For some 14 articles, we have looked at various spiritual practices in isolation. While I expect to return to that eventually, the two articles that have appeared most recently provide an opportunity for a change of direction for a time. Having distinguished spiritual practices from self-help resolutions and also having thought about how we might clarify and focus our spiritual practices, it might now be beneficial to turn to some larger structural issues concerning the spiritual life. As strange as it may sound at first, I want to focus on how we can become “regular” Christians, as opposed to “extraordinary” ones. How odd- who doesn’t want to be extraordinary?
It is certainly the case that as children of God, we are all extraordinary. We are precious and unique, possessing inherent dignity, and made by a God who delights in us. Yet, precisely because that applies to all of us, it often doesn’t satisfy- we want something more. And so begins our life-long quest to “make a mark,” and to become extraordinary in other ways. It is this second kind of being extraordinary that I would suggest is more bane than blessing, and can actually be a hindrance to our spiritual life. So, in this article we will consider this problem of our “extraordinary” spiritual lives, and hopefully come to understand that being regular is not a bad thing at all.
What’s the matter with being extraordinary?
A simple definition of “extraordinary” is the quality of being very unusual or remarkable. We like that idea, if we are honest. Much of our lives are centered around striving for being exactly that- in our careers, our families, our communities. Back in 1999, actress Molly Shannon had a skit on Saturday Night Live, where the character- Mary Katherine Gallagher, an awkward Catholic school girl- was always looking for her chance to be a “superstar.” She longed to stand out, to be extraordinary. The humor in the piece consisted of the fact that she did stand out- but not in a good way. Very unusual or remarkable in her case tended to mean unusually and remarkably bad at whatever she was doing.
While SNL portrays the comedy of being a “superstar” well, a lot of our desire to be extraordinary is not so funny. At its darkest, it produces and unhealthy drivenness, stress, guilt, shame and the perpetual feeling of being a failure. However, there is also a less obvious temptation to the extraordinary. Driven by our hyper-individualistic age, we become eclectic and unsettled in our lives. For six weeks, we are gym members- until we get tired of that. We are learning the violin, until the discipline is too much. While it is certainly a good thing to discover oneself- and even to reinvent oneself when it is necessary- we can easily take it to the extreme. Our identity constantly changes, as do our activities, to the point where the only constant is change, and we may not be sure who we even are. As chaos-producing as this is in our lives in general, when it comes to our spiritual lives it can be outright poisonous.
An ancient predicament - returning to Saint Benedict
This aspect of our culture and our longings can heighten our temptation to be extraordinary in our spiritual lives. It is not, however a new problem. In his Rule, Saint Benedict details two types of “bad” monks- the kind that he doesn’t want his brothers to become. Looking at them, we can see some of our own unhelpful temptations reflected back to us from across the centuries. Who are these bad monks? The first group are called the sarabites, and are described as
the most detestable kind of monks, who with no experience to guide them… have a character as soft as lead. Still loyal to the world by their actions… Their law is what they like to do, whatever strikes their fancy. Anything they believe in and choose, they call holy; anything they dislike, they consider forbidden.
And then there are the gyrovagues:
who spend their entire lives drifting from region to region, staying as guests for three or four days in different monasteries. Always on the move, they never settle down, and are slaves to their own wills and gross appetites.
Weak character. Lacking in experience, doing only what they like to do, drifting from one place to the next and perhaps even from one experience to the next. They are indeed extraordinary- but that is precisely the problem. Driven by their own desires, they have become extraordinarily problematic, both to themselves and others. They have never given into the liberating discipline of regularity in their spiritual life.
Eclecticism- a potential problem with spiritual practices
A life of spiritual practices is a good and godly way to be a Christian. However, when adopted in isolation from a larger framework of Christian discipleship, they too often become quirky “add-ons” to our lives, as opposed to a way of life in and of itself. Our piety today is unsurprisingly individualistic, and the result can be scattered things we do for a while until the next shiny, new thing comes along. Dennis Okholm writes:
We have become consumers of religion rather than cultivators of a spiritual life; we have spawned an entire industry of Christian kitsch and bookstores full of spiritual junk food that leaves us sated and flabby. As if we believed the infomercial that promises great abs if we just buy the right piece of equipment for $39.95, we think that the secret to being a spiritually fit Christian can be had by finding some secret technique or buying the most recent hot-selling inspirational devotional.
Much of my personal commitment to both the New Monastic movement and to practice-based Christianity in general stems exactly from what this quote is getting at. I have a personal desire to break the “next new product/next new spiritual teacher” cycle in my own life- and to encourage others do the same. Rather than the latest program or conference that the Christian Industrial Complex wants me to digest (or at least spend money on), I am seeking to engage myself in “a long obedience in the same direction,” as Eugene Peterson once wrote about. I want to be regular, not extraordinary, and I suspect I am not alone in this desire, although perhaps many haven’t had the words to describe just what is going wrong for them.
Going back to definitions, we can say that regular means “done in conformity with established or prescribed usages, rules, or discipline.” When thinking of this, our understanding of what we have been discussing goes deeper. Turning to Scripture, Paul echos such sentiments when he urges Timothy to stay strong in the faith he has been raised in by Lois, Eunice, and Paul himself (1 Tim 2:5-6). Elsewhere, he reminds Timothy to “keep at your work, this faith and love rooted in Christ, exactly as I set it out for you.” (1 Tim 1:14, The Message) and urges the Corinthians to stay true to the traditions he had passed onto them (1 Cor 11:2). Hebrews calls us all to “run with endurance the race God has set before us.” (Heb 12:1, NLT). Images of regularity abound here- it is as if a regular, ordered and accountable way of being Christian is perhaps the secret of actually being a Christian. That is certainly my belief.
Let’s turn again to the words of Denis Okholm:
Protestants do not usually go for the habitual when it comes to spirituality. For some reason we grow up with the bias that spiritual practice is “real” only if it is spontaneous. Habits… often strike us as a fake spirituality.
Perhaps it is not so much Protestants per se that have this issue. Perhaps it is all of us who live in this modern, individualistic age, as we respond to the temptation we all have to be extraordinary. For the next few articles, we will explore this from several different angles. By looking at the concept of rules of life, working with a spiritual director, and being accountable to and rooted in a community of faith, perhaps we will uncover a paradox: that the truly extraordinary thing in the Christian spiritual life is to be regular.
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.
 - these quotes are drawn from Benedict, S., Abbot of Monte Cassino. (1981). RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in English with Notes (T. Fry, Ed.; electronic edition., pp. 169–171). The Liturgical Press.  - Okholm, D. (2007). Monk habits for everyday people: benedictine spirituality for protestants (p. 35). Brazos Press.  - see his A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society (The IVP Signature Collection).  - Okholm, D. (2007). Monk habits for everyday people: benedictine spirituality for protestants (pp. 21–22). Brazos Press.