Clarifying Our Spiritual Practices- Wisdom from Saint Benedict

The last article explored some differences that may help us to distinguish between things like New Years’ resolutions, life goals, and self-help techniques on the one hand, and healthy spiritual practices on the other. As a simple recap, what was suggested is that the former have an element of “striving” about them- we are, in some sense, working to change the wreckage of our past or control the unfolding of our future. Spiritual practices were described instead as a daily pattern of living, anchored in the present, in relationship with Jesus and our neighbors here and now. While they are things we “do,” to be sure, what’s different is that the striving and struggling are absent, we do them- or not- free from the drivenness of self-improvement or fixing something. An example of this is holding my wife’s hand- I do it, but there is no compulsion to “get things right”- it’s just part of our loving relationship. Spiritual practices are more like that.


One of the reasons that spiritual practices got a bad reputation in the early Reformation- particularly in the works of Martin Luther- had to do with this notion of striving. At the time, they seemed to be about trying to earn salvation, and sometimes they were. Likewise today, in our productivity-driven, self-help culture, spiritual practices can drift into the realm of trying to earn something- maybe salvation, favor in the eyes of God or of others, or a least some kind of self-improvement. Again, works. But if our spiritual practices are clarified around the central issue of being how we live and express our relationship with God and others, they don’t have to have that burden attached to them. Instead, they can be as free, natural and enjoyable as it is when I hold my wife’s hand.


To help clarify our spiritual practices along these lines, the wisdom of Saint Benedict can be helpful. Benedict (480-548 AD) is a towering figure in the the history of the Western Christianity and of the western style of Christian monasticism. His influence is so great, in fact, that he is known not only as the father of western monasticism, but also as the patron saint of Europe. While all of his life and teachings make for worthwhile study, for the purposes of this article we will be considering two verses from the Prologue to the Rule, as well as what is perhaps considered the most valuable insight of Benedictine spirituality. Hopefully, these teachings can help us clarify our spiritual practices, making sure that they have the quality of being “unforced rhythms of grace.[1]


Our spiritual practices are not a test of our Christian Life


we intend to establish a school for the Lord’s service.[2]


Benedict here uses the idea of a school to describe ordered and intentional Christian living. This can be helpful, provided we reconsider our own assumptions about what a school actually is. Too often today, we see school as a preliminary place of preparation for something else (notice the emphasis on the future, not the present). Further, we can reduce school to the facet which is testing- seeing if we have learned enough to “pass” (notice the emphasis on performance). Is this what a school is, however? To be sure, these are elements of the school experience, but above all a school is a place of learning- of growth and education and formation.


It can be a real liberation to think of our spiritual practices like that. They are a school where we are learning to live as Christians day-by-day. Just as a child doesn’t show up knowing how to read or what the capital of Bulgaria is but rather learns it in school, so it is with us in our spiritual life. We learn and grow and are formed as we walk in our spiritual disciplines. There is no next step- and no examination. On top of that, we have a teacher who loves us and is on our side. It’s not a question of being good enough, rather it’s a question of learning. Not so much about proving ourselves, but rather sitting intentionally under the guidance of our kind teacher. Do your spiritual practices have the flavor of intense preparation for coming exams, or of growth and learning in the teacher-student relationship?



Be kind to yourself


In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome.[3]


If Christ our teacher is kind to us, we also need to be kind to ourselves. Hence the idea that our spiritual practices should neither be harsh nor burdensome. While Benedict’s rule can seem harsh to us today if read in its entirety, the interesting fact is that it is much more kind and moderate than the earlier monastic rules we know. We do want to grow and stretch and learn, but when self-improvement and performancism creep in, we can wind up with a set of practices that beat us down, rather than lift us up. They can actually come to hinder our Christian life, as guilt, avoidance, and unrealistic expectations begin to predominate.


We can get at this problem in a few ways. First, ask what you are already doing successfully. The bedrock of our spiritual discipline should be those practices that we naturally gravitate to and complete with ease- or at least with enjoyment. Second, stop comparing yourself to others- this is your rule of life, not anyone elses. Third, consider what is actually possible given your place in life- single, married, kids, work, etc.- and focus both on those practices you are doing and may wish to add that are realistic for your life situation. Next, remember that conversation with a friend, pastor or spiritual director can be useful, as it frees us from the temptation of figuring all this out on our own. They can often see when we are being too hard- or too easy- on ourselves. Above all, remember that the purpose here is living out our relationship with Jesus and with others in a loving, present, and focused way, not becoming some kind of spiritual superstar.


Rursus incipiemus nunc et semper (Always we begin again)


finding the peace without want, without seeking it for ourselves; and even when we fail, always we begin again.[4]


Benedictines make a vow known as coversatio morum- literally the conversion of manners, but it can be thought of as the daily change of our habits and lifestyle. Habits take a long time to form. Bad habits take even longer to break. We will fail a lot along the way, but the good news as Christians is that we are free to fail. Now, no one likes failure, and when we buy into the culture of self-improvement, striving and performancism it can be absolutely crushing. We can revisit two earlier thoughts that may help liberate us from our fear and hatred of failure.


First, remember the great insight of the Reformation that led Luther to take such a low view of spiritual practices over 500 years ago- we are saved by the grace of Christ, not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9). While it is the case that works flow out of a lively relationship with Jesus, they do not constitute the ground of our salvation or of that relationship. The end result of our baptism into Christ is that we will grow up into him who is the head (Ephesians 4:15), and that we shall be like him (1 John 3:2). We do not achieve this by our striving. It is Christ who does it in us ( Philippians 1:6). Secure in that truth, our daily spiritual disciplines take on a whole new perspective. We are free to grow and live and love and learn with Christ here and now, leaving the end result up to him. Which means we are even free to fail.


Secondly, we can return to Benedict’s image of a school. Have you ever thought about the fact that we learn via mistakes? That we progress through failure, not in spite of it? This is really a key part of how education and development work, and intentional Christian life is no exception. Living day-to-day with Christ, resting in the fact that our sanctification is secure in him, we are free to grow and learn. We are free to do well, to struggle, to try things out that may not work for us. And, yes, even to fail- because always we can begin again. Our relationship with Christ is one of loving grace, with no condemnation at all for those who are in him (Romans 8:1). We can afford to be patient with ourselves when we fail, and we can just begin again and again and again. There is no hurry, no final exam, no second-class Christian. Just the slow, daily change of our habits as Christ works out his sanctification in us by the means of unforced rhythms of grace.

 

Les Martin is a participant in the A300 program and a long-term missionary in Nigeria. An Anglican priest, he is an Archdeacon and serves in the office of Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of Pankshin, while lecturing at Archbishop Vining College of Theology, Akure. He lives in Lagos with his wife Kate, and he believes that his marriage to her is far more important than anything else mentioned above.

 

[1] This phrase is drawn from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the Bible: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” Peterson, E. H. (2005). The Message: the Bible in contemporary language (Mt 11:28–30). NavPress. [2] Rule of Saint Benedict, Prologue, v. 45. Benedict, S., Abbot of Monte Cassino. (1981). RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in English with Notes (T. Fry, Ed.; electronic edition., p. 165). The Liturgical Press. [3] Rule of Saint Benedict, Prologue, v. 46. Benedict, S., Abbot of Monte Cassino. (1981). RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in English with Notes (T. Fry, Ed.; electronic edition., p. 165). The Liturgical Press. [4] I found this wonderful translation at: https://frtimsermons.wordpress.com/tag/always-we-begin-again. Accessed 1/6/2022.

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