SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINES AND PRACTICES
Christians over the years have learned that certain disciplines and practices help them keep the spiritual channels open and help keep the heart turned toward God. These disciplines can't save you; they can't even make you a holy person. But they can heighten your desire, awareness, and love of God by stripping down the barriers that you put up within yourself and some that others put up for you. What makes something a 'spiritual discipline' is that it takes a specific part of your way of life and turns it toward God. A spiritual discipline is, when practiced faithfully and regularly, a habit or regular pattern in your life that repeatedly brings you back to God and opens you up to what God is saying to you. Christian devotional practice is squarely centered on Jesus Christ as found in the New Testament. When Christ is not at the heart of it, it may still be beneficial in some way, but it is not being practiced in a Christian way. In the end, if it does not help you follow Christ, it is of no real worth.
What's So Special About the Disciplines?
Spiritual disciplines help us keep our relationship with God in good working order. They may even help develop intimacy with God and God's world. But no discipline is able to create or start one's relationship with God. Nothing we do can do that; Christ did it already. No discipline can earn us heavenly brownie points, because there are no such brownie points to earn. No discipline gives us even the shortest moment of escape from the broken mess we are. No set of disciplines can increase our worth as persons, or make us inherently more of a leader. Your life may go smoother because of it, but it may get much rougher, and neither is really the point of it.
Disciplines and practices are tools that are a part of cooperating with the Spirit on the task of remaking us into what God wants us to be. Tools, not magic, not willpower. Tools of surrender and remanufacture. Tools that are used with Scripture, not in its stead. Powerful tools, but only because of the powerful One we're working with. And you are not the foreman on this job.
Many people look to spiritual advisors or formal spiritual directors to help them uncover the way forward. Sometimes it's someone to guide them through certain practices or to help them notice the world around them in a truer manner. Sometimes it's helpful to just have another set of eyes look at how you live. But having someone(s) else to guide you can be a big blessing in many ways, ways that are a bit different with each person.
Spirituality and Simplifying Life
Some people turn to God to simplify their lives. That may happen -- it depends on how complex your life is now and on what God has in store for you. But God often makes your life more complicated. You are called to love God first. But then, loving God, you start to love what God loves. Other people. Nature. Truth. Commitment. Solidarity. And you start to be disturbed by what disturbs God. War. Pollution. Greed. Powerlust. Disrespect for life. Divorce. Racism. And God's love calls you to action. Part of what makes a Christian spirituality 'simple' is that it has a single focus: loving as Jesus Christ loves. All else radiates from there, or is to be set aside.
Moods swing, life has rhythms, ups, downs, and dead ends. What at one time seems so totally, deeply true, or is even known to be true, can at other times seem so false and shallow. Disciplines train you to stay on course when the moods swing. If you don't, you drift away. (Indeed, most non-believers became so without a momentous rift. Just a slow drifting out and fading away, until the faith no longer matters to them.)
Christian spirituality helps make life simpler in another way. The chase after a wealthy life style is a rather complicated affair: the standards keep shifting, and the worries are many. That's why contemplatives and spiritual mystics speak so often of 'detachment'. When we take our focus off of getting stuff, there's more of ourselves to go around. We can focus on learning what it means to love right. Or, invest our time being face-to-face with those in need. Or learning Scripture. Or learning how to depend on the Spirit. You can't follow Christ and chase wealth; most of the time, the paths go in opposite directions.
"[The church's] holiness has very little to do with asceticism, otherworldliness, or superhuman perfection. Rather, holiness refers to the persistent discomfort of the church with the unchallenged existence of oppression and exploitation in the world. Holiness also points to the commitment of the church to resist the defilement that toleration and complicity in human oppression bring."
--- James Evans, *We Have Been Believers*, p. 136
Doing and Resting
When people first encounter spiritual disciplines, they think it's something important to do. As they go along, they come to understand that resting can be a discipline, too. But, they still have the frame of mind which makes 'being at rest' something to do. I'll do x amount of rest, y amount of quiet, in z place at t time. Okay, so scheduling is important. But so is ignoring the schedule, because the schedule - even on spiritual stuff - is not God. The time can be spent just being, just letting God do something for/to you instead of your always straining to do something (even a devotional or meditational something) for God. There is a time for work, and a time for rest. A time to lead and take action; a time to let the Spirit lead, to sit there and watch the wheels go round.
The Power Is God's
"To know the mechanics does not mean that we are practicing the Disciplines. The Spiritual Disciplines are an inward and spiritual reality, and the inner attitude of the heart is far more crucial than the mechanics for coming into the reality of the spiritual life."
------- Richard Foster, *Celebration Of Discipline* 2nd ed. (Harper, 1988), p.3
Spiritual practices can be sound and helpful, but they can become the home of superstition and magic, too. Take, for example, prayer beads. This practice traveled from India to the Sufi Muslims, then through the Crusaders to the Roman Catholic Church, where it lives on in the form of the rosary. The idea is simple: a chain or bracelet of beads is used to remind you to pray and keep track of prayer wherever you go throughout the day. The beads can also help you remember key parts of Jesus' life and work. When used that way, the beads can be a devotional blessing. In tough and pressing situations, what you recall and re-speak with the beads can send your attention and trust back to God.
But for most people, in whatever religion, the beads (or the prayers associated with them) start to take on a magical or superstitious aura. It is as if, when used just the right way, the beads had miraculous powers that God or the saints had to answer to. Or, as if they gave some unique contact with God. Or, as if saying them backwards or in some wayward manner could act to harm someone or make something bad come about. Or, as if forgetting to use them would cause your life to crumble. One thing must be made very clear: NO bead chain, cloth, jewelry, flag, statue, talisman, icon, symbol, medal, or other object, and NO 'holy' place or word sequence or devotional practice or musical notes or body position or numbers, EVER makes God respond any better to any prayer, nor makes heaven or earth or hell or the cosmos or anything else bend to anyone's bidding. The belief that it does is what is meant by the term 'superstition'. God does not work that way. The world God created does not work that way. Ever. Devotional aids are there to help you direct yourself toward God. The moment you think they have any powers or merit of their own, or that you have influence over God's actions through them, you believe in magic and superstition. That means you are being idolatrous, and you are breaking the first of the Commandments. If you find yourself having that attitude, stop doing the practice or using the devotional aid, right now. Become aware of your superstitious tendency. Try something else that might cause less of a problem for you.
in light and dark.
in best and worst.
in hope and despair.
in power and powerlessness.
in presence and absence.
in joy and suffering.
in peace amidst trouble.
in inspiration amidst the ordinary.
"Self-respect is the fruit of discipline : the sense of dignity grows with the ability to say no to oneself."
------- Abraham J. Heschel
"Resolved : that all men should live for the glory of God.
Resolved second : that whether others do or not, I will."
------- Jonathan Edwards
"The detachment from the confusion all around us is in order to have a richer attachment to God. Christian meditation leads us to the inner wholeness necessary to give ourselves to God freely."
------- Richard Foster, *Celebration Of Discipline* 2nd ed. (Harper, 1988), p.21
"Meditation has no point and no reality unless it is firmly rooted in life ."
------- Thomas Merton, *Contemplative Prayer* (Doubleday, 1969), p.39
"Plenty of what passes for healthy detachment is far from healthy, reflecting an attachment to being detached."
------- Robert A. Masters
"By means of the imagination, we confine our mind within the mystery on which we meditate, that it may not ramble to and fro..."
------- Francis deSales, *Introduction To the Devout Life*
"If you get the idea to do something good, just do it. It might be the Holy Spirit."
------- Mary Stearns Sgarioto, in *Lutheran Woman Today*, May 1995.
"First, let [fasting] be done unto the Lord with our eye singly fixed on Him. Let our intention herein be this, and this alone, to glorify our Father which is in heaven."
------- John Wesley, as found in the collection *Sermons On Several Occasions* (Epworth, 1971), p.301