Given the theological foundation of the marks and means of spiritual formation outlined before, how does one proceed with the actual task of spiritual formation? What method takes these realities into account? Willard notes the importance of the answer to this question:
Perhaps the most difficult of moments in a minister’s or teacher’s life occurs when, in response to his own sincere preaching or teaching, a listener says: “All right, I really do want to be like Christ. You have convinced me that it is only as I walk with him and become really like him that I can know the fullness of life for which I was created. Now, tell me precisely how to go about it.” … it is the rare leader or teacher today who can calmly say, “Here’s how you do it,” and state specific tried and true steps actually accessible to the earnest inquirer. (Willard 1988, 13)
What follows is my attempt at just such a practical approach to the spiritual disciplines.
Rudiments: Preliminaries to the Disciplines
The worst legacy of Hellenistic thought in Christianity is the abiding fallacy that affairs of the spirit are entirely distinct from those of the body. A foundational corrective for this fallacy in the realm of spiritual formation is that a practice of the spiritual disciplines must be built on a solid tripod good sleep, good diet (i.e. what you regularly eat and drink), and good movement (we needn’t go so far as “exercise”). This doesn’t mean that spiritual progress is impossible without these prerequisites; history abounds with the stories of great saints who suffered with poor sleep, poor food, and poor fitness. However, the first question when rooting out the cause of a lackluster spiritual life must be the practices of bodily self-care. Neglecting one’s outer health makes the pursuit of inner health much harder than it has to be; at times, the obstacle of bodily health looms so large that it effectively blocks all inner progress. Happily, progress in inner health often reduces the obstacles to outer health. Learning to see oneself as the beloved of God can break the power of the anxiety which robbed us of our sleep, the emotional eating that made for abusive dietary habits, and the ennui that kept us on the couch.
The second key preliminary matter to our practices of the spiritual disciplines is the context in which they occur. While modern Western culture is highly individualistic, Christian spiritual formation has historically been primarily a communal activity. Even the individual practice of disciplines was never individualistic: private prayer and Scripture reading followed a lectionary or missal, ensuring that – even alone in the prayer closet – the members of Christ’s church were always praying and reading together. This led Kang to assert that the faith community is “the context, content, and method for Christian education” (2004, 80). Therefore, it is important to identify the communal element of every spiritual practice one adopts. Is it practiced with others (either in their presence or not)? Is it practiced for others, coaxing us out of ourselves and into the lives and concerns of our neighbours? Does it spring from some stream of our Christian heritage (remember that the communion of saints extends beyond those who are alive today)? Are you in conversation with others about it, receiving their support and correction and in turn witnessing to them of its fruit? Where a spiritual practice lacks such a communal aspect, it is better set aside – or better yet modified into a more intentionally communal form.
The final foundational element to a fruitful practice of the spiritual disciplines is a clear awareness of their primary activity. All disciplines are merely occasions for communion with God, either directly or mediated through other people or creation. Viewing this communion as a conversation, some disciplines are focused on speaking to God, others on listening to God, and still others on the silence in between speaking and listening. Willard asserts, “Spiritual people are not those who engage in certain spiritual practices; they are those who draw their life from a conversational relationship with God.” (2012, 288). Where this is happening, the mechanics of the discipline’s technique fade into irrelevance. However, when one’s attention shifts to the discipline itself – looking at the window rather than through it, as it were – then something has gone wrong. Of course, in the early days of adopting a new discipline it is understandable to be focused on “doing it right.” Furthermore, there are times (especially in a dark night of the soul) that the faithful practice a spiritual exercise seems to bear little fruit. However, if a preoccupation with technique persists, or if the practice of the discipline degenerates into a mere checkbox on a spiritual to-do list, then a review of that practice with a trusted spiritual mentor is in order. The spiritual disciplines are not magic, efficacious or meritorious in themselves; they are simply means to abide in the vine. When abiding is occurring (even insensibly), disciplines are “working”; when abiding is not, they are not.
Rhythms: The Classical Spiritual Disciplines
The first category of spiritual disciplines is those common to almost all Christians, regardless of location or era. These are practices that are found in the Scriptures, both in precept and modeled by God’s people and practiced throughout Church history. As described before, their goal is to keep us abiding in the Vine, maintaining our communion with God and preserving overall spiritual health. Therefore, of the three kinds of spiritual disciplines, they function in a preventative or preservative mode.
While there are many lists of classic spiritual disciplines, certain practices enjoy perennial support. While the specific form these disciplines take varies from place to place and tradition to tradition, the core practices are widespread. An immersion in the Scriptures often heads the list, whether reading, studying, memorizing, or reflecting upon the Bible. Liturgy is another core practice, including (but not limited to) worship, celebration, and lament (Mulholland 1993, 115). Regular times of rest and recollection, including daily quiet times, weekly Sabbaths, and yearly retreats, create space for these disciplines and others. Finally, while community is the context for all of disciplines, the intentional participation in the life of a specific local body of believers and even more focused interactions with a discipler, spiritual director or soul friend is also counted as a classical discipline. Prayer may seem conspicuous in its absence from this list, but one must recall that all these disciplines are forums for prayer in the broadest sense of a conversation with God.
Regimens: Personal Spiritual Disciplines
As the classical spiritual disciplines support and nurture our spiritual health, they “call us to the more personal disciplines that deal with the unique shape of our personal brokenness” which are “very individual acts of loving obedience offered for God’s use to transform our unlikeness to Christ into wholeness in Christ” (Mulholland 1993, 120). Using a metaphor from physical health, the classical spiritual disciplines are hygienic, in that they that promote good health. They do not guarantee good health, but without them good health is unlikely. The personal spiritual disciplines, however, are therapeutic: restoring good health where it had become injured or compromised. So, if the classical spiritual disciplines are preventative, the personal spiritual disciplines are remedial and restorative. As such, they may only be practiced for a season, rather than the lifelong commitment a believer makes to the classic disciplines.
John Coe offers a four-step process in discerning whether to take up a personal spiritual discipline (2010). As always, the initiative lies with God: a Divine Word comes, inviting the Christian to set aside a vice (like anger), take up a virtue (like generosity), or receive a grace (like peace). The first step of the human response to this invitation is to allow oneself to be addressed (or even confronted) by it, to open up to it. Equally important is to resolve before God that any response will be an expression of willingness rather than willfulness: “God, whatever I’m going to do, I only want to do this in Your Spirit, not my way or by my own power.” It is vital that any obedience the invitation inspires must not arise from the false self, to be a “good little boy/girl” or “to get the monkey of guilt off my back” (Coe 2010). After this presentation and resolution, the person asks God three questions. The first is, “To experience what you’re inviting me into, what kind of person do I need to become?” This addresses the principle of indirection, that lasting spiritual formation only comes as the heart is transformed. Striving to adopt new behaviours directly is a doomed endeavour. The follow-up question is, “In light of the kind of person you are inviting me to become, what are you asking me to do?” Is this invitation a ‘back-burner’ issue, something that God is putting on the table for your reflection, rumination and observation? Or is it a ‘front-burner’ issue, where now is the time to formally take up a regimen, or an intensive period of training focused on this becoming? This discernment is necessary as one can receive multiple invitations to life and wholeness every week, and trying to focus on all of them is too much. They key is to identify which invitation is to be acted upon today. The final question is to ask, “What plan for training are You calling me to?” What activities of the mind, affections, body and social context will open you up to God’s transforming touch in this area of your life? What disciplines of abstinence (like fasting, solitude and silence) or engagement (like worship, Scriptural meditation, or adoration) will assist with this process (Willard 1988, 158)? What is the time period this intensive regimen should be followed, and how will it end?
Responses: Reactive Spiritual Disciplines
The classical and personal spiritual disciplines are both proactive – that is, their implementation is scheduled ahead of time. Another mode of implementing spiritual disciplines is reactively, where one responds to specific unplanned situations in intentional ways. Lovelace notes that “Much of our growth in grace is quietly effected by events and conditions God brings into our lives to perfect his work in us” (1979, 117). The reactive spiritual disciplines recognize this truth and aim to enhance the formational impact of those events and conditions by adopting deliberate responses to them. These disciplines are pledges to obey God’s commands; those are the fruit of spiritual formation. They remain pledges to undertake a form of training, only the trigger for them is not a schedule determined by the disciple but rather incidents outside the disciple’s control. This a middle way between the structure of proactive disciplines and a spontaneous response to an unforeseen circumstance. The reactive disciplines are both firmly intentional and yet fluidly responsive.
While the category of reactive spiritual disciplines is not common in spiritual formation literature, the concept can be found. Breen’s ingenious LifeShapes visual language for discipleship begins with the Learning Circle, a reactive practice of listening to God’s voice in kairos moments and responding with repentance and belief (2016, Kindle Location 1002-1203). Coe affirms that the ugly outbursts of our false self are actually choice invitations from the Holy Spirit to journey more deeply into spiritual formation and should be responded to with what he calls the disciplines of intention (2010). McKnight defines true fasting as “the natural, inevitable response of a person to a grievous sacred moment in life” and goes on to illustrate this responsive nature of fasting by providing eight examples of these sacred moments, five of which are unplanned (2009, 18). Unexpected bouts of insomnia can become involuntary prayer vigils. Breath prayer can be practiced in moments of crisis, tension, stress or temptation. Moments of boredom – waiting in line or in traffic – can be embraced as unplanned mini-retreats instead of ruthlessly exterminated by entertainment served wirelessly via a smartphone. Even the unforeseen execution of the ordinary duties of life can become a sacrament of the present moment, as Jean-Pierre de Caussade recommends in the 18th Century classic Abandonment to Divine Providence.
Rule: A Personalized Plan for Spiritual Disciplines
While any spiritual discipline can be a fruitful form of training, their transformative power is greatly enhanced when combined into a cohesive and personalized training plan. Traditionally known as a rule of life, the preparation (and execution) of such a plan is an essential step in undertaking the spiritual disciplines. Although the term “rule of life” is off-putting to modern ears, evoking images of legalistic codes of conduct, Calhoun asserts that “Life-giving rules are a brief and realistic scaffold of disciplines that support your heart’s desire to grow in loving God and others” (2015, 36). Given this potential problem, she prefers the term “rule for life” and further suggests that “If the word rule makes you anxious, write a ‘rhythm for life.’” (36). A rule, therefore, is a trellis erected to support the organic growth of love. Furthermore, it also codifies specific points of obedience the disciple feels called to personally as an expression of their apprenticeship to Christ.
Such a deliberate and intentional elaboration of steps to be observed may appear cold-blooded and dead on the surface – a repudiation of the spontaneous outpouring of love enthroned as the spiritual ideal by romantics everywhere. But, as George Buttrick observed, “Prayer is friendship with God. Friendship is not formal, but it is not formless: it has its cultivation, its behavior, its obligations, even its disciplines; and the casual mind kills it” (Foster and Smith 2005, 87). Therefore, such forms are not incompatible with genuine love – merely with the whims that are confused for love in this age. Nevertheless, one is well warned not to confuse the rule with the relationship. A rule is merely the matrix of a real relationship, the wire upon which the vine grows. Any confusion of the means with this ultimate goal is a danger to be carefully watched for.
To be effective, a rule must be customized to the individual. First, it must match the disciple’s charisms, or their gifts and the particular composition of their temperament. Second, a truly personal rule will take into account the disciple’s circumstances. Their current life situation will introduce certain limitations on what could be included in their rule. However, as in jazz, such limitations are not an obstacle but rather serve to channel effort that would otherwise be wasted due to an excess of liberty. A rule should also take into account the cutting edge of what the Father is doing in the disciple’s life in this season.
Furthermore, a good rule should be built according to the following best practices. The rule should be grounded in the disciple’s areas of strength, but a minority of items should exercise their areas of weakness. This ensures that they will have the energy and disposition to undertake the rule in general but won’t leave their ‘shadow side’ unchallenged. Second, the difficulty level of the rule should adhere to this heuristic: “Nothing should be included in a rule except what we are sure we can by honest effort carry out under the ordinary conditions of our life” (Hughson 1949, 273). To put it another way, the rule “should be such that it is invariably kept without strain but occasionally makes a definite demand upon the will. It should normally be kept with no fault occasionally, a few faults frequently, and if it all goes to pieces very rarely there is little to worry about” (Thornton 1988, 54). Third, the items of the rule should be both holistic – encompassing all of life – and specific: “Let every point in the rule be so clear and definite that you will know exactly every day whether you have observed it or neglected it” (Hughson 1949, 275). A good rule should also be holistic. It must not be restricted to daily religious activities. It should address various contexts of life, such as personal relations, family, church, the local community, and work. It should also include other time frames, such as activities that recur on a weekly, monthly or yearly cycle. Finally, a rule is not created once for all. The disciple must revise it to ensure that it continues to adhere to these principles, but without changing it too frequently as the fruitfulness of some disciples only becomes apparent with time. Therefore, it should be reviewed every six months or so, ideally with the help of a spiritual director or a spiritual mature friend.
Stay tuned next time for four tips when seeking to introduce spiritual formation to an entire community!