At one point God told Bello that if he didn’t let God love him, he wouldn’t finish the race. He asked God how to do that, and God showed him a picture of a son resting in his father’s arms. So he made time every day for God to love him. Later, God said that he did not need more passion for Jesus (his prayer), he needed more of God’s love for him. This journey eventually led him to the spiritual disciplines and to spiritual formation. This journey brought him inward, where he learned to process with God all the pain he had been stuffing for decades. Slowly he began to recover from being burned out as a pastor, and began to move into a stage of living life restfully with God, where he lived from a center of intimacy with God instead of from a center of ministry for God.
There are three types of spiritual disciplines. Upward disciplines include worship, bible study, praying at fixed hours of the day, liturgical prayer, and fasting. Outward disciplines include intercession, praying for the sick, serving, confession, and fellowship. The American Protestant church is familiar with these two. The third, the unfamiliar, are the inward disciplines, and include solitude, silence, contemplative prayer, and journaling. The upward and outward disciplines can easily become activities, so the inward disciplines are where it is easiest to be transformed into the character of Christ. So, for example, if you are frustrated with being on nursery rotation, instead of simply soldiering on and doing your Christian duty, you talk to God about why you are frustrated, ask him to give you his attitude, and be changed into the likeness of Christ. This spiritual formation is a process of self-discovery with God which he uses to transform us into the image of Christ, so that we can become Christ in the world.
The Johari window describes two dimensions of how we are known. The first dimension is things about ourselves that are known to us and things about ourselves that are hidden from us. The second dimension is things about ourselves that are known to others, and things that are hidden from others. Things that are known to both us and others is our public, or open, self. Things known to us but not others is our private self. Things known to others but not known to us are our blind spots. And things known to neither us nor others is the unknown self—God’s territory. Often Christian spirituality is making our public self look good, but this takes a lot of energy to maintain, and can even lead us to live a lie if we take a “fake it ‘til you make it” approach. Instead, God wants to reveal to us our unknown self.
The spiritual formation process has four stages. The first is awakening, where become “in love” with God. This may happen all at once or may be a process. The second is purgation, where we are purged of attitudes and habits contrary to the values of Christ. We become aware of actions that we do or do not do, and become aware of the pain or fear that motivates them, and we learn to give the pain and fear to God. The third stage is illumination, where we learn to live a life of prayer, where we find God in pain as well as joy. God is no longer “out there” to be chased, but we have learned to live with him. The fourth stage is union, where our values are the sames as Christ’s values and our purposes the same as Christ’s purposes, where our needs are surrendered to Christ.
The spiritual journey can be divided into six stages. The first stage is the “first love” stage, where we encounter God (and ourselves), we learn to repent, and to have faith in God’s character. Bible reading, confessing sin, and worship are helpful disciplines. To get to the next stage you need to find a spiritual family. The second stage is growing in maturity, where we wrestle with the contradictions of faith, become teachable, and become obedient to the truth. Serving is essential to moving to the next stage. The third stage is serving, where we learn our gifts and talents and use them for the good of the body of Christ. It is important to have places where we are refreshed, and not be serving all the time; balance is important in this stage. The American Protestant church is focused on stages one through three, which some churches being focused on one stage more than the others. Eventually, though, we hit the wall, also known as the “dark night of the soul”. We discover that we can’t do it, and on top of that, the Christian faith as we understand does not seem to be working. Frequently we cycle back to stage one or two and give it another go. To go through the wall we have to journey inward and walk with God through our pains, fears, and disappointments. This is scary, painful, and takes a lot of energy. It’s a lot easier to avoid it. Stage four is initiated by a crisis, and as we go through the darkness, with no idea what is going to happen, we learn to depend on God, to trust him, and to surrender our needs and desires to him. God reshapes us as we surrender to him and learn to rest in his love. In this stage the contemplative, inward disciplines of the examen, lectio divina, solitude, and journaling are helpful. It is also helpful to have someone who has been through this stage who can help lead us. After this is stage five, the convergence, where we begin to point outward towards the world again. Because our self-oriented motivations have been purged, God can use us more powerfully, so this is sometimes a stage of great fruitfulness. The sixth stage where we become integrated with Christ, where we are living the life he would live if he were us (albeit imperfectly), and we know how we are made perfect in his strength. We are able to love selflessly, and to love the unlovable.
Contemplative prayer is a place of intimacy where we focus on God, listen to him, and let him drive the conversation. It is where we are transformed as God reveals to us areas where we are fearful, insecure, and acting with his anti-character. It is where we rest and can stop pretending to ourselves and to God, where we give our burdens to God, and where we emerge refreshed, even when our situation has not changed.
We need to develop a sabbatical rhythm, of taking a day off to be refreshed. This does not mean doing all the errands that we could not get done during the week. It is day where we rest in God’s love (pray). One useful discipline is Divine Hours. It is also a day where we do things just because we enjoy it (play). The difference between work and play is that work is what we need to do, but play is what we want to do. The activity itself might not look all that different, but the purpose is not to be productive, the purpose is to feed our soul. The author started drawing again, which he did for hours as a kid, and taking long walks in nature. A friend of his loves cooking Thai food for his friends. The purpose is to be refreshed so that you don’t burn out. You probably want to have daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly sabbatical rhythms. For instance, the author attends a worship service with his family, spends time in the park, and has dinner with his extended family once a week. Once a month he and his wife spend a weekend alone or with friends. Once a year he takes one week for a contemplative retreat.
Centering prayer is one of the primary inward spiritual disciplines. The goal is simply to become aware of the presence of God—the Holy Spirit—within us. It originated with John Cassian, who founded a monastery in 415 AD after spending twenty years with the Desert Fathers. His book, The Conferences, influenced St. Benedict, who founded the Benedictines. A guideline to centering prayer is as follows. First, find a quiet place, tell God you want to be with him. Next, settle down comfortably, with your eyes closed, and let go of the thoughts, tension, and emotions you are feeling, and rest in God’s love. Note that this is not Eastern meditation where you become empty. Instead, you release all these things to God so that you are able to be filled with his love. Now choose a word or short phrase that embodies your desire to surrender to God’s presence and which communicates God’s love to you, and let it gently be present. When you are inwardly quiet then release the word. As thoughts and sensations percolate up, use the word to express your intention to rest in God’s presence. When everything is quiet and you are resting in awareness of God’s presence, let the word go, returning to it as a response to any questions or anxieties that come. At the end, spend a few minutes to come out—even if you do not think you need to. Thanking God, praying for others, or reciting the Lord’s Prayer are some helpful ways. Spending twenty minutes in centering prayer, once in the morning and once in the evening is a good rhythm.
The examen is a helpful spiritual discipline for seeing how God is at work in your life. It comes from Ignatius Loyola, Spiritual Exercises. It is essentially processing your day with God. At the end of each day of Creation, God seems to have reflected on the day, summarized in his expressing “it is good”. Ask God to help you to review your day with him, asking him to show you the things that connected you to God, others, and yourself (consolations) and disconnected you (desolations). Then ask God what made it a consolation or a desolation. God wants to speak to you about both your consolations and your desolations. The point is not to arrange your life to have more consolations and to avoid activities (or people!) that are desolations, but to discover why they are consolations and desolations. This enables you to make changes to you life and become conformed to the image of Christ. Consolations, for example, may point to a new (probably scary) direction. Desolations may reveal an area you need to change, or an area where you rely on God to endure.
Journaling is a powerful avenue for transformation, because the process of writing down your thoughts and prayers brings insight that cannot come when they remain bottled up in your head. The process is simple. First, write out your thoughts, being as emotionally honest as you can (which the author calls “leaning in to your pain”). Be honest with how/why you are disappointed, for example, instead of minimizing it. Be honest with shame you are feeling. Second, turn this into a prayer, telling God how you are in pain, and asking him for input, grace, and comfort. If you do not turn your pain into a prayer it becomes despair. Now “lean in” to and wait on God. Third, on the occasions where this becomes a conversation, write it out. The author’s experience is that most of the time he does not hear anything, in which case he simply rests in God’s love, like in centering prayer.
A less conventional discipline is walking with God. In Genesis God walked with Adam in the cool of the evening, and one day as the author was walking, aware of God presence, God said that he still walks with/in his creation. Most disciplines meditate on Scripture; this discipline meditates on God’s original work—physical creation. Simply walk with God in his creation and enjoy the beauty and wonder of it. Don’t rehearse conversations or plan the future, just enjoy the moment. Creation is God’s gift to us, so enjoy the beauty, the wind on your face, the warm sun or the cool air. It may be helpful to recite something like “I receive your love”, or Psalm 23 or the Lord’s Prayer, to pull away from the distractions of the day and focus on being with God. Be inwardly quiet so that you can enjoy being with God.
Lectio divina is a discipline for encountering God in the Bible, started by the Benedictines as a way of meditating on Scripture with the assumption that the Holy Spirit is speaking to us through them. First, find a quiet, comfortable place. Perhaps a coffee or tea. “Conversation with God is developed out of an interior calm of resting, waiting, listening.” (119) Be still, ask God to meet, and then focus on the passage with reverence. Second read (lectio) the passage, which should only be a couple of verses at most. The goal is here is spiritual formation, not Bible study; you might spend a whole week on a single verse. Read reverentially, being aware of and savoring each word. Note any word or phrase that catches your attention. Third, meditate on this word or phrase (don’t worry about whether it is “from God” or not). Use your mind: analyze the word or phrase, define it, determine what it means to you. Use your emotions: how does it affect you emotionally. Write down your thoughts, with the aim that you are entering into the passage, rather than analyzing it from the outside. Now move to the fourth stage, prayer. Respond in prayer to your meditations. Have a conversation with God—and yourself; don’t try to figure out if it’s really God or not, just go with it and figure that out afterwards. Just talk honestly with God and yourself. This stage is where transformation begins. Fifth, rest in God’s presence. You aren’t trying to get a word from God, or an experience, just dwelling with God as he dwells within. This is a mystery. (An old peasant went to the church in the village every noon to pray. He would sit in a pew in the back, and then leave. One day the priest asked if anything was troubling him. He said no, “I just sit and look at God and God looks at me.”) The sixth stage is to return to the passage throughout the day. God reveals things as we return to the passage. Lectio divina can be done alone and with others, helpfully in different ways.
Spiritual development comes from pausing, praying, and playing. It needs to be doable, sustainable, profitable (that is, transformative, not discipline for discipline’s sake), flexible, tailored to you, and done in community. Community can be a spiritual friend, a mentor, a spiritual director, a spiritual formation group, and even authors.
I was given this book by a friend when I was going through the dark night of the soul (although I did not know it then). I found it a useful summary and good suggestion of ways to engage with God, when nothing about my Christian experience was working. Since I was secretly mad at God, I went through the book rather slowly. And even though I only half-heartedly tried out the activities (I can’t really call it a discipline in my case, because I was definitely undisciplined), they did help me to pursue God. In particular, I have found letting God love me to be a helpful discipline, although I have also found it hard. Sometimes it is easy, but other times I am distracted, or I simply do not want to open up and let God love me. It is often even scary.
In writing this review—which I felt God wanting me to do—I realized that I have kind of taken these ideas as tools, but I undisciplined as using them. It became obvious that the path to more of God and more spiritual health leads through the disciplined use of the tools. This book is a great introduction and summary of the disciplines, especially for an American Protestant, where the disciplines are either unknown or scattered in the ocean of Christian history (largely Catholic and of unclear utility). This book may benefit from several readings: as you move from confusion to pursuing with-ness and resting in God’s with discipline.
It’s hard for me to evaluate this book. It is a good summary, but it does not seem like it has the clarity of thought to make things simple. On the other hand, I do not think the author’s intention was to express an elegant framework of thinking, but to provide an accessible resource for those going through the dark night of the soul, cairns illustrating the turns in the path through the desert. In this, I think he succeeds. It may not be a hundred year book, but the well in the desert doesn’t need to be a masterpiece of craftsmanship; if it quenches the thirst of the parched man who happens upon it, it will have amply served its purpose.
The Spirit of the Disciplines (Dallas Willard)
The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith (Hagberg and Guelich)
Savoring God’s Word (Jan Johnson) [has suggestions on how to form a spiritual formation group, especially important group values]
Thomas Keating [centering prayer]
Sleeping with Bread (Linn, Linn, and Linn) [the examen]
Read, Think, Pray, Live [lectio divina]
Satisfy Your Soul (Bruce Demarest) [contemplative prayer and community]