“A theologian is one who prays truly, one who prays truly is a theologian,” Evagrius wrote.
I was very good at theological education in the Berlin model. I finished seminary with 144 quarter units, a 3.9 GPA, and a Masters of Divinity. But, I wanted theology to do something, to make something, to be put in service of a task, a means to an end. Theological education, in all its various topics, spurred me to insight and accomplishment, creative exploration and incisive critique. My ambition, my sense of self, intermingling in my continued delight in studying the ways of God that could, that should, make the world, or at the very least the church, run more smoothly. I yearned. It was a yearning of frenzy not of peace, of chaos not stillness, of fruitfulness not acceptance. God said stop. And I finally listened.
Then God began to remake me. I left behind the rational life and entered into a mountain life. I lived higher and dug deeper. Writing helped. I read along the trails of theology and monastic life. I was single. I was, mostly, focused. I wasn’t content, but that wasn’t the issue anymore. I was called. Called to be where I was even if where I was didn’t make sense to anyone else, even me. I was full of chaos and I was broken.
Where was I in the midst of this rebuilding of my theological self? I was in a new mode of substantive, if not formal, education. I had to face myself and face my complications and face my frustration and face my ambitions and, ultimately, face my God. I put facing others well behind on the list. I was physically in the mountains, a mile high, surrounded by trees, birds, refreshing hikes and infuriating neighbors who thought weekly reconstruction of their home was a good use of the space. For five years I lived among the trees, birds, refreshing hikes, and infuriating neighbors. I was deepened and I was honed, facing my depression and anger and hopes and disappointments, temptations all while free to pursue creative fancy.
Where was I in terms of a theological education? I was in Skete.
Skete is a place in Egypt where monks found loose community in the midst of relative isolation. They were able to spend a lot of time in private prayer, wrestling with temptations, often (if able) reading Scripture, working at basic tasks to keep the acedia away. This wasn’t done alone, as the community allowed for a flexibility of discussion, prayer, confession, education. Conferences as John Cassian and his friend Germanus found most fruitful. They learned in a community of informal education in ways that led them to deeper truths about God and themselves, able to engage this pursuit proactively and giving space to fight against the passions that led to frenzy and frustration.
My Skete wasn’t in a desert. I had snow in winter and I kayaked on a nearby lake and jogged on forested trails for exercise. But I was isolated from formal theological conversations (though my parents were quite adept at informal conversation, guiding me with much wisdom). I was distant from a practical expression of my profession. I had a Master of divinity but was hardly even a master of my self. I lost friends as they thought I had abandoned sense and practical responsibility. Maybe I had. Indeed I did.
A hermit said, “When you flee from the company of other people, or when you despise the world and worldlings, take care to do so as if it were you who was being idiotic.”
I was in pursuit of something deeper, something more. I had seen the Face and it had turned away. I knew there was something more–stillness, heaven, centering–but I never was in the right place to find it. I was in the wrong city. I was using the wrong maps. I found myself constantly running from the tidal wave of discontent.
Rather than running away from the crashing wave, I turned around at let it crash over me. I was left to discover myself, to find God in the midst of the whispers and shadows, the singing of wind blowing through trees, the scratchings of men and women long dead. And, on occasion, fruitful conversations with other women and men who may not have understood what I was about but who were curious enough to stay in touch and encouraging me that there was indeed something worth discovering. I shared with them, they shared with me, an exchange of counsel and prayer and words of hope and wisdom. Some I talked with on the phone, some I wrote online, some took me to literal mountaintops and real islands off the coast where contemplation could be indulged alongside exploration and a fair bit of silliness.
Skete isn’t a bad place if you find the right people.
Skete is the city where independent learners can find conversation and connection in their pursuit of understanding God and God’s call. This is a place where becoming whole in God is the priority, not to accomplish a task but to participate in a calling of being who God wants you to be, a particular discovery in the unity of shared goals.
Where Berlin (intellectual) emphasizes orthodoxy and Jerusalem (missional) emphasizes orthopraxy, Skete prioritizes discovering orthopathy, a right understanding and expression of passions, including the fruit of the Spirit as part of faith, hope, and love.
I think the city of Skete has the most people, even though they’re spread out. There are independent learners everywhere who are not finding their core theological education in either church or in an institution. Many have graduated such institutions and are left to fend for themselves. Other have experienced abuse or disregard in churches and institutions so to find God they enter the desert. They love Jesus, seek Jesus, but don’t have a formal place to deepen their relationship with him once they go beyond the shallows of contemporary ecclesial life. Some assume there is no more depth to be found. Those who know better begin a journey of discovery, using previous education, or suggestions from others, following rabbit trails of recommendations in footnotes or conversations.
This used to be a very solitary pursuit indeed. It doesn’t have to be anymore. The internet allows communities of such learners to find connection and conversation. It did for me.
And the fruit of my time in Skete was writing two published books and receiving a fully paid fellowship at Fuller for my PhD. I went back to
Berlin Pasadena, but often visited Skete in times of frustration or emptiness. Skete is my hometown now, the place I find peace, and given the uncertainty of academic careers, may be the place I return to more permanently at some point. I don’t think this is God’s plans, but I’ve learned not to anticipate.
The dangers of Skete are many. A person has to be able to self-tutor and self-navigate the many pitfalls and distractions. They have to be able to focus, as there’s no demand to stay on course. They have to be willing to risk relationships in the pursuit of the unknown and stay the course when all is dark. Stay in one’s cell and there one will learn everything the desert fathers said. The cell is a slow teacher, unhurried and without immediate reward.
It is easy to fall away, get lost in the shuffle, get pulled out of the process. It is also easy to be lulled by one’s own sense of progress into assuming more maturity than one possesses. It is easy to be arrogant and easy to be depressed, easy to be to rigorous and easy to be all too lax.
But the views in Skete are marvelous to behold and it seems to be a place where many people find themselves when they don’t know where else to go. So is well worth considering as a key city in the framework of theological education.
And that’s that’s the last city I have to talk about. I’ve presented a brief map and tour guide of these places, sharing my experiences with them. At the end of this tour, however, I’m not convinced these are the best way to talk about theological education. While these cities are descriptive I am not sure they are the best way to understand the future of theological education. I think cities are the wrong analogy in our era.
So, I’ll keep sketching out my thoughts in the next post in this series.