Spirituality Rant

The place I attend has an interest in talking about “spirituality”. It’s got an outdoor labyrinth and time set aside for an indoor one and hosts a Taize service once a month (that is hosted in other local places in other weeks).

I like Taize stuff and it formed an important part of assuring that I remained engaged and interested in Christianity when I was in college because I found through it a contemplative side of Christian worship I hadn’t experienced before. (I’ve since found it in many other kinds of Christian worship, both personal and public.)

Even labyrinths aren’t bad things when properly understood. When we understand that it grows out of the pilgrimage concept and recognize it as an imageless form of the stations of the cross/journey to the cradle/etc., then it plays a useful if occasional role in cultivating Christian spirituality. Too often to my mind, however, it becomes overly focused on the “personal journey” and the place of God as both companion and telos is lost, robbing it of its potential for specifically Christian formation.

I’m no opposed to these kinds of things–but neither should we mistake them for the heart of Christian spirituality!! From where I sit, I often see churches promoting spiritual practices of this order (throw in “Celtic” spirituality et al.) it seems to me we’re majoring in the minors and leaving the center by the wayside.

What is the center of Christian Spirituality? I’d argue it’s exactly the same as a correct definition of liturgy: the ordered and bounded encounter with the entirety of Scripture and the God described therein.

As such, the central practice of Christian spirituality is grounded in the public liturgies of the Church: the Mass and Office. They serve as an inexhaustable sources of spiritual richness because of their interpretive methods and mechanisms. That is, the liturgy functions through the simple principle of juxtapostion; the liturgical cycles put different texts together, then the liturgical compositions for the day/season use a decidedly underdetermined approach to relate them. That is, the colleects, hymns, propers, never come right out and explain the connections, rather they simply hint at them or draw attention to one aspect of them. The power of the liturgy lies in this underdetermined interpretation–the liturgy never tries to fully explain itself or its ways, leaving us always capable of finding new and more connections between and throughout the texts brought together.

This is what we need to teach. This is what we need to promote.

Sure, the other stuff is good too—in its place. And its place is the recognition that even all the ancillary forms of Christian spirituality can not and should not be seen apart from the center. To tease this out a bit, embracing—say, medieval spiritualities like the Rhinelanders or the anchorites—is all well and good, but we misinterpret it if we don’t see it arising from the established public forms of spirituality.

The center is the key. The ordered and bounded encounter with Scripture and the God who animates, breathes, and speaks through it is what we fundamentally need to be about.


11 thoughts on “Spirituality Rant

  1. Chris

    I like your definition (particularly your second rephrasing of it): The ordered and bounded encounter with Scripture and the God who animates, breathes, and speaks through it.

    Apart from worship, too many of our churches are afraid of being explicitly religious, explicitly Christian. Odd, no? We clamor for eastern or medieval spiritual practices – often ripped from their contextual moorings of culture, history, and theology (and thus doing them a disservice in the process) – and neglect many of the spiritual riches within our own tradition. Argh.

  2. Marshall Scott

    A local university offers a “communiversity” program of non-credit and special interest courses, usually offered by folks from outside the university. Now and again I play with offering a course called “Occidental Meditation.” My observation is that youthful (and in many ways just American) fascination with the unfamiliar as “exotic” leads to a certain dilettante exploration of spiritual technologies people observe among Buddhists and Hindus. The point of the program would be to note that those technologies are well represented within Christian tradition; but because we clergy haven’t taught that, our people somehow think they have to go outside.

    As one struggling to be Benedictine (as an Associate of an Episcopal Benedictine order for men), I appreciate absolutely your point, Derek. It is so easy for folks to get caught up in what we call in our house “the ‘Gee Whiz’ factor” in spiritual exploration. There is a point in helping people discover different forms of spiritual discipline, because different people have different gifts and personalities. But if we let ourselves or those we serve lose track that these are to be paths to God, and not just to our own emotional relief, we only enable dilettante exploration instead of challenging it.

  3. John-Julian, OJN

    Derek and Marshall:

    Exactly spot on! And I think the reason for the fascination with non-Christian forms of spirituality is quite simply that our clergy have virtually fled from both personally practising and publicly presenting Christianity’s own venerable traditions of contemplative spirituality.

    Back in 1987, Fr. Kenneth Leech wrote :
    “There were exceptions, but on the whole the Church [in l967] was baffled [by the hippies]. As it simplified its liturgies and became ‘relevant,’ the hippies turned to caftans, bells and incense, and read The Cloud of Unknowing . . . Young people who had come through the hippy experience to local churches. . . had moved often via LSD and Eastern meditation, towards an interest in the spiritual tradition of Christianity. . .We needed Christian people, clergy and laity, who would be able, unselfconsciously and with integrity, to minister to these young people out of the riches of the Christian spiritual tradition. But it was very hard to find such people. Sadly, I found that many priests were quite useless at communicating the deep things of the spirit. The hippies complained that [the priests] did not seem to know God as the Eastern teachers did. [The priests] were into words and activity more than silence and contemplation. Christianity came over as a very head-centered and bourgeois movement. . . Twenty years on, I am not sure that we have learnt the lessons of that summer.”

    What a condemnation: “…the priests did not seem to know God as the Easter teachers did.”! And I ask myself, “How many priests have I known who could be said to ‘know God’?”

    Re. Derek’s elegant definition of liturgy/spirituality, it is interesting to note that the promotion of lectio divina (a major component of classical Christian spirituality) has always had a strong (albeit not exclusive) base in Scripture.

    [And, in passing, I think our overlooking lectio divina has been a contributing factor to the present fundamentalist literalism. I have been a priest for over 50 years, and I never even HEARD of lectio divina until I was over fifty yeas old! Why did no one instruct me? Why as I not told? Why was that venerable tradition hidden from me?]

  4. John-Julian, OJN

    I do have to add (as Marshall suggests) that probably the place to look for those insights today is in the monastic tradition – especially the Benedictine and Carmelite traditions…..

  5. Michelle of Heavenfield

    Did you all read the PEW foundation report this week on Americans changing denominations? Not only are cradle Episcopalians few but many of the children we raise today will go on to other denominations. One of the advantages that Episcopalians offer is freedom to explore and yet unity within our Sunday liturgy and the BCP. I have talked to many new people in my parish and most of them are totally new to the denomination. One of the things they often mention is the freedom we offer and that they aren’t going to be condemned for some practice or belief. That freedom is part of who we are…

    If you think freedom is a bad thing talk to Roman Catholics or fundamental evangelicals who happen to disagree with their leadership.

  6. meg

    Wow, there’s a labyrinth now? I can’t imagine where on campus they’d put it.

    I was at Norwich Cathedral on sunday, where they have a maze. I wish I’d written down all the Recommended Topics to ponder as one walks the maze (yes, there was a sign, with a list). They were pretty amusing, or exasperating, if you prefer… One of them was “Give thought to the works and ways of your own god.” I don’t mind the intent, but the wording needs help.

  7. Joe Rawls

    My parish has a permanent outdoor labyrinth. I always say the Jesus Prayer while walking it. There’s a lot of New Age hoo-haw associated with labyrinths, but even they can be salvaged for more authentic forms of (yes) spirituality.

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