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Whitworth University students learn by experiencing the life of spirituality

By immersing Whitworth students in a month-long, quasi-monastic community at Tall Timber Ranch, a Presbyterian camp located in the Cascades, Gerald (Jerry) Sittser has introduced several January-term classes to the history of past to current models of Christian spirituality.

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Sittser with a student from the retreat.

In his 15 years of research, he has refined the class. InterVarsity Press recently published that information in his book, Waters from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries.

Jerry said students gain appreciation of their spiritual heritage and explore their own spirituality.  Some worked with him to form Knox House, an intentional community at 1117 W. Mansfield near Knox Presbyterian Church.

Drawn through youth ministry to study theology, Jerry completed doctoral studies in the history of Christianity at the University of Chicago, a master’s of divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary and a bachelor’s degree from Hope College.

Since coming to Spokane in 1989, he has taught the history of Christianity and American religion at Whitworth University, is chair of the master’s in theology program and serves as director of the Whitworth certification for ministry program.

The book and class follow a chronology of models of spirituality from the early to the modern church.

Each chapter focuses on a model: early martyr’s adamant faithfulness, medieval monasteries’ rhythm and rules weaving prayer, study and life together in a seamless whole; desert fathers’ and mothers’ emphasis on self examination and purification as the path to discipleship; the Puritan’s introduction of practical thinking and the redemptive narrative; Orthodox icons of saints as windows to the larger world of spiritual reality; Reformed spirituality’s focus on the Word of God; pioneer missionary spirituality, risking everything to bring the Gospel to unreached people; evangelical spirituality emphasizing conversion, and the ecumenical movement calling for unity.

Jerry explores practices of sacrifice, simplicity and community as means to shape and enrich contemporary faith.

“We drink from a deep well of spiritual practices,” he said.

The classes that have gone to Tall Timbers have lived in community, worshiping four times a day, doing chores, reading texts, meeting as a class and in small groups, and collecting notes.

The rules of life include fasting from media—no TV, iPods, radios, phones or videos—and private devotions four times a day.

In addition to study, community life has included playing in the snow—snowshoeing and cross-country skiing—to experience the spirituality of play, Jerry said:  “In that setting, we experience that God understands Sabbath rest as involving healthy play.”

Students find it a challenge to live by the Benedictine Divine Rule of Life, principles governing how they lived as a family and viewed their schedule, “weaving together work and prayer, so work would drive us to prayer, and prayer would drive us back to our work,” Jerry said.  “We lived prayer in the world.”

While he recognizes that it’s hard to do that in modern society, he says it creates spiritual health. 

Students do prayers at the first, third, sixth, ninth and evening hours—at 6 a.m., 9 a.m., noon, 3 p.m. and evening vespers, plus prayer before going to bed.

“It establishes the notion of regular, rhythmic prayer, woven together with the day’s work,” he said.

Students also spend time in isolation to reflect on applying spiritual practices to their lives.  Some appreciate liturgy, others appreciate quiet time.

“Most practice spirituality in a hit-and-miss way,” he said,  “but I sense that beginning in the 1990s a growing appreciation for the various traditions of spirituality in Christian life and practice has emerged.”

As students are exposed to different forms of spirituality, Jerry said they develop appreciation for and connection with 2000 years of Christian church history and practice, and for ecumenism today.

“Appreciating the larger heritage of the faith community, hymnody, writing and liturgical practices helps us feel less lonely,” he said.  “It helps us appreciate what unites us through our creeds, our understanding of the triune God and of Christ as divine and human, the sacraments and grace.”

Each student, he hopes, learns that faith is not rooted in what “I feel” but about God and what God has done in Christ.

“The bread and wine in communion remind us that God is there for us,” said Jerry, a member of Whitworth Presbyterian Church.

Young men who had been at Tall Timber became interested in living in intentional urban community, so Jerry helped them launch Knox House in 2005 as a modern monastic experience. 

When the first four drafted their rule of life, Jerry helped.  He also helped them find and buy a house.  It opened in fall 2006.

Their spiritual practice includes an hour-long morning prayer at 6:30 a.m. each day.

Jerry goes Wednesday mornings for prayer and occasionally on Sunday evening for their community meal.

Participants in Knox House are committed to serve the community.  One has been youth director at Knox Presbyterian.  Others work with children after school.  They offer hospitality, including housing two Sudanese refugees and someone who was formerly at Union Gospel Mission.

Their community life and disciplines include tending a large garden, recycling, living from a common fund, participating in churches and volunteer work.

Jerry said they build community from their spiritual and service focus.

“At Whitworth, we realize today that the church is not primarily modern and western.  It is much larger than what we experience here and now.  So some students teach in inner city schools or do mission work in Africa and Asia, as well as here,” said Jerry.

“My spiritual practices enrich my life and enlarge my understanding of Christian faith, giving me a sense of connection to the larger church globally and historically,” he said.  “Faith is about what we know and practice, a rhythm of life in prayer and work.”

Jerry said he has deepened his sense of the sacraments, salvation, God’s Word and the value of belonging to a community of faith through these immersion experiences and through his teaching.

For information, call 777-4381 or  email gsittser@whitworth.edu.