So—continuing the pieces that are contributing to a new work on prayer book spirituality… This piece is logically prior to the last one. I felt the need to remind people about what the heart of this whole exercise is about that then I could reference in later sections.
Two things about this piece… First, it flowed while I was writing it, but I think there are some logic jumps between certain paragraphs/topics where the dots need to be filled in for people who don’t live inside my head. Second, I feel like I’m getting one angle on the topic here but that there are other valuable angles that need to be added but I’m not sure if they belong here or elsewhere. Ah well—here goes:
Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing
My wife is, among other things, a coach with our local running club. She’ll have runners come to her and complain that they don’t feel like they’re making much progress. Her first question is “what’s your goal?” Whether it’s maintaining a certain pace for a certain number of miles, setting a new personal record for a given race, or losing a few pounds, there’s got to be a goal. Otherwise the idea of “progress” is a futile one! Whether they have one or not, her response is inevitably “show me your running log.” Well—they haven’t filled it out. Or, they have and it shows sporadic workouts scattered across a couple of weeks. Or it may show consistency but no differentiation between types of workouts. With the log in hand, she can ask how their training will help them get to their goal. Once she’s established in their minds a connection between their daily and weekly training and the accomplishment of their longer term goal, she can suggest how consistency and balancing the right kinds of workouts will help them achieve it. The training has to be tailored to the goal.
The practice and metaphor of physical training has been connected with the process of spiritual development since the ancient world. It takes the same kind of discipline and consistency to progress in the spiritual life as it does in physical fitness. Indeed, the technical term for the theory and practice of spiritual development is “ascetical theology” taken from the Greek word askesis that simply means “training.” Paul taps into the language of physical training (and running specifically!) in 1 Corinthians when he speaks to the Corinthians of his own self-disciplines: “Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-7). Paul reminds us that we have to have a goal. Not only that, we have to keep a sense that our training is directly contributing to our attainment of that goal.
There is a disconnect between the way that most people approach spirituality and how they approach a concrete project like building a doghouse or a dollhouse. When you’re working on a project like that, there are concrete tasks that you’re trying to accomplish; there’s a goal to work towards and your success can be measured by progress against that goal. We don’t tend to think of prayer and meditation in that same way; you can’t see it taking shape—the framing coming together, milestones being accomplished like getting the roof on. And yet, just because it cannot be easily measured does not mean that there aren’t steps towards progress. Martin Thornton, the Anglican spiritual writer, reminds us that there is one true test of an effective spirituality practice: does it make me a more loving person?
At the end of the day, this is what we are about. We have been created in the image and likeness of God. At the beginning of our making, before even the first cells of our bones were constructed, God framed us in his own image. A God-shaped pattern lies at the heart of our being. As Scripture and tradition have revealed again and again, God’s own character is rooted in love, justice, mercy, and fidelity. The psalms struggle to use the immensity of creation to describe the character of God: “Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens, and your faithfulness to the clouds. Your righteousness is like the strong mountains, your justice like the great deep; you save both man and beast, O Lord” (Ps 36:5-6). These same attributes were woven into our being before the cords of our sinews were knit. Where are they now? As beings created to love and serve God and one another, how in touch are we with this fundamental pattern?
Truthfully, we fall far short of the promise of our pattern. We don’t consistently manifest the characteristics that have been built into us. This is the result of sin. Through our own choices, through the choices of others, through the choices that society makes and heaps upon us, we lose sight of who and what we are. We invest ourselves in stories at odds with God’s story, stories about riches and success and fame where what matters is getting ahead—or perhaps stories about needs and hungers and addictions where what matters is quieting the cravings…until they kick up again. We invest ourselves in patterns of life that are skewed from the pattern that God has laid down for us, patterns grounded in something other than love and faithfulness.
The point of Christian spirituality, then, is to recall us to ourselves. It is to reconcile us to the God who loves us, who created us in his own image, and who cared enough for our redemption to take frail flesh and demonstrate the patterns of love, mercy and justice in the person of Jesus Christ—patterns that led him through the cross to resurrection. In Jesus, in God’s ultimate act of self-revelation and of self-emptying for our sake, we have been called back; we can get in touch with the “us” that God originally created us to be. Therefore, the true test of a Christian spirituality is whether it helps us accomplish this goal: are we freed to love and to most fully be who God created us to be?
But we can’t stop there, either, I’m afraid… The Christian enterprise isn’t just about us—individually. While God cares deeply about the redemption of each one of us, there’s a much bigger scope in view here. God wills the redemption of all humanity, of all creation. Our spiritual work isn’t just about being the best we can be—it’s about participating in God’s monumental effort to reconcile all creation back to the patterns of love, justice, mercy, and fidelity, back to the goodness that it had once and can have again.
To put it another way, Paul reminds again and again in his letters that we have been baptized into the Body of Christ. He means this in a mystical sense—that we are connected into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—but he means it socially as well—that we are connected into the community of all the others who have been connected into Jesus as well, the Church. But being incorporated into the Body is the beginning of the process, not its end. It’s not enough to be grafted into the Body of Christ if we don’t likewise share in the Mind of Christ which is so famously laid out in the Christ-hymn of Philippians: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross…” (Phil 2:5-8). Ephesians reminds us that this is the point of the whole exercise; Christian spirituality isn’t just about you—your spiritual success is tied to everyone else around you and, indeed, that’s the point of the institutional church: “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. . . . But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (Eph 4:12-13; 15-16, emphasis added). We’re not on this journey alone; our own spiritual maturity is tied up with how we model and encourage that maturity in others. Any spirituality or spiritual exercise that cuts us off or makes us feel superior to those around us is not being rightly used.
Thus, the goal of Christian spirituality is to bring to whole Body to Christian maturity. We do this by cultivating that maturity in ourselves and modeling it for others and encouraging them in their own path based on the gifts for building up the Body that we’ve been given. Alright—if that’s the goal, then how do we measure our progress towards it? Well, this is a little more subjective. It’s not like running; I can’t see how I’m doing in the same way that I glance down at a running watch to check my pace.
As Thornton suggests, the most reliable guide is an honest appraisal of how we treat those around us. Are we treating the inevitable provocations of daily life with anger and resentment or with patience and compassion? (Well—at least increasing degrees of patience…) When I sit and ponder how my spiritual life is going, one of the best measures I know is to consider how my wife and kids might rate me; am I being a more thoughtful and patient husband? Am I responding to their demands on my time in appropriate ways? And not just them—how would my co-workers answer the same question?
The habits of devotion foster in us the habits of virtue. We are transformed—slowly and with a certain amount of inevitable back-sliding—gradually towards the mind of Christ. As disconnected as devotion and virtue might appear from one another, both the wisdom of the church and our own experience will confirm it. I remember once being angry at my wife over some petty household argument—which I can’t even remember now—and thinking that I couldn’t bear to pray Evening Prayer then because once I had done so, I’d have better perspective, be more centered, and that I would have to acknowledge that she was right!
I also want to offer a word of caution concerning another kind of test. Sometimes we get the sense that the point of spiritual devotions (or even church services and sacraments) is to feel uplifted or inspired. That the correct judge if it “worked” is whether we felt the Spirit moving or if we felt a spiritual high. Now, I’m a firm believer in the presence and the movement of the Spirit. I’ve discerned it in liturgical worship, in free-church worship, in the sacraments, and outside of them as well. And yet I’ve also felt emotional states that seem much like it that passed quickly or were the result of some kind of emotional manipulation. You can’t manipulate the Spirit and you can’t manipulate long-term formation. The point of a solid devotional practice is not momentary surges of emotion; long-term formation and transformation is measured in years and decades. Sometimes good and worthwhile devotional practices will inspire us—and sometimes they may feel like work for long stretches of time.
As we continue to think together about spirituality, I want you to keep this in back of your mind. We’re doing this for a reason. There’s a purpose to all of this. There is a goal. We want to connect back into the God who calls us each by name. We want to align our priorities with his priorities. We want to make our individual stories part of his greater, larger, deeper story. We want to be transformed as he is, so that we might love as he does so that, so graced, we might better understand and express his love for us and for his whole creation.