Hi everyone – welcome to Week One of Virtual Immersion!
As I noted before, this will be a 10-week virtual version of the intensive, week-long Immersion Week we hold at LivingStone Monastery in Newport News, Virginia, several times a year. Participants are immersed (thus the name) in the various spiritual disciplines, cloistered in community and learning and practicing a new discipline each day. By the end of the week, our hope is that they will have become deeply acquainted with the richness and value of the classic spiritual practices, not only intellectually but experientially, and will have new tools to grow and maintain their spiritual lives and their intimate relationship with the living God through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
For this 10-week virtual course on the spiritual disciplines, I will post on a new discipline every Tuesday. Please read the post thoughtfully, do the exercises, and post comments, questions, and experiences liberally. You may also email me directly at email@example.com. I will be using very few links and references in the text of the post, so if something is unclear, please post your comments and questions, and we can go deeper into the primary sources. I love to get to know people of different spiritual backgrounds, and I value your perspectives. But my only disclaimer is that this will be taught from a consistently Christian perspective. It’s the only authentic way I can teach this topic. If you want to know more about me, see my website.
A quick word about the biblical citations: I’ve hyperlinked the biblical quotes when possible so you can see the context. I prefer using the New Revised Standard Version, but that’s hard to find on the web. The only place I found where you can see the NRSV in context is part of another website that I have not fully investigated, so I can’t recommend any content you might find there outside of the text itself.
We’ll cover these disciplines in the weeks ahead:
Rule of life
- Solitude and silence
Also, if you intend to participate in the ten online sessions, please email me your email address so I can keep everyone up to date on any administrative issues that may arise.
Our first post will be a double-length post, because I provided some background information on the course itself as well as the information on the discipline of rule, our first and foundational discipline. So don’t worry – after today, the posts will be half the length. This is good news for both you and me.
Let’s get started!
Every organized religion I’m acquainted with has its own version of the spiritual disciplines, and it is possible to teach and practice the spiritual disciplines “inclusively.” But this program, like Immersion Week at LivingStone Monastery, very deliberately teaches and practices the spiritual disciplines from the Christian perspective. This is because WHY you practice the disciplines makes all the difference in the world as to whether they will be life-giving or unbearably burdensome. Christianity is different from any other organized religion in that we do not need to do anything to earn favor with God. Jesus of Nazareth, fully God and fully man, died on the cross and rose again to make the “once for all” sacrifice to reconcile us fully to God. No other sacrifice, no other devotional practice, is necessary for us to know God and be known or to love God and be loved fully. It truly is finished. Christians practice the spiritual disciplines not to follow a formula by which we can make God do what we want, or by which we can earn his approval, but to get to know God’s heart more and more. The spiritual disciplines establish a deep, intimate relationship with God that he actually desires more than we do – a relationship we were created for and long for and constantly attempt to create substitutes for.
For those who would like a distillation of Christianity, here’s how I would define the heart of it: (1) human beings, whenever given the chance and left to our own devices, will choose to set ourselves up as our own god and control our own lives. Trying to control our own lives is the essence of sin, or separation from God. (2) God created human beings in his image for relationship (and his image is male and female; I use the male pronoun for expediency) – even when we constantly choose to separate ourselves from him, he chooses to pursue us in love. (3) The pinnacle of this pursuit was the historical life, death, and bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, in which God himself, the second person of the Trinity, made a mysterious but effective sacrifice that once for all reconciled all of humanity to himself. Humanity’s only necessary response was to believe that (a) our need to control our own lives inherently separates us from God and we are powerless to save ourselves, and that (b) Jesus was indeed fully God and fully man and his sacrifice reconciles us fully with God. Once we accept this reality, we are adopted (or welcomed back) as sons and daughters and heirs of God. The father always welcomes the prodigals home with extravagant love. Obviously I left a lot unexplained and unreferenced, but that’s how I would define the gospel in a nutshell.
In light of that, two important things need to be said:
(1) Even though I will teach from the Christian perspective, you do not have to be a Christian to learn about or practice the spiritual disciplines with profit. All of our souls benefit from these particular practices – again, not because of the practices themselves, but because these practices bring us close to God, and intimacy with God is the one thing that truly sustains our lives. Jesus was and is a real person, but we don’t have to have our theology straight to know him or follow him. Our God is a consuming fire, which means as we get to know him, he explodes definitions and consumes even our concept of what Christianity is. This journey is fundamentally a relationship, not a moral code. He will draw near to us, wherever we’ve been and wherever we think we’re going. He always meets us where we are and always speaks our heart language to us. So if you are not a Christian, I strongly encourage you to just dive in. Treat this as a “taste and see” experience. A new and interesting cultural immersion. And see what might take root. When I first began practicing the spiritual disciplines, I was a spiritual seeker and not at all a committed Christian. I just wanted to find out what was real, live a good life, and do the best I could with what I’d been given. But much to my surprise, I found that the disciplines weren’t neutral tools I could use to chisle myself into my own ideal, but quite the opposite: they introduced me to a living God who is constantly working to grow me into what he intends me to be – using the good and bad experiences of my life.
(2) Having said that, being a committed Christian is the only way to keep yourself from turning the means of grace and life into the means of burden and death. In other words, if you don’t really believe that you are fully right with God and loved by God no matter what you do (because of the real and necessary sacrifice of Jesus, not because we somehow earned God’s approval by being good enough or lovable enough), you will end up trying to practice the disciplines perfectly to earn approval from God, yourself, or others. Either you will become consumed by legalism, which is the quickest path to separation from God, or you will become overwhelmed and give up. These practices are light burdens and are meant to be life-giving, because they connect us with the giver of life. If they are burdensome, that means legalism has crept in. Receiving the grace that comes from the gospel is the only way to combat legalism. The difference between living by legalism and living by grace is like the difference between building the likeness of a tree and planting a seed – and in both cases, expecting fruit.
Why be spiritually disciplined?
The first discipline we’ll discuss is the discipline of rule. What if you’re a more spontaneous person rather than scheduled? And if Christianity is more about grace than legalistic rules, why order your spiritual life in the first place? The very concept of having an ordered life is becoming more and more foreign; thus the discipline of rule is our foundational discipline of thought and intention.
Discipline One: the Rule of Life
A rule of life is simply doing the same practices habitually or cyclically, allowing repetitive practices to structure our life. In this context, the particular practices we’re talking about are the spiritual disciplines, the things Christians do that connect us to God and spiritually form our souls so that our actions reflect our identity. When we become Christians, accepting that we do need miraculous help to get connected to God and that Jesus has indeed provided that connection, our identities change drastically: now that we are reconciled to God, we are the body of Christ, sons and daughters of God, members of the kingdom of God, salt of the earth, and light of the world. This is who we really are. But we are not capable of acting like it. Establishing a rule of life, or practicing the disciplines, is how we develop that capability of living out who we really are.
Scheduled vs. spontaneous
Even though we may know that doing things like the spiritual disciplines of prayer and meditation and fasting may yield good fruit, we may still have some resistance to forming a rule of life for ourselves. Why? The personality test that was in vogue when I was in high school, college, and seminary was the Myers-Briggs test, which evaluated four different key aspects of our personality: whether you were introverted or extraverted, whether you made decisions primarily by intuition or by gathering sensory information, whether you primarily interacted with the world through thinking or through feeling, and whether you preferred to go through the day with a schedule or just by perceiving the needs of the moment. So you’re left with a four letter code that explains who you are: I happened to be an INFP. That last distinguishing characteristic is what I want to draw attention to: some people need a schedule for the day, some people are more spontaneous. I was trained to think it was a personality thing. In which case, why do all Christians need a rule of life? Isn’t that the same thing as a schedule? Why can’t we just interact with God when we feel like it? Isn’t this supposed to be a religion of the heart rather than doing what is externally right? Why does sanctification have to be scheduled?
I think the mistake is in believing that spontaneous and scheduled are two mutually exclusive personality types: we either tend towards controlling or planning things, or being spontaneous and letting things just burst out all over the place. But our experience has surely taught us that growing relationships – and any living thing – requires both order and natural growth. To grow a fruit-bearing plant definitely requires work – planting, hoeing, thinning, pruning, watering, cultivating soil, etc. But these practices don’t create the life of the plant – that’s already inside it. These practices, this ordering of its environment, this rule of life, so to speak, are what allow the life already inside of it to grow naturally and abundantly. So I’ve found it helpful to think of the spiritual disciplines as simply the practical things we do that grow the true self, the eternal living being in us, to full maturity so it can bear the full measure of fruit it was created to do. We learn a lot by simply looking at creation – examples of life are everywhere – from the uncultivated field of weeds that choke out any fruit bearing plants to the overcultivated soil that now is barren. There is a balance, and I think that balance is found when we remember that we are growing something living, not building something dead. So whatever your personality – disciplines help all of us live abundantly. Too little order will kill us as certainly as too much order.
So how do our practices change us?
From the beginning, God has shown us that what we do always both reveals and shapes who we are.
Our practices REVEAL who and whose we are.
God marked his people Israel from the beginning by what they did, by their practices. The Ten Commandments and the Law showed the world what it meant to be a chosen people, a holy nation: the practices of circumcision, of worshiping no graven image, of leaving gleanings for the poor, of limiting revenge only to match the original offense.
After Jesus came, Acts 2 shows us that the earliest Christians were doing what Jewish people always did, adhering to temple worship and set prayer times, but soon distinctive practices arose. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate thier food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the good will of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42-45). Their bodily, visible actions distinguished them and revealed who they were – to others’ benefit as well. This is particularly relevant for us, who live in a world where the idea of identity is getting more and more diffuse and easily fabricated through all the technology of social network. Our bodily practices, not just what we say or write or blog, reveal who we really are, who God is, and what is real – and the world longs to know what is real.
Our practices SHAPE us by disciplining us and drawing us near to the God who changes us from the inside out.
Two passages read together help illustrate this issue – with very strong language. The apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans highlights the problem of being unable to do what we know is right and actually want to do: “For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…I can will what is right, but I cannot do it” (Romans 7:14,18b). The letter to the Ephesians points out that distance from God destroys our ability to trust our gut: we can’t trust that what we want is good. “Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the Gentiles [those who don't know God] live, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart. They have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. That is not the way you learned Christ! For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spiritit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:17-24).
Our spontaneous feelings don’t always give us good advice, because we’ve lost sensitivity to the voice of the Spirit. We have to be instructed in what to do because it is our nature to live out of the old self – that’s where we’ll live and that’s what we’ll feed if we live spontaneously. What feels very right may lead to death. What feels wrong may be the path to life. After we have been reconciled to God by Christ, we need to grow into this new identity, and the good news is that the more and more we choose to put on the new self and put to death the old self, the stronger that new self will be and the more we can trust our instincts because we will desire what God desires and we will hear the Spirit’s voice. Doing the disciplines will feel less life-shattering and more like soul maintenance. But the point is that practicing the spiritual disciplines show us which is the old self and which is the new. They show us what is real and eternal and worth investing in. They instruct our soul.
And more than just putting to death the old self and growing the new, the disciplines allow us to draw near to God. In one sense, the disciplines are not mysterious at all – in fact, they parallel the advice you might get from a marriage counselor if you and your spouse feel like you’re not in love anymore. They are the very things we humans naturally do to maintain relationships with people we love. If someone we love sends a letter, we read it, and we don’t just read it, we pore over it, finding all the nuances beneath the words and savoring it over and over again. Or you could say that we practice the discipline of study and meditation. It might not sound as romantic, but it’s the same practice. If you think about the disciplines as ways to maintain a healthy relationship of intimacy and authenticity, you’ll see that many practices are just about setting good boundaries (fasting and simplicity), honoring (guidance, submission) and just enjoying God (celebration, worship). When we draw near to God, we will become intimate with him and enjoy his presence. We’ll have a real relationship, person to person, where you know his voice without question. I hope this aspect becomes most alive to you throughout these weeks, because as I said before, one of the biggest dangers in practicing the disciplines is that they will become new laws and new sources of condemnation and separation from your God. The opposite is true: practicing the disciplines let us experience God’s affection for us even and especially when we discover our inability to meditate, to fast, to pray. When we draw near to God, he changes us from the inside out; the disciplines do not change us from the outside in. If we think we are achieving our own spiritual growth, the disciplines will become another heavy burden that we will eventually have to put down.
Why grow spiritually?
A question that may emerge is why we want to invest in our spiritual growth in the first place – if we really are secure in Christ, and that eternal life is in us no matter what we do, why bother excelling in the spiritual life? Why bother becoming advanced in the spiritual disciplines? We’re not going to make God love us any more or less. For me the answer is: to keep awake. Throughout the history of Christianity, those who practice the disciplines and become capable of hearing God and doing what he asks are indeed used dramatically by God. We may think God is not dramatically active at this point in history, but that is only because we don’t have the advantage of hindsight. Just like the first believers, and those at many turning points in history, it is no less important for us to stay connected to God, not just because we want to be like Jesus inside and out, not just because we love God and he loves us, but because Jesus commanded us to keep awake. He will return like a thief in the night, and he may need people to prepare his way, like John the Baptist and the prophets before him. Our rule of life, our practicing the disciplines, is how we stay awake and prepared to do his bidding. Being ready is an act of love on our behalf.
The Aesthetic Bonus of a Rule of Life
Now those are the practical ways a rule of life is valuable – it both reveals who we are and shapes who we are. But the second reason why a rule of life is valuable for all Christians, even the ones who don’t like schedules, is a purely aesthetic one: it’s deeply satisfying.
When we establish a rhythmic pattern of deeply meaningful actions that connect us to God, we learn to dwell in the beauty of the familiar. We experience, for example, just how powerful the words of scripture are because even though we may read the same passage over and over again, its meaning is made new every morning. Those who come from a liturgical background experience it through the Sunday liturgy and the liturgical year. I’ll try to create a similar experience for you during the week of meditation through a monastic liturgy of morning, noon, and evening prayers. There is freedom and beauty in the familiar, because we are free from the tyranny of our emotions, of what we feel like doing in the moment, of having to recreate the wheel every time we want to get close to God. If you want to explore this idea in more detail, Kathleen Norris, who is a poet, wrote about her discovering the beauty of liturgy as Benedictine oblate, in her book The Cloister Walk. Reading that book is what sent me to seminary. I was on the way to write or edit full-time, but I read that and thought, I have got to be tapped into that eternal rhythmic reality all the time. (Of course, now I’ve learned that you don’t have to be a professional minister to experience that constant eternal rhythm.) But true creativity and true meaning are found in this beauty of the familiar, whether they are familiar words or familiar actions. If they are words or actions of life, they will be new every morning. Now initially this rhythm will not feel creative or meaningful – it will be boring and it will be dry, as we detox from needing to be entertained or be in control of our every action. But once we detox, practicing the disciplines will feed us and we will be deeply satisfied.
On a larger scale, when we establish a rule or a rhythm of life, we are entering into the creative fabric of the universe. God created us in his image, and he also created the sun, the moon, the stars, the seasons, and time itself. The sun establishes a daily rhythm; the moon establishes a monthly rhythm; the seasons establish a yearly rhythm. He created order out of chaos and his order is beautiful; he created these rhythms as a backdrop against which we can establish a relationship with him and enjoy him forever. When we decide to establish a spiritual rhythm to establish our relationship with him, rather than just ride the chaotic waves of our emotions and do whatever we feel like doing, we enter into the creative, ordering power of God. We find that the world, even and precisely because of its repetition, is new every morning, because God made it that way. We don’t have to create it, we just have to notice it and live into it and enjoy it. So forgive me for being too grandiose, but as for me, creating a liturgy for my life has made me feel like I’m creating like my creator, and am tapping into the creative fabric of the universe. For someone like me, who was dubbed spontaneous instead of scheduled by Myers-Briggs, and who wants to feel free to love and express and be creative, I needed to see it this way before I could accept it. It’s not just some list of rules that shackle our creativity. A rule of life, and the disciplines themselves, free our creativity, because we don’t have to waste our creative energy creating something that’s already been established and has already been proven rich and fruitbearing.
So establishing a rule of life is important because we are not just spiritual beings but physical beings. What we do on a very daily basis both reveals who we really are and shapes who we will become. We have the ability and the creativity to choose spiritual practices that will bear good fruit instead of unconscious destruction. Those daily random decisions you make can be yielded to him so that every moment is important and your life as a whole is ordered. And when your life is ordered and bearing fruit, your life will be compelling to others, not because you do all the right things or have all the right things to say, but because people can just absorb the good things of God from you. The particular spiritual disciplines we’ll be studying and practicing over the next weeks have stood the test of time as practices that will order your soul to bear good fruit that will last forever and that no one can take from you.
Last week, I asked that you prepare yourself for the coming sessions by examining your current rule of life – your habitual actions on a daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly basis. If you haven’t done that, take time to do it this week. Then look at the natural schedule of your life. What practices or habits have been life-giving, and why? What practices or habits have been life-draining or destructive, and why? Spend some time in solitude and meditation, and consider what places need to be better ordered or limited, and what places may need to be nurtured and grown.
Scan the following list of the disciplines we’ll cover, and without knowing anything about them but their name, choose one or two that may address the needs you’ve named.
Rule of life
Solitude and silence
And keep your initial rule of life and what disciplines initially appealed to you. You’ll be amazed at the comparison by the end of the ten weeks.
Please freely post comments, questions, and experiences. Tangential questions are welcomed and expected. Remember, if you’d rather direct comments or questions to me directly, my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
I look forward to seeing what this week brings!