As so often, I am once again quoting from a wonderful blog called “Richer By Far” – from a post called, “When You Don’t Need Spiritual Disciplines”:
The master was asked, ‘What is spirituality?’
He said, ‘Spirituality is that which succeeds
in bringing one to inner transformation.’
‘But if I apply the traditional methods handed
down by the masters, is that not spirituality?’
‘It is not spirituality if it does not perform
its function for you. A blanket is no longer a
blanket if it does not keep you warm.’
‘So spirituality does change?’
‘People change and needs change. So what was
spirituality once is spirituality no more. What
generally goes under the name of spirituality
is merely the record of past methods.’
Anthony de Mello
“A disciplined person is not simply someone who exercises many disciplines. …Disciplined people can do what is called for at any given moment. They can do the right thing at the right time in the right way for the right reason. This definition applies to artists and athletes and astronauts as well as to followers of Jesus. A disciplined follower of Jesus – a ‘disciple’ – is not someone who has ‘mastered the disciplines’ and never misses a daily regimen of spiritual exercises. A disciplined follower of Jesus is someone who discerns when laughter, gentleness, silence, healing words, or prophetic indignation is called for, and offers it promptly, effectively, and lovingly.” John Ortberg
“The aim and substance of spiritual life is not fasting, prayer, hymn singing, frugal living, and so forth. …People who think that they are spiritually superior because they make practice of a discipline such as fasting or silence or frugality are entirely missing the point. The need for extensive practice of a given discipline is an indication of our weakness, not our strength. …the true indicator of spiritual well-being is growth in the ability to love God and people. If we can do this without the practice of any particular spiritual disciplines, then we should by all means skip them.” Dallas Willard
Not that long ago, I had asked someone to lead a day on spirituality within the context of Community life, and he began by defining spirituality as a list of a few points, very much on the lines of
- Christian beliefs
…and so forth.
My heart sank when I heard that. It sank quite a long way… For all I knew about him, that’s the last thing I had expected him to tell a group of people at the beginning of a formation day. In particular a group of people who were not even all Christian.
Recently, Pope Francis of all people said one can be “spiritual but not religious”, which tends to mean one can have a spiritual life without going to church or follow the “traditional spiritual disciplines”. I actually would like to be “religious” and can’t bring myself to go to church at the moment. Which is fair enough, I guess. Church was not a choice for a very long time – first it was my parents’ decision, then I went out of guilt or fear or whatever other reason, trying very hard to be what others wanted me to be. I need a break to sort this out within me. And it’s okay for me to accept that. But that I currently find the Church as it is unhelpful for my faith life does not mean I don’t have a faith life… I’m Christian, and this is an important part of who I am. This is the name that is generally given my relationship with God. Being a Christian. This relationship is at the heart of who I am. That’s what I’m built on. And I wasn’t for the twenty years I did go to church!
I know quite a few people, and currently this includes me, who are Christians and who do not go to church because church, too often, has not helped us at all to “do the right thing at the right time in the right way for the right reason” (John Ortberg) or grow our “ability to love God and people” (Dallas Willard). I found that in particular to be true in terms of the limited ability of the church to love people when this concerns the female half or the LGBT part of the population. Or child abuse survivors. In too many people’s experience the church has lost its way (if it ever had it). Would it be good news to God that the churches exclude people from sacraments? Whether that’s excluding divorcees from Communion or lesbian or gay couples from marriages, I can’t help but think that Jesus would have walked right up to those people – and it’s pretty likely it would have been on the Sabbath too….. – to make sure they know that in God’s eyes they are good news, they are God’s holy children, wanted and loved and very much welcome. If the churches try to represent “that of God” in the world, there is some work that needs to be done to catch up with reflecting the unconditional love of God. Pope Francis understands this. His humility does more for the church than any theological treaties on “who is worthy and who is not” every could. Amen to what he does. He hasn’t changed church laws (and I would think that’s a bit of a nut to crack in the Vatican) but still he loves God and people much better than either have been loved in a long time by his church. And I think it’s the same pretty much everywhere.
So what are my “spiritual disciplines”? What “succeeds in bringing [me] to inner transformation”? How do I “discern when laughter, gentleness, silence, healing words, or prophetic indignation is called for”? What brings alive my love for God and people?
It usually is not about going to church. It is not about signing up to some “Christian set of beliefs” that someone else has written up for me. It is not about letting another person tell me what to believe or how to live as a Christian. There are people I look up to, and whose views matter very much to me, and I will deeply consider what they say. But I try not to echo someone else’s words when I haven’t made the effort myself to discern whether or not they are true to me also. I was so focussed on trying to be who everyone apparently wanted me to be in the past that I ended up not knowing God or myself, only knowing what others thought about God or me. I try very much not to let that happen again. There are different gifts in different people. I work to find what the gifts are that God has given me and then to use them to “build God’s kingdom”. Maybe one of those things is creativity, one of them is empathy, one of them might be writing, one might be adoration, one might be singing. To become aware of the gifts of God in me – the things in me that give life both to me and to others, that might well be a spiritual discipline. And the church is not the only place where I can use those gifts – too often I get the impression that the kind of vocation is encouraged that seems needed in the church, instead of finding out what vocation the people actually have and then finding a way to let them contribute to the life of the church with those gifts…
One thing that helps me with that is solitude. Silence. Time away from everyone, time with God, time with myself. I try to go on retreat at least once a year, and it’s an important time for me to gather myself, centre myself, and to be very near to God. I’m near to God all day, every day, I know that, but there is a difference – say there’s a married couple who also work together. They are around each other all the time, every time. And yet, if they put everything down and sit together to just be with each other, without to do lists and other things to think about, it’s a very different quality of being present with each other. Nature helps me very much to rest in God’s company, it’s very important to me to spend time outside, green and birds and sky around and above me. God is spacious and creative and loving, God can laugh and cry and get angry or sad – I think that’s the part of me as well that nature helps me to be with. I’m not particularly good at feeling what I feel when I feel it… I need catch-up time. I don’t allow myself to feel what I feel when I don’t think I’m in a safe enough space. I would hate to cry with people present, for example – most people, that is, I think there are a few now with who that would be okay – and at the same time, I think it would be really good for me if I could show my feelings more openly. That’s to do with trust as well, of course. And I do think I’m learning about trust. Slow progress. But in general, I hold it all in. Often the writing helps with that, painting, creative expression of any kind. Dance, music. As a teenager, I was in a chamber choir, and looking back, I realise just how important that was for me. When I was singing Mendelssohn, the music expressed for me what I did not know how to express elsewhere. Brahms – I listened to the “German Requiem” as a teenager uncountable times. I needed that music. Both to release some emotion, and especially with Mendelssohn and Brahms, to pray as well, to give God my praise and my sorrow, and to receive some consolation. I’m so grateful I had that. And the writing began as well when I was a teenager, and that has been invaluable.
These are some of my “spiritual exercises”. Not a rigid discipline, not something I feel guilty about when I skip it, but fluid resources I can draw from. To know what is needed when, that’s up to me. Nobody tells me anymore that God is disappointed with me if I don’t go to church, in the same way as I don’t believe people anymore as I once did that “God can’t find you at the disco/cinema/etc”. Yes, that’s the kind of stuff I was told as a kid. It seems a different world but it’s not that long ago. There is no guilt in my relationship with God. I am very careful about this space, it needs protecting. I need to do what is right for me, that’s my responsibility. I recently wrote about “pathless places”. It’s very important for me to have this. A place where who I am is enough. Where there is no automatic addition of “but you will …, won’t you?” A place where God says, “It’s okay. Just because some people look disappointed or raise an eyebrow or get sad or start praying for you when they hear you’re not going to church on Sundays, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong not to go, I know this is what you need”. God knows. I know. Making myself go to church would have nothing whatsoever to do with what I need for my spiritual life right now. It would have a lot to do with what other people think I need – with the best intentions, mostly. It would reinforce/replay all the past pressure and guilt rides and falseness. God is okay with me not going. So I can accept that too. And sometimes I need to go away with God for some time to remember that. Sometimes “my thoughts are not your thoughts” can mean things like that, too.
I wish all of us time this week to be with God. Just to sit with the baby for a bit while he’s sleeping, let his fingers curl around ours, and find some peace.