The spirit of discipline.

The list seems endless: prayer, meditation, fasting, journaling, “spiritual reading” (whatever that is), tithing, charitable acts.  Spiritual disciplines are so intimidating.  I googled “spiritual disciplines” and got 824,000 hits.  Just “prayer” got 88,700,000.  88 million people have written about prayer on the internet.  Each person has a different idea of what it means to pray, what it “does,” how it “works,” what the point of praying is.  You see, lately I’ve been realizing how hard it is to define what my own spiritual practices are.  For years, I’ve flowed in and out of certain habits.  Journaling is helpful sometimes, but usually after a month or so I tire of it or (more usually) tap out whatever guide I’m using and can’t quite get into the spirit of another one.  I never return to what I write, anyhow.  If I do reread my journals, I find myself wondering who the person was who wrote “that.”  It always feels unfamiliar, like stepping into the life of someone I know only from the news or TV.  The scene is familiar, but everything else seems foreign.  I love quiet, but sitting still isn’t my cup of tea unless I’m reading or on the computer, so meditation and prayer are a challenge.  For a long time, I’ve felt pretty heavy guilt about the irregularity and (might I say?) undisciplined nature of my spiritual practices.  Hit or miss, nothing like some of the people I admire so much who have doggedly pushed their way through the entirety of the Bible every year for decades or those who pray every morning.  Despite my admiration, I just can’t do that.  It simply isn’t who I am. 

But recently I’ve been trying to think about my own sense of spiritual practice differently.  I realized that the language we use about prayer and other disciplines is that of “fitness,” as though if we simply find the exercise that will “work” best in our own life and stick to it, our holiness muscles will be strong and toned, the solution to accessing God found through sheer sweat and self-will.  Discipline.  Well, I think there is certainly some very serious truth to this way of viewing spirituality… after all, if you don’t show up, it’s quite unlikely you’ll be doing very much listening to God, and practice does make perfection, after a fashion.  I remember, for example, a time when I really made a commitment to journal daily during Lent a few years ago.  The first weeks were painful.  I hated sitting there, attempting to speak to God and be silent so that God could speak to me.  But over that forty days, I became more able to wait patiently with my pen, not so sure of the truth of what I was saying, had a growing willingness to question my own assumptions about the things I was reading and thinking.  I felt guided.  A growing sense of peace about things I couldn’t control settled over me as I started to recognize patterns in my prayers and complaints.  But then, Lent ended and so did my commitment. 

So fitness might be a helpful metaphor… but I also think it limits how I think about what it means to live out my faith, using spiritual disciplines as a way to learn more about God and my relationship to God.  One of the 88 million websites (I confess, I didn’t keep track of which) said this, which I find enlightening:

“These disciplines can’t save you; they can’t even make you a holy person. But they can heighten your desire, awareness, and love of God by stripping down the barriers that you put up within yourself and some that others put up for you. What makes something a ‘spiritual discipline’ is that it takes a specific part of your way of life and turns it toward God. A spiritual discipline is, when practiced faithfully and regularly, a habit or regular pattern in your life that repeatedly brings you back to God and opens you up to what God is saying to you.”

Reading that, and thinking about what my spiritual life looks like right now, I realize that there are a number of wonderful things I’m a part of that absolutely “count” as spiritual disciplines, despite the fact that I don’t practice them daily and they aren’t on any “official” lists.  They are, yet and still, patterns in my life that do turn my heart and thoughts toward God and change the focus of the lens through which I view the world. 

  • Reading a variety of newspapers from around the globe
  • Putting myself in the presence of people who are deeply different from myself, either in opinion or experience
  • Noticing the beauty of the world, whether it’s in nature or the lives of other people
  • Taking joy in random moments, and not resisting my own spontaneous response to – a song on the radio, hearing a child laugh on the street, those times when a conversation with a friend is exactly the right thing at the right time
  • Spending time with people who have a deep connection with the holy or who have a generosity and openness of spirit
  • Writing this blog
  • Doing justice – making daily choices, as much as possible, with the well-being of other people across the world in mind, advocating for causes in line with my faith, living simply
  • Doing household chores.  This is one time when I really do pray.  God and I talk better when I’m doing dishes or making dinner or washing windows.  The physical activity seems to busy my mind in such a way that God can bypass all of the junk floating through my head the rest of the day. 

All of these things are ways I live my life.  They permeate my experience of the world and of God, and they help me listen more fully.  They aren’t an hour a day with my Bible.  They certainly do not make me holy and aren’t saving me on their own.  But each of them breaks down the barriers between myself and God and other people and God’s Creation.  They bring me back to God and remind me of all the mundane places where God is, all the daily things that in fact are sacred. 

I wonder, having read this, if you have anything similar in your own life?  One of the things I’ve found during my time in seminary is that we simply don’t talk about what our spiritual disciplines are – a vast majority of us (90% of Americans) say we pray, but what does that look like?  How do you practice spirituality?  What patterns turn you toward God?  How are you listening?

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2 Comments »

  1. liser Said:

    Amen and amen, Jules! Thank you for writing words that reflect my inner thoughts. 🙂 I really stink at spiritual discipline type things- ask Lisa Withrow- I struggled ALL semester in Church Leadership! I try to make time for God..at times I really get inspired to just read about Jesus or pray.. but mostly I see God in the innocent laughter of my preschoolers, when love is given to me freely, when I make the choice to do the right thing (even in the smallest of matters). It is interesting to think about spiritual disciplines being more action-oriented for some people- seeking God through justice work, for instance, not solely spending time in meditation… Anyways, keep on keeping on. You rock! 🙂

  2. honeywasp Said:

    I’m so glad that connected for you – sometimes I feel a bit judged by people when I try to talk about spiritual disciplines and what I do (or totally don’t) do… have you ever felt that way? Like it’s hard to talk about because it’s never (ever) enough. Or exactly right. Or whatever. I love what you said aobut getting really inspired to read or pray – that’s beautiful, and I think the discipline in that is actually following the instinct. Sometimes that happens to me and I don’t go for it, which makes me a bit sad. So many things get in the way, but if the Spirit is there, then I feel like nothing should stop me.
    Anyway, thanks for the comment – I’m going to keep thinkng about what you said. And right back atcha, by the way. You rock my socks.
    Jules


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