When you think of “spirituality,” what comes to mind? Prayer? Yoga poses? Light and peace and health? For much of my youth, “spirituality” was something that only Buddhists or New Age hippies pursued. As a good, Southern Baptist evangelical, I didn’t have “spirituality,” I had my “walk with Jesus.”
Mostly, this consisted of a daily “quiet time” with God, in which I read a passage out of the Bible, wrote down my thoughts in a journal, and prayed. The undercurrent was one of fear, though. I viewed God as a Divine Curmudgeon, the Great Mr. Wilson in the sky. My attempts at daily discipline were to try and placate him, to show him how serious and studious I was about wanting a relationship with him. And to apologize. Every time I prayed, I brought with me a long list of sins for which I needed forgiveness. I begged God daily to allow the blood of Jesus to cover over my latest transgressions. Theologically, I understood that God would forgive me, but I sure didn’t think he was very happy about it. I figured he was fairly put out by having to hear from me every day about how I’d screwed up since the last time I’d prayed. I felt guilty about exercising the Jesus-Loophole; God had to forgive me because I am a Christian. It’s like he was under contractual obligation.
Prayer, reading the Bible, and journaling were disciplines that served only to show me how utterly incapable I was of meeting God’s high standards, much like how the Law operated for the Hebrews. I could never do enough to satisfy the Divine Curmudgeon. So I quit. I stopped praying, reading the Bible, and journaling because nearly every time I did, I felt worse afterward than I did before. On the rare occasion when I felt better, the feeling was one of relief, as if I’d escaped a holy spanking.
Sometime in my early-20s, I learned about the contemplative stream of Christianity, Christian mystics, and contemporary monasticism. Here were men and women engaging in some of the same practices I’d engaged in during my youth, but they wrote about experiencing Divine Love, not Divine Whew-I’m-Glad-That-Bought-Me-More-Time. I began to devour the writings of Henri Nouwen, Brennan Manning, Thomas Merton, Julian of Norwich, Teresa Avila, John of the Cross, and others. I felt like I was cheating, though. All of these men and women were Catholic and I was a Baptist. At that point in my life, I wasn’t even sure that Catholics were Christian, and as a result I didn’t feel like I could engage in those same practices and postures toward the Divine. But I longed to. I read about their spirituality and my heart ached to know the God they described.
Then, I came upon Richard Foster’s Streams of Living Water. That book set me free. Foster helped me understand that there are many great traditions of the Christian faith, emphasized to different degrees in varying historical expressions and denominations. Before Foster, I saw contemplative Christianity as a separate waterway that, in order for me to access, would require a portage out of my own tradition and into another. Foster helped me re-imagine that, describing instead the different traditions as currents in one great river of faith. All I needed to do was move my boat a little in the river and pick up a different current.
Exploring spiritual practices as a way to experience God’s Divine Love, rather than as a way to appease a Divine Sourpuss radically transformed my spirituality. I discovered a richness and depth to the Divine that I’d only ever read about. Still, I struggled with wanting to appease pacify God through spiritual discipline, something that may never fully go away. But on the best days, I’m consumed in the mystical river of God’s Love, carried along by its currents.
That is not to say that my spirituality is settled. I am still learning and growing. Despite some of the life-giving discoveries of the contemplative tradition, I experience prolonged periods of doubt and distance from God. In these times it is difficult to be patient and be still. I know from those who have traveled this path before me that there is no way around these “Dark Nights.” They must be endured and even embraced. On the other side, in the new dawn is more of the Divine, more of God.
For me, the spiritual practices I engage with the most are prayer/meditation, journaling, reading (the Bible, but also other books about the spiritual life), walking/running, fasting (not often), regular gathered worship with my church and the celebration of the eucharist. I cannot stress these last two enough. There must be a community component to one’s spirituality. Spiritual hermits are the exception, not the rule. One of the biggest lies of the evangelical world is that one’s spirituality or “walk with Jesus” is a personal, individual matter. Though it may entail many individual practices, one’s spiritual formation cannot happen alone. It takes a community to form an individual.
My advice to those looking for a richer experience of the Divine:
- Find a teacher – This might be someone you know or it might be someone from history, accessed through his or her writings. You don’t need to try and figure this stuff out on your own. Please don’t!
- Give yourself grace – I used to berate myself for missing a day of “quiet time.” This only served to drive me farther from God and from my practice. Aim for a regular rhythm, but let that rhythm come to you. Don’t force it.
- Journey with others – Find a couple other people who would also like to enrich their spiritual lives and commit to meeting together to learn from one another, encourage one another, and stand with one another.
Three books I recommend you read:
- Abba’s Child by Brennan Manning
- Streams of Living Water by Richard Foster
- In the Name of Jesus by Henri Nouwen
What about you? What spiritual practices to you engage in? How have these helped or hurt your formation? What advice do you have for others? What resources would you like to share?