Detail of a stained glass of the Conversion of St. Paul St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Dayton OH Photo by Russell Smith
People ask very good questions.
Yesterday, one of our congregation members emailed me, asking, “How would you characterize Christian spirituality?”
There are libraries on this subject, degree programs requiring years of study, and licensed practitioners of “spiritual formation.” Christian literature abounds with books by the giants of spiritual formation: Anthony of the Desert, Saint Benedict, Bernard of Clairveaux, Brother Lawrence, Catherine of Sienna, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and so many others. It seems I should simply supply a reading list, for all these luminaries have so much more to say about the subject than I ever could. I’m just a student.
However the question was “How would you …”
And that makes all the difference.
Christian spirituality, in my understanding, is about relationship.
In theology we study about God. In spirituality we experience God. In theology we learn facts. In spirituality we enjoy relationship. This is not to disparage theology. It is a vital and helpful discipline. It is, however, a different discipline from spirituality.
As an example, consider our celebrity culture. We can know a lot about our favorite sports star, musician, political pundit, etc. We can read every book he’s written. We can review the history of his work. We can study every interview, parsing the language to ponder the hidden truths behind each turn of phrase. In doing so, we can amass a lot of information that is helpful and right and good. We can, from this information, glean how this celebrity might suggest we live, and we can, to the best of our abilities, live in that way (think Lance Armstrong’s “Live Strong” movement or Bono’s One campaign to end hunger).
We can do all of these things, and still not be in relationship with that celebrity.
What’s more, we can talk with people who have met the celebrity. We can listen to firsthand experiences, people telling what a great guy he is. We can listen to the intimate insights offered by some of the celebrity’s closest friends. We can hang around these people so that their stories become our stories, and we feel like we’re part of the community gathered around this celebrity.
And yet, we still do not have a relationship with that celebrity.
Relationship requires that we somehow meet, person to person, and that we interact.
Relationship is about talking with and listening to. With God, we call that prayer. But prayer is tricky. It is a skill that must be learned through practice. We can read books on prayer, but if we never pray then we get nowhere. When we try to learn by praying in groups, our prayers (or at least my prayers) often sound like they are for the benefit of the humans gathered about – as though they were the ones we need to impress.
Perhaps that’s why Jesus said to “go into your closet and lock your door and pray to your father who is in secret.” Perhaps that’s why God drove Elijah into the wastelands to meet him alone on a mountain. Perhaps that’s why God appeared to Moses in a burning bush when he was away tending the flock. Because there is a part of Christian spirituality that must be done in solitude. Person to person.
God speaks to each of his children in a slightly different ways. Any parent of multiple children will tell you that they’re all different and they relate to those children in distinctive ways. Why would God be any different?
At this point, the critics raise their voices and shout “mysticism!” and denounce spirituality as unbiblical.
Christian spirituality, to be called Christian at all, must be founded on the bedrock of scriptures. “All scripture is God breathed….” God makes it clear that scripture is a starting place for knowing Him.
It’s just not the terminal place.
Daily communion with God, person to Person, creature to Creator, does not somehow negate scripture. It makes scripture come alive. In scripture I read, “the heavens are telling the glory of God.” As I walk about my neighborhood, the Holy Spirit uses that scripture to prompt me to rejoice in the glorious sunset, to be still and marvel at the stars, to laugh at the falling snow, and to breathe in the sweetness of the spring rain shower.
In scripture I read “What is man that thou art mindful of him?…. You have made them a little lower than the angels.” The Holy Spirit brings that scripture to mind and then asks, “now what do you make of this Downs Syndrome boy? How do you approach this mentally disturbed woman? Will you have patience with this cranky man?”
In scripture I read, “Be still and know that I am God.” When I take the time to sit still and rest in that knowledge, God shows up to do all kinds of inconvenient things – convicting me of my own sin, comforting me in my sorrows, offering challenges to expand my ministry. I don’t take those as authoritative “words from the Lord.” Not every flush of emotion is a divine directive. However, I think that the longer we walk with the Lord, the more we develop a “sanctified intuition” – the more we know when we can and can’t trust that inner pull.
Another caveat – to be truly Christian spirituality, there must be some community component. There should be no Lone Ranger Christians. God is Trinity – three persons. Community is a part of God’s character. Community is a part of how God shapes His people. Christian spirituality oscillates between individual enjoyment of the divine presence and community enjoyment of the divine presence. After all, “Wherever two or more are gathered….”
That’s a start, anyway.
But I’m just a student. I’d love to hear other takes. The comment box is open.
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