If you attend a program run by the Centre for Christian Formation, it is likely that at some point you will be invited to incorporate into your daily rhythm one Christian practice or another. That practice might be something you consider a traditional or familiar ‘spiritual discipline,’ or it might be something with which you are less familiar because it has not been part of the stream of the church known to you.
There are several reasons for making spiritual practices a part of the student experience. One is the desire for students (and staff) not just to learn about Christian formation but to be in their own intentional process of growth. The education we aspire to is not only theoretical but truly transformational. Another reason for practicing these ‘holy habits’ is that they are a way to become conscious of our part in the wider body of Christ, a community of believers that is not only present, but also extends back through centuries.
The transforming effect of intentional practices has been known to the Church since its earliest days. The book of Acts describes habits of compassion, witness, intercession, service, fasting, discernment and fixed-hour prayer as well as those routine behaviours of fellowship and the breaking of bread that were part of church life. Even today, these are known as ways for us to proactively turn towards the purposes of God in our lives; a sort of Godward orientation of ourselves, if you will. In his classic book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis says it’s all about choices. “Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before.” This choosing places us before God, creating space for Him to do His work of grace within us.
“Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before.” – C.S. Lewis
In this article, I speak with four students of programs currently being offered by the Christian Formation Centre. Through the experiences of Bruce, Matt, Hannah and Katharine, we will hear which spiritual practices they tried out, what motivated them to choose those particular practices, and what they found challenging and/or beneficial about making them part of their lives.
Miranda: Hi everyone, and welcome. I wonder if we could kick off by hearing what motivated you to take the plunge and make these ancient Christian practices part of your own everyday life?
Hannah: I was keen to begin a new way of doing life. I had been wondering why I live my life doing things because I ‘should’ or thinking about what I would do if things were different. I guess I just felt ready to live my life from a deepening desire for what is good. Honestly, I can’t wait to get to the point of really wanting to do the things that are actually good for me!
Bruce: Yeah, intentionality is the word I would use to describe where I am at on my journey. I just wanted to be more intentional with my life.
Miranda: Yes, the desire to be more intentional in our lives is a common motivator when it comes to making spiritual practices a regular habit! Rather than living in reaction to our circumstances, and to the needs and demands of those around us, we get in touch with this deep desire to live life on purpose.
Katharine: To be honest, I was familiar with some basic habits of faith. And I knew from experience that without regular, intentional focus on developing my spiritual life, I don’t thrive. So when Covid struck, I wanted to cling to these rhythms even more. I needed my spiritual life to be healthy – which isn’t separate from my overall health. The two are intrinsically linked. So anything that is unhealthy in my spiritual life will permeate every other aspect of my life if left alone long enough. In this season, I knew I needed to nurture good health!
Miranda: It sounds like going deeper with these practices was very timely! What about you, Matt?
Matt: Well, I don’t come from a background where these traditional Christian practices were common. As I continue to learn and explore, I’m coming to a new perspective that many of the ancient tools the church has practiced for centuries are conducive in habituating patterns of righteousness and godliness in the lives of believers and in our communities of faith. This fresh appreciation for the old ways motivated me to build them into my own life, and then our family life.
Miranda: That’s so true. Many contemporary believers who have not been familiar with these spiritual practices are rediscovering their value as ways of making ‘meeting places’ with God through daily life.
So, tell me, which of the so-called ‘holy habits’ have you guys been trying out?
Hannah: So, I decided to get up earlier each day to practice Lectio Divina. I’d learned about this ancient, kind of meditative way of reading scripture and I’m naturally drawn to a way of reading where I use my imagination to find myself in the story.
Miranda: That sounds great, Hannah. Can you describe Lectio Divina for us? What does it involve?
Hannah: Yes. In this particular way of reading the Bible, a short passage is chosen and is slowly read through four times. It is a sort of ‘chewing on the word’ so that we give attention to how God might be inviting us to respond. I began with the book of Luke, in the gospels.
Miranda: And what was the experience like for you?
Hannah: Well, up until this point, I would say I had a particular approach to my life as a believer. I guess there was this underlying sense that somehow my journey of faith was all about me trying to do the necessary work to become more Christlike and knowledgeable. As I practiced Lectio Divina, I found myself being invited to wait in God’s presence, which allowed the Holy Spirit to lead and teach me in a new way. It seemed like my role was simply to pay attention and to follow those inner nudges. God’s thoughts and God’s direction became so much more exciting for me. I love surprises and each day I would wonder how the Holy Spirit would lead and speak!
Miranda: Wow, that sounds like a lot of fun! Are there other practices you’ve been trying out?
Hannah: Yes, the prayer of Examen.
Miranda: Great, can you tell us what that is?
Hannah: Sure. The Examen is an ancient way of praying where we reflect on the events of the day in order to detect God’s presence and discern His direction for us. Examen prayer was completely new for me.
Miranda: And to what extent did you find it helpful?
Hannah: Praying the Examen was hugely helpful in seeing patterns in my behaviour. It taught me to notice those trigger points that had caused me to react or to reject the movement of Holy Spirit. One example is when I feel under pressure with time. Often this kind of pressure causes me to react with frustration or anger towards others, so that I make sharp comments. And I can get impatient with someone who is talking or rambling on too long. My reaction is often to push for a decision or action point, but in a way that can communicate a lack of value for the person’s gifting. Praying the Examen brought me a sense of sadness when I hadn’t listened or acknowledged Holy Spirit’s presence at those points when I’d failed to notice or wait for Holy Spirit’s peace and presence. And praying this way also tuned me into the joy I bring the Father when I do pause and listen well.
Miranda: That sounds really helpful. Was there anything that was difficult about making this a habit?
Hannah: You bet! It was great when we were accountable to do it as part of the program, but I’m embarrassed to realise now that it still hasn’t become a natural habit for me. I think because my life is still a bit hurried and cluttered. I need to simplify in this season!
Miranda: I’m sure many of us identify with that!
Hannah: Yes, and I had to play with the timing a bit to make it work for me. I think traditionally this prayer is prayed at the end of the day, to reflect on the day’s events. But I tried doing it in the evenings before I fell asleep and it wasn’t so effective. It was hard to force my mind to think and it took a lot of energy to observe when Jesus had been present and when I’d cooperated with Holy Spirit. Later I realised it helped me to be more fluid with the timing. I found that to pause and reflect at meal times was more helpful. So, at breakfast I would reflect on the night, and at lunchtime I would pause to think about the morning. Likewise, at suppertime, I might muse on the afternoon’s events and it became beneficial to keep to these short steps.
Miranda: That sounds like a great way to make it work for you. Who else would like to share what you’ve been practising?
Matt: As a part of our family rhythms of devotionals and Sabbath times, my wife and I have begun to incorporate a much more intentional approach towards observing the feasts, fasts, and festivals of the Christian calendar.
Bruce: Oh yes, me too. I’ve been practising the Sabbath more deliberately.
Miranda: That sounds good. Could you guys tell us how that was for you?
Bruce: Honestly, it’s still a struggle to make Sabbath into a weekly habit. It’s a joy when I manage it, but many interruptions happen that often prevent proper rest.
Miranda: What has been hard about that for you? And what has helped?
Bruce: Well, I need to switch off all media for it to work. And then I worry about an email I should have responded to, for example, so I open up the computer which is fatal! I guess this is a lack of planning or self-discipline on my part. It might sound silly but I like to have the house clean, the floors clean, the surfaces dusted, and the dishes put away so when I look around I don’t see work! This helps me to relax. The other thing I’ve noticed is that it helps to have a bit of routine for the day. Like, maybe being out of the house for a good portion of the day, or planning some painting or reading a novel that I only do on that day. Maybe in the evening I’ll light some candles as a reminder to slow down.
Miranda: Are you beginning to feel any benefit from your perseverance?
Bruce: Yes, I’m beginning to see the effect on the rest of the week. I have a more relaxed approach to work, less perfectionism and find it easier to make peace with the limitations of being human. It’s a good practice and has revealed to me my underlying lack of trust in God. Now that I am more aware of this, I’m enjoying letting go more! Sabbath is still not easy or regular, but it’s worth fighting for.
Miranda: Thanks, Bruce. And you, Matt?
Matt: When it comes to practising Sabbath and other elements of the Christian calendar, I didn’t expect my casual conversations about it with fellow ministry leaders to cause so much interest! Just to say, it seems others around us have a real appetite to explore similar understandings and practices. It looks like this stuff is pretty contagious!
Miranda: Haha, that’s great! So you talked with them about Sabbath and the Church calendar – I guess you mean the practice of Advent and Lent? Were there other practices involving liturgy that you’ve been trying out?
Matt: Well, there’s a great little book called Liturgy of the Ordinary, by Tish Warren. In it, she suggests that really mundane or ordinary parts of our day can become sacred if we intentionally turn our attention to God. So, another practice I embraced was the simple one of making my bed in the mornings. Previously, I had largely practiced it simply as a personal development mechanism.
Over time I have noticed little practices and behaviours extending more intentional invitations to me into the practice of the presence of God. Things like making my bed, unloading the dishwasher, keeping the laundry going, and tidying various rooms in the house at different times, have become opportunities for me to accept the invitation of God to bring him into my awareness, to acknowledge my tendencies for selfishness or laziness, or simply to enjoy a moment of fellowship with him.
Miranda: Hmmm, that sounds like a wonderful experience of abiding in Christ, as we read about in John’s gospel. Thanks Matt. So, having experienced these particular practices, what would you guys say is the point of spiritual disciplines?
Matt: I guess I would say that life itself is a process of spiritual development. Everyone is in a process of spiritual shaping. It is the primal reality of our human existence. These practices or habits are a way for us to participate in the process of change, and hopefully be more intentional about changing in the right ways.
Spiritual disciplines are the act of releasing ourselves in a consistent manner to God, opening those doors in a regular way to allow God’s transforming work in our lives. – Robert Mulholland Jr., Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation.
Miranda: That’s interesting, Matt. It sounds like you’re saying that spiritual formation is not an added extra. We are all being formed and we get to participate in how we are formed.
Katharine: Yes, at certain times in my life I might become aware of particular ways in which God is inviting me to change: times when I become especially aware of patterns of impatience, or a lack of self-control, say. There are practices that might help me in that particular season of my life to strengthen myself in the place where I am weak. The goal of these spiritual practices is not to become experts in them. It’s to use them to become mature. By repeatedly doing something, we allow it to re-form us until we come to look a lot more like Jesus.
Hannah: Right. In our day and age, many of us lead scattered, busy and sometimes hurting lives. So it makes sense that our desire for more of God could lead us to practice disciplines like centring prayer, silence, solitude, retreat and unplugging because that’s what we need more of right now.
Miranda: That’s true, we may find that God leads us to engage in certain disciplines that are uniquely suited to our spiritual season, our age and stage of development, and our life circumstances. It sounds like what you’re all saying is that, whatever the focus of a spiritual practice, none of them is an end in itself. More that each practice is designed to help us partner with God as He does His work in us by the Spirit.
Matt: And that seems key to it all. That it’s God doing the work and we are just practising a particular discipline as a way of opening ourselves up to him if that makes sense.
Bruce: Yeah, I think that’s what Paul is talking about when he writes about putting off the old and putting on the new. These practices give us a concrete way to put on the new, I mean, to be reshaped to be more like Jesus.
The ‘daring goal of the Christian life’ is ‘an ever-deepening reformation of our inner personality so that it reflects more and more the glory and goodness of God.’ – Richard Foster
Katharine: I think our lives are somehow shaped by the habits we allow into them, whether that’s intentional or not. So habits can be both beneficial and detrimental to our overall health. Making Christian practices a habit does us more good than many other habits we might have!
Miranda: That’s true, for sure! Any final reflections from any of you?
Hannah: As I reflect on the practices I tried, I would say I do appreciate how rich and good they are. And I am aware that it takes a huge amount of energy at first, to think about my schedule differently. It does help to be accountable to someone or to do this as a group, in order to maintain a discipline and a rhythm. At least for me, the spiritual practices are not easy or natural. I guess this is like an athlete’s discipline to practice their moves so that they become proficient and excellent. I have to keep the end in mind, to ask Jesus what he sees me becoming and to pay attention to the way I’m headed. I admit that the spiritual practices haven’t yet become what I love to do, which makes it easy to be distracted and to choose easier things like watching movies. Having said all that, I can’t wait to get to the point where the spiritual practices are my first choice!
Bruce: That’s so true. It’s not been easy to immerse myself in the spiritual practices. The irony is that I love these disciplines! Slowly but surely, I am making strides to be intentional in the present moment. I mean, not to linger on what might have been but to press onwards to what lies ahead.
Hannah: Right, and since the present moment has brought Covid, that has meant something in particular! What I mean is, Covid has changed a lot about our world, and my experience in practicing a variety of spiritual disciplines has been instrumental in my ability to navigate what seemed for a while like constant change. So one result of these disciplines was a closer relationship with my Creator, and another result was more peace in the chaos that life can bring, particularly in the last year.
Miranda: That seems like a great place for us to close. Thank you all for taking part in the conversation. It’s been wonderful to hear your individual experiences and the unique ways you experienced those practices you chose, as well as those parts of your experience that seem common to you all.
I’m hoping that as I share this conversation, many others will hear an invitation from God to partner with Him as He moves us from our un-likeness to the image of Christ, and towards wholeness in Christ in the context of a transforming relationship with God Himself. It is so exciting that this movement characterises our lives as we allow the gospel story to affect every part of how we live our story, personally as well as in our neighbourhoods and families.
In Jesus, we have found grace. This grace has opened up a whole new way for us to understand every part of our lives. As we walk this way, the disciplines become part of a journey that is intended to help us become all that we, as humans, can be. May this grace be ours as we arrange our lives to experience the transforming work of Jesus!