The Practice of Christian Spirituality

There is a hunger to learn more about how Christian spirituality can be integrated into our everyday life. Dorothy Bass, the editor of Practicing Our Faith, writes:

We yearn for a richer and deeper understanding of what it means to live out our faith in a time when basic patterns of human relationships are changing all around us. We want to know what Christian faith has to do with our work, with friendship and marriage, with the way we raise our children, with public and political life, with how we spend our money.

The contributors discuss 12 Christian practices. When I asked my students to guess what these practices are, many said prayer and worship. Here are the 12 practices:

  • Honoring the body
  • Hospitality
  • Household economics
  • Saying yes and no
  • Keeping sabbath
  • Testimony
  • Discernment
  • Shaping communities
  • Forgiveness
  • Healing
  • Dying well
  • Singing our lives

Does any of these surprise you? Would you have included “honoring the body,” “saying yes and no,” or “dying well”?

In Soul Feast, Marjorie J. Thompson says that “Christians worldwide had lost touch with the riches of historic spiritual practices, particularly those of a contemplative nature. This loss eventually triggered a hunger to recover them.” In the United States, Father Richard Rohr, Director of the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico, has a large following and offers a daily meditation. In Britain, Fresh Expressions attracted many people across different denominations who want to form new communities of faith and reach out to people in cafés, pubs, barns, and online.

Many of my students respond positively to the chapter on “Chewing the Bread of the Word” in Thompson’s book. In divinity schools, they are taught to read the scripture critically—as a historical text. Thompson introduces them to the practices of spiritual reading of scripture: lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio. In this way, students can encounter the power of the Word anew.

In the chapter on prayer, Thompson says prayer is not asking God for something. It is communication and communion with God. Prayer can be personal and communal. Many of the psalms are in the form of prayer and supplication. Thompson encourages us to write our own psalms, which will help us express feelings such as grief, anger, or a desire for revenge. In Liturgies from Below, there are many provocative renditions of the psalms.

Not all my students are Christians. Some do not pray to a transcendent God. I share with them what Alice Walker has said about prayer. Walker has been brought up going to church but has adopted a more inclusive spirituality. She prefers to use terms like “Godness” and “mama” to describe the divine—for her, it is everywhere. She said that when she says a prayer, she offers it to the universe and invites the universe to respond. It is a beautiful way of putting it.

For Thompson, Christian hospitality begins with grace from God. It is out of gratitude and humility that we cultivate compassion for ourselves and other people. Without receiving we can hardly give, for hospitality means “receiving the other, from the heart, into [our] dwelling place.”

Soul Feast offers practical steps and insights. Its central message is that Christian spirituality requires us to decenter ourselves, and not obstruct the Spirit by putting ourselves first. It is difficult to practice because it invites submission and receptivity, which is quite countercultural. In many traditions in the world, such as in Buddhism and Islam, people of faith prostrate. In some Orthodox traditions, Christians do this too to show their humility and submission. But this is difficult to practice in American culture that glorifies the self. In certain feminist teachings, there is also a strong sense of recovering the self, sometimes to an extent that we forget the self is always in relations.

The book also teaches us to rest and to trust in God. Doing nothing is counter to the Protestant work ethic. The best book I have read on sabbath is by Abraham Joshua Heschel. In his classic book The Sabbath, first published in 1951, he writes,

Labor is craft, but perfect rest is an art. It is the result of the accord of body, mind and imagination. To attain a degree of excellence in art, one must accept its discipline, one must adjure slothfulness. The seventh day is a palace of time which we build. It is made of soul, of joy and reticence. In its atmosphere, a discipline is a reminder of adjacency to eternity.

Sabbath marks time; it gives meaning to time. It is indeed a discipline and not a luxury.

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