Spiritual practices for the New Year
by Marion Van Driel
Every January it seems impossible to escape the overload of magazine headlines promoting health and fitness goals that will inevitably produce youthfulness, strength and longevity. In contrast, we seldom hear of people setting spiritual fitness goals – to engage in practices that strengthen the soul – in the knowledge, wisdom and fullness of Christ. Caring for both body and soul honours the One who crafted us in all our complexity.
While countless resources on spiritual disciplines are available, a comprehensive book by Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, lays out 12 spiritual practices considered central to the Christian life, and categorized into inward, outward and corporate disciplines. Foster contends that living a disciplined spiritual life leads to liberty – an idea that seems at first to be counter-intuitive. But as we are shaped through the disciplines, we become free from fear and from our own self-interest. “God has given us the disciplines of the spiritual life as a means of receiving his grace,” writes Foster.
Practices for Every Christian
Foster insists that the classic spiritual disciplines are not for ‘spiritual giants’ but for everyone, including beginners; for in God’s kingdom, aren’t we all beginners? To live simply in an age of excess, to take time out to be alone with God, to submit to God’s leading, and to serve others sacrificially, are countercultural acts of faith.
While most of the disciplines may at first glance seem to be ordinary practices, Foster takes us past the superficiality of our faith – suggesting, for instance, that confessing our sins ought not to be done simply in the quietness of our hearts, but voiced to a fellow believer, admitting our humanity, recognizing we are sinners together. The confession to another releases healing power. The priestly role of proclaiming God’s forgiveness to the confessor makes the experience of grace tangible and awesome.
A Challenging Road
The word “discipline” is of course rooted by the word “disciple”. We become a disciple by following a specific model or example – in this case, Jesus. Discipleship requires or results in decisiveness, intentionality, sacrifice, constancy, integrity, perseverance, linear movement, incremental habits, necessity and enlivening results.
To learn a discipline requires decisiveness. It doesn’t just fall into place. I can’t expect to play a piece of music by watching a concert pianist perform the piece. If my desire is to play an instrument well, I must first set a specific goal. Do I want to play for enjoyment, or in the symphony as the principle? What steps are required to meet the goal? It may mean committing to rising earlier, or giving up a time-consuming habit, in order to follow through.
Discipline requires integrity. It’s not just about what we do, but how. Without sufficient emphasis on quality of the practice, efforts will be in vain, and could be detrimental to the body, mind and spirit. The student is accountable to the “coach” to stay on plan, even, and especially, when the coach is absent.
Perseverance is probably the most difficult aspect of discipline and is closely linked to sacrifice. Often, when walking down the path of success, we realize too late that along the way we’ve picked up (like so much lint) self assurance and pride in our accomplishments, followed by old, ingrained habits. We’ve begun to relax instead of pushing toward the next level. Maintaining the status quo for a specific period of time can be beneficial.
Discipline is linear; we don’t wander off and meander into other arenas that will be detrimental to our progress. When learning to drive, we quickly realized the importance of taking our eyes off the hood ornament and focusing on the road ahead. Looking forward with discernment in the right direction keeps us from entering a confusing maze or landing in a water-filled ditch.
Our progress is incremental. Although we have an ultimate goal, we set smaller, more attainable goals in order to reach the final target. To run a 10 km race, we begin by running 30 seconds at a time. Discipline is a necessary component of intentional growth. Sometimes our growth is unintentional – often through trials that come our way. But when we make the firm decision to initiate a life-changing program, discipline is a required element of that change.
Finally, discipline is enlivening. When we are moving forward towards our heart’s desire, the process provides a deep satisfaction that we are entering into something life-changing. We feel more alive in the process. In the end, we must know in our heart that it will be worth the struggle, expecting the joyous abundant life that Christ came to bring.
Yearning vs Earning
Lest we imagine that by engaging in the spiritual disciplines we are somehow currying God’s favour, we press into this remarkable truth: There’s not one thing we can do to be loved of God. He already loves us unconditionally. We experience this very personally. He intentionally sacrificed His life for mine, committed Himself to me and perseveres in wooing me ever closer as His disciple. He’s made me in His image, to mirror His commitment and sacrifice. And above all else, He desires to have a deep, loving relationship with me. As Dallas Willard has said: “Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning.” And so our pursuit of a deeper spiritual life is one of yearning for more of God. I’m reminded of a song we sang with our kids when they were young: “One step at a time, one step at a time; I’m climbing my mountain one step at a time.” Spiritual discipline is a life-long journey – one step at a time. Let’s begin wherever we are, and start climbing.
Beginning this month, the Light Magazine will look at one of the 12 spiritual disciplines listed by Richard Foster in his book Celebration of Discipline. We invite you to join us as we undertake and celebrate a different discipline each month of the year. We begin our series with Meditation.
Many Christians find the very idea of meditation distasteful, equating its meaning with Eastern religions that attempt to empty the mind for enlightenment. Christ-centred meditation “has nothing to do with emptying our minds,” writes Joyce Huggett, internationally known speaker and writer on the subject. “Christian meditation engages every part of us – our mind, our emotions, our imagination, our creativity and, supremely, our will.”
While both Eastern and Christian forms of meditation seek – at least for a time – detachment from the world, meditation for the Christian is rooted in the reality of day-to-day substance and listening for God’s voice. Appreciation of the gifts God has given in creation and obedience to His voice are desired outcomes of time spent reflecting on scripture. The time spent meditating informs the mind, heart, spirit and will.
In his Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster observes: “It is wonderful when a particular meditation leads to ecstasy, but it is far more common to be given guidance in dealing with ordinary human problems. Meditation sends us into our ordinary world with greater perspective and balance.”
Meditation on God’s Word is a prevalent theme in the scriptures, particularly in the Psalms: I will meditate on Your precepts, and contemplate Your ways (Psalm 119:15). This is not about taking large sections of text and studying it intellectually; rather, it suggests taking a small portion of scripture and repeating it over and over, allowing it to sink deeply into the spirit, being attentive to God’s voice.
Retired Pastor and denominational leader Martin Contant, now a Spiritual Director and Coach, didn’t grow up in a tradition that taught the discipline of meditation. In his own faith walk, it was learning to come apart and be still before God. “A lot of our praying is talking too much,” he says. One of the ways that has worked for him is “sitting in the Word, letting it marinate my soul,” through lectio divina, involving the four R’s: read, reflect, respond, rest. Postures and surroundings may vary, but the main theme is being quietly attentive to the Holy Spirit.
Another way to meditate is to imagine ourselves in the text – in a parable or a story in which Christ encounters someone. In the story of the blind man’s healing, for example, we can at different times put ourselves in the shoes of the blind man, his parents, or the Pharisees. “That creative reading of scripture, personalizing it, if you will, can be very powerful,” Contant explains. Ignatius of Loyola encouraged using all the senses in this task – feeling the sunshine, tasting the salt air, hearing the temple crowds – placing ourselves in the story.
“If you avoid unnecessary talk and aimless visits, listening to news and gossip, you will find plenty of time to spend in meditation of holy things”. (Thomas a Kempis)
Probably the most common roadblock to meditation is busyness. Today, we might add a few other time wasters to Kempis’ admonition. We might, even for a time, say ‘no’ to habits that sap our time and energy, keeping us from the very thing we desire.
Strange as it may sound, it’s possible that our own spiritual exercises stand in the way of a deep intimacy with Christ. Contant points out that even our daily devotional time – good habit that it is – can be misguided, referring to Jesus’ admonition of the Pharisees in John 5:39 – “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life”. This might be “an indictment to some of our spiritual practices which are sometimes more about checking off the box than coming deeply and humbly into the presence of God.”
Steps of Lectio Divina:
Read a short passage of Scripture, noting a word or phrase that stands out for you. Read again slowly, perhaps aloud.
Reflect on a word or phrase that resonated with you. Let it sit with you. Listen with your heart; try journaling. Bring your thoughts, questions, resistance, joy, to God. Internalize the text.
Respond. What is God prompting you to do with this word? Confess? Celebrate? Give thanks? Take action? Pray your response to God.
Rest silently in God’s presence, leaning into Him. Enjoy His company.
For more on this topic, join Marion Van Driel on her blog as she journey’s through the spiritual disciplines. attentivesoul.blogspot.ca