Coming from the world of Evangelicalism, I’m not going to lie. The phrase “spiritual disciplines” does evoke a moderate level of cringe. I think of the gospel of works, the guilt and shame tactics used by Sunday School teachers through the years, and all that time I spent praying for no reason other than I felt like I had to. Yet here I am, deep in the thick of faith deconstruction, finding myself being drawn more and more to these ancient practices.
Over the next few months, I’m going to dive deeply into ancient spirituality. But I wanted to write this quick blog post before I do. Because for some reason the phrase “spiritual disciplines” still turns me off, and I’m certain that holds true for a lot of you as well. So here is my attempt to redefine, and in a sense reclaim, this ancient phrase.
St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) is the founder of the Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits. Ignatius wrote a book that is still widely used today called The Spiritual Exercises. Here is his definition of the phrase:
"By the term “Spiritual Exercises” is meant every method of examination of conscience, of meditation, of contemplation, of vocal and mental prayer, and of other spiritual activities that will be mentioned later. For just as taking a walk, journeying on foot, and running are bodily exercises, so we call Spiritual Exercises every way of preparing and disposing the soul to rid itself of all inordinate attachments, and, after their removal, of seeking and finding the will of God in the disposition of our life for the salvation of our soul." The Spiritual Exercises 001, Puhl translation
What does that mean, and how does it differ from the Evangelical understanding of spiritual disciplines that many of us grew up with? Let’s break it down:
- Spiritual exercises are expansive; they can’t be boiled down to a handy dandy list in any tangible sense.
- Spiritual exercises are about reordering and realigning our lives; ridding ourselves of what’s holding us back and aligning our focus with the will of God.
- Spiritual exercises are a part of our holistic self-care. We are bodily creatures, so we must take care of our bodies; in the same way, we are spiritual creatures, so we must take care of our spirits.
This understanding differs slightly from the idea of spiritual disciplines that I grew up with, which mostly centered around the spiritual act itself, and not the results. It looked more like this:
- Spiritual exercises are simple: read your Bible, pray, tithe to the church. Instead of finding creative ways to exercise spirituality, the understanding I grew up with treated spiritual disciplines as a one-size-fits-all kind of thing.
- Spiritual exercises are about pleasing God. Instead of affecting actual change in our lives and in the world around us, these usually served the purpose of checking an item off a to-do list.
- Spiritual exercises are a way for us to momentarily escape our fleeting material existence in favor of some higher spiritual reality of the future.
If I could sum up these differences in one phrase, it would be this: Evangelical spirituality sees the exercises as a means to an end; Ignatian spirituality finds value in the exercises for what they are. To the Evangelical, a spiritual exercise is like a formula. If you put in the work and follow the rules, you’ll get the outcome you expect, whether that be an answered prayer or just extra brownie points with the big guy upstairs. To the Jesuit, a spiritual exercises is like a multifaceted gem. You can keep turning it, finding new ways to experience its beauty as the light bounces off in different angles.
To many Christians, prayer is a way to step outside our current worldly situation and commune with God on God’s spiritual plane of existence. Similarly, meditation is a way to step outside ourselves and become one with Godself. Fasting is a way to deny ourselves of material needs as a reminder that we are not of this world. But what if we were to come at this from a different way? What if instead of seeing the spiritual disciplines as dualistic exercises of separation, we began to see them as ways to unify our body and spirit? What if instead of tools to escape our reality, we used the exercises to root ourselves more deeply within it? Instead of focusing on ways to become better disembodied spirits, I believe the spiritual disciplines work best when viewed as a way to become more fully aware of our human experience within the world.
Through this mode of thinking, prayer would become a practice more rooted in being than in hoping, in gratitude than in gratification. Meditation would be about becoming more aware of the integration and inseparability of our bodies, minds, and spirits. Fasting wouldn’t be about our spirits conquering our bodies, but about our whole person working together, about coming to a state of awareness and appreciation for our needs. Stewardship would be less about rejecting materialism and more about embracing one’s place in the interconnected fabric of society.
In reframing the spiritual disciplines as an exercise in humanity, I don’t mean to reduce the spiritual aspects. In fact, I believe it’s the opposite. We are material containers for an immaterial spirit. Nor are we spirits walking around in material bodies. We’re humans. There’s something earthy about us; there’s something spiritual about us. But we’re not two separate and distinct pieces joined together. I think the typical belief that our spirit is more important than our bodies is dangerous theology that has caused a lot of damage in the church and in the world. Furthermore, I think this actually reduces the role of our spiritual natures. To deny our material existence is to deny a pretty big piece of who we are. Seeing a person in a holistic sense, body and spirit, not only gives us a much better picture of who we are as people, but it also allows for healthier and more balanced growth. Exercising our spiritual lives isolated from our material reality is like always lifting weights only with your right hand.
So over the next several weeks, I’m going to be experimenting with the various traditional spiritual exercises in the context of holistic monism. I hope to connect more deeply with God through connecting more deeply with my own existence. I hope to grow more aware, more grateful, and more gracious. I hope to touch the root of what it means to be human, because I believe that’s where we find God. But at the end of the day, I hope to sink into these experiences and learn how to live life in the depth of eternity.