Deepening the Spirit

Spiritual practices hold the key to the quest for encounter with the living God.

By Molly T. Marshall

Eastertide is the season in the life of the church when we struggle to make sense of the Easter appearances, the dialectic of presence and absence, and the new awareness of the Spirit of God. The appearances are mysterious, recognizable from earlier encounters, yet elusive, as resurrection has transformed Jesus. He is with them, and then he disappears.

He speaks of the arrival of the Spirit in power, a distinguishing new horizon in the messianic age. The Spirit has always been an expression of the unfolding of the divine life with creation, yet a new sense of the abiding of holy presence is arriving. Supplanting the physical absence of Jesus, the Spirit of the Risen Christ abides in the people gathered in his name.

Diana Butler Bass suggests that the key spiritual question for our time is: “Who am I in God?” Christianity is moving from being a religion about God to an experience of God. A critical shift of emphasis is ensuing; rather than requiring persons to believe that a certain thing is true, one can discover who one can be in God and then through God.

I am persuaded that spiritual practices hold the key to this quest for encounter with the living God that deepens the human spirit. Brian McLaren describes them in this way: “They are actions within our power that help us narrow the gap” between where we find ourselves and where we long to go. With keen insight he writes:

“Spiritual practices should be called life practices or human practices, because they help us practice being alive, and humanely so. They develop not just character but also aliveness, alertness, wakefulness, and humanity.”

Seven practices can assist us in this essential life’s work. These are not so much what we do as much as a matter of being receptive to the work of God in our midst.

1. Attending

Simone Weil beckons the practice of paying attention since it is “the only faculty of the soul that gives us access to God.” We do not acquire or grasp God, but are found by God. The summons to attentiveness stands at the beginning of the Rule of St. Benedict: “Listen, my son [daughter], to your master’s precepts, and incline the ear of your heart.”

2. Discerning

The practice of discernment creates the possibility of discovering the right pathway of faithfulness for an individual or community. As Luke Timothy Johnson writes, “Discernment enables humans to perceive their characteristically ambiguous experience as revelatory and to articulate such experiences in a narrative of faith.” And faith it will take. Many of us will echo the words of Jürgen Moltmann: “The road emerged only as I walked it.”

3. Praying the Scripture (Lectio Divina)

Where is the best guidance for learning to pray? It is Scripture itself. We learn to pray in the Spirit — lamenting, rejoicing, praising, interceding and even sighing.

One of the early desert monastics, Abba Pomen, speaks of the shaping power of praying the biblical texts: “The nature of water is soft, that of stone is hard; but if a bottle is hung above the stone, allowing the water to fall drop by drop, it wears away the stone. So it is with the word of God; it is soft and our heart is hard ….”

4. Companioning one another

Christian life reveals that any form of spirituality must always serve relationality, for we were made for one another. One of the first of the desert monastics, Abba Anthony, understood that without companions, we would not survive. Out of his experience of isolation and then community he wrote: “Our life and death is with our neighbor.”

There is an African proverb: The reason that two antelopes walk together is so that one might blow the dust from the other’s eyes. The antelopes can see clearly only because, in community, they help each other.

5. Keeping Sabbath

Much of the conflict that swirled around Jesus was because of his Sabbath practices. That so many were exercised about it underlines how important it is. “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:12)

Liberating persons, including oneself, is Sabbath work. It is also about the acknowledgement of human limits. In his collection of poetry, Sabbaths, Wendell Berry offers this perceptive view: “The field is tilled and left to grace ….” God must always perfect human effort.

6. Caring for the body

Christian spirituality is not just about the mind or spirit; it is an embodied reality. Resurrection tells us how seriously God takes the enduring significance of incarnation, and our care for human bodies is a key practice.

In the sensitive words of Stephanie Paulsell, “The practice of honoring the body challenges us to remember the sacredness of the body in every moment of our lives. We cannot do this alone. Because our bodies are so vulnerable, we need each other to protect and care for them.” Whether young or old, we need this care.

7. Pondering

The final practice is pondering. I have learned this spiritual practice from Ronald Rolheiser. “We are better persons when we carry tension, as opposed to always looking for easy resolution. To carry tension, especially great tension, is to ponder in the biblical sense.”

As we pursue these practices, our spirits deepen, and we learn that we were created for life in God with others.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.