catch fire.
In addition to guidance from the three core teachers, each residency features a guest teacher. This might include (as in my class several years ago) a Roman Catholic nun, a Greek Orthodox priest, or an Amish group. Not all of the students are Friends (there were two Episcopalians in my class). The Quakers are from different branches of yearly meetings. Some students feel awkward with or resistant to Christian theological concepts and language.
The residencies include lectures, discussions, worship sharing, and prayer. Each student becomes part of a small koinonia group (or “K group”), which meets for more intimate spiritual talk. The bonds of spiritual companionship that develop can be lifelong.
Finally, every student is required to form a Care Committee at home, usually within his or her own meeting or church. Many entering students find it excruciating to ask others for this kind of attention and care over two years, but learning to ask for help is part of the point. Many Care Committees develop a closeness that does not end with the program. A kind of spiritual seeding of the home meeting is likely to occur, which was the hope of the founding teachers. One Friend told me the following:
If I had to pick a thing that is transformational, it is that I had five people who sat with me once a month for two years, and who listened to me read, who listened to my writing projects, who heard my struggles, who listened to my insights, and who cautioned me when I was getting too far too fast. That was the place where it all came together.
So that I could offer multiple perspectives, I spent a few weeks talking with people who have been Spiritual Nurturer students and teachers at various times in the program’s history.
Here are some descriptions of how the call to the SN program felt:
The hunger that I had was for knowing how to listen with others. When we met, the hunger that I heard in the group was this need to be together with others who wanted to talk about things eternal. This somehow was missing in meetings; it was missing in life, and here was a common place—and a safe place, yes—where people could speak their hearts.
I really longed for this sense that people were called to God and thus bonded to each other, and together they were committed to each other’s spiritual deepening.
I was thirsty and very, very confused. Where was this inexplicable thirst coming from? It was a great mystery.
I was really wondering about the work that I had been doing—good work, but I was being called to deeper work, where I could really grab hold of a spiritual core.
I said, “Joe, what the hell happened to you and how do I get some?” And he said, “School of the Spirit.”
Many Friends talked to me about the new language they had acquired, a new ability to articulate their faith. This was not any sort of taught language or faith: “I was really looking for a place where I could speak the language of my soul,” a participant in the first class told me, “a language that nurtured me.”
A former teacher in the program told me:
Study and prayer have allowed students to articulate their faith in a much deeper way than when they came in.… Sometimes it’s really hard in contemporary Quakerism because we forget that there is a journey, and that what many folks are seeking is an articulation of what their faith is about.
Learning to talk about the deepest movements of your heart requires practice with an audience who will listen with deep attention, not trying to impose their own languages. Learning to listen and learning to speak are part of the same process of trust.
To be with a group of people who would meet with me and listen carefully and ask questions was really important … listening very carefully, saying very little, keeping the focus on the speaker and asking good questions but not trying to fix—just listening into.
This is my own story: my departure from the mainstream Protestantism of my childhood wasn’t painful or dramatic. I just grew up and became an agnostic, which seemed like the intelligent position to hold. At a certain point in my life, I began thinking quite a lot about God, and that’s when I found Quakerism. But I found it difficult to get out of my head long enough to have a crack at feeling the Christ Within. I didn’t object to Christian language, though I didn’t feel entitled to use it myself. When I applied to enter the Spiritual Nurturer program, I pretty much shared the outlook of this friend from my class who said, “I was very conscious of the Christian language in the School of the Spirit. I didn’t know where [it] would end up or what that experience would be like, but I was very conscious of choosing to walk into it.”
Applicants are asked whether they are comfortable with Christian language, though they are not required to use it themselves. In the Ministry’s own words, it “combines a clear Christian grounding with the ability to listen and recognize spiritual openings and committed journeys in whatever form they appear.” A core teacher told me, “It’s about invitation and opening. It’s not about doctrine.” A student said, “It’s a safe place to experiment with Christianity.”
What often happens is that students learn to interpret traditional Quaker and Christian language and concepts in new ways that are meaningful for them, as the following indicates:
I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian world. I hadn’t been back to the Bible until the School of the Spirit really, because I couldn’t do that language. There was a wonderful opening up of ways to make those old words sing again.
By the end of the course, they may or may not consider themselves Christians, but students understand and honor Quakerism’s roots in Christianity. Often, damage from the past begins to heal.
I came in with a lot of baggage about the Christian institution. It was like a sore tooth. I just couldn’t leave it alone.… We interpret our experience based on the language we have, for good or ill. If the language is open and invitational, then that opens our hearts. If the language is narrow and condemning, then that has an impact.… All these people brought their experiences, and their stories opened it up for all of us, allowed us to expand, see what was possible.
Quakerism tends to attract people who have had deep hurts in their experiences of other religions, possibly Quakerism as well. I felt that I was able to heal some of those hurts and not hide from them any more.… The personal God of my Catholic childhood, a relational God, became deeper and deeper for me, and it became the source of my motivation and my life to do the will of God as I understood it.
There are depths of yearning and insight that modern unprogrammed Friends, estranged as many of us are from traditional Christianity, haven’t had the equipment to talk about very well. One Friend told me she finds that this poverty has diminished in recent years:
I hear words now among [unprogrammed] Friends like gratitude, and faith, and elder, and minister, and discernment, and grace—words that I did not hear back in the ’80s or the early ’90s. There are other programs [encouraging this use of traditional language], too.
I should not give the impression that all the program’s seekers are struggling with Christianity or with faith. Regarding her time in the SN program, a Friend who has been a Conservative Quaker all her life said:
I discovered what the nature of the water was that I had been swimming in. It brought to consciousness what it means to be a member of the meeting, of what it means in fact to be a part of a body that understands itself to be a corporate entity, beyond the individual, encompassing the individual.
Opening to God and to others
Spiritual work can be rough. Feeling change deep within can be disconcerting. Discerning what it might mean for your life can be difficult and even frightening. A former teacher observed:
Two years gives participants the time to delve into what is going on in their lives, and sit with that, and sit with what perhaps the Spirit wants to do with them. It can be a very raw time. It can put you in a pretty fragile place for a time.
Things happen during the two years of an SN class. Parents die; spouses die; people get sick; people fall in love; grandchildren are born. These events have an effect throughout the group, and the experience of accompanying others through life’s profound events can go deep. During one SN class a student was diagnosed with a fatal illness. She continued attending residencies, with difficulty. She died shortly after her program finished. One of her classmates told me the following:
We watched a member of our class die. Actually, we watched her live. We watched her grow in grace. “Why keep doing this? You are ill; why not just take the last days that you have and do whatever you want to do?” But she was willing to come and be with us. This reinforced for the rest of us how valuable this was. It was about how to live, how to grow in grace.
“How to live, how to grow in grace”: these are the deep arts that the School of the Spirit provides to its participants.
I’ve had deep experiences of mystical connection that I would never have thought possible. They came from allowing myself to go deeper and deeper into sinking down: “Sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart; and let that grow in thee, and be in thee, and breathe in thee, and act in thee” (Isaac Penington).
What we did was open up ourselves to be transformed by grace.
Here are some testimonies about the transformation experienced by SN participants:
I walk around in the world with a completely new sense that the kingdom of God is shimmering around me. It’s in the air. It can crystallize at any moment that I can step into it. The kingdom of God can’t be held back. It is. I can step into that reality by just offering myself, though I don’t always have the courage to do it.
I am more able now to live a God-centered life.
I recognized that I needed to be prepared to step into the shoes of Jesus on the road to Emmaus, accompanying those two disciples and listening to their stories and then sharing the story of the good news with them … to listen others into their own ground of being.
I really worried about purpose in life. I still think a lot about it, but I’m no longer worried about it. I know that as long as God will have me do what I am meant to do, I don’t need to concern myself.
I love my meeting more.
Life itself becomes more clearly a great school of the Spirit.
I’ve heard many stories about practical transformations. Some students change to new work that feels more meaningful. The Friend who came wanting work with a clearer spiritual core found a job working with the poor. A Friend who works on Wall Street has helped to found an organization that focuses on ethical business practices and more purposeful corporate vision. Two SN students went on to seminary. A Quaker was reconciled to the Catholicism of her childhood and is now director of spiritual formation at a Franciscan school of theology. Friends who thought they could never do so have become clerks of their meetings. Theists and non-theists have found common ground and have led adult education courses together where Friends have learned to “listen in tongues.” Students in the SN program have become its core teachers.
Service in the world often changes in flavor. This is from a former SN teacher:
There’s such depth and authenticity to this kind of change. It isn’t simply a good idea; it comes from their transformative experiences; it comes from a place of deep spiritual leading and discernment.
One Friend who organized meetings for worship in a prison told me about her call to do so. She said it wasn’t just a sense that we have this awful problem of mass incarceration and what am I going to do to fix it? Rather, when a prison chaplain told her that Quakers would be welcome there, she felt an “invitation to be present in a nurturing way with women for whom that could be important.” The question she asked herself was not whether it was a good thing to do but whether she was led to do it.
That Friend is acting out of love, and that’s the best way to summarize what others have told me. We’re not an elect group; we haven’t become saintly. But we are more sensitive to the motions of love than we used to be. Two men from my class told me how they now find occasions to minister, to pay close attention to others’ spiritual lives. One of them described encountering a woman in emotional distress:
I remember just having my foot out the door and realizing that I was a minister and this woman needed ministry. I took my hat off, put my coffee cup down, and I was just with that woman. It was a reminder of who I am in this world and who I believe that I am called to be by something greater.… If it had happened before the School of the Spirit, I would have looked to give her good advice, which is entirely different from what we are called to do when we are called to minister.
My other classmate, describing a gathering of his yearly meeting, said simply, “Every time I turned around, there was an opportunity.”
I’ll end with a bit more of my own story. I’m no longer afraid to believe that God holds us all in the arms of love, and is always with us. I now feel able—at least sometimes—to still my thoughts and wait for the stirrings of the Guide Within. I want to help others find space and quiet in their lives for listening, so I’m helping to lead contemplative retreats in the manner of Friends. The retreats comprise another arm of the School of the Spirit Ministry, one that I’d like to write about another time. This leads me to my final point: I’m a writer who has been blocked for years and years, and I’m writing this. The fruits of the Spirit are varied, and they are precious.