In mid-Advent we are in the midst of a season of discipline and penitence, a “mini-Lent”. Fittingly, I have worked on an overview of disciplines for our parent website:
(Photo Credit: Training Exercises, U.S. Marine Corps, by Cpl. Will Perkins, Sept 10, 2015; Public Domain)
This is where the rubber meets the road in Christianity. Through these activities which we refer to as “spiritual disciplines”, we can grow in faith and knowledge, and are permitted to assist in the work of the Holy Spirit, our divine companion, who is dwelling and working mysteriously within us.
St. Paul in one of his letters advised his readers: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13: English Standard Version). The “work out” part is where these activities come in to play.
At our baptisms, God could probably have chosen just to “zap us” with instant knowledge and all the “fruits of the Spirit” in full development. He could have made us fully impervious to temptations and further sins. However, God has graciously chosen to allow us to cooperate with Him on a lifelong journey. This idea flows from the Christian idea that “God is Love”, that He wants relationship with beings who can choose love, and not merely a bunch of robotic servants.
Baptism is the beginning for us, not the end. We refer to the earliest part of our spiritual journey as a “new birth”–it is a beginning, a moment of decision, an emerging. We have answered the call to become “God’s woman” or “God’s man”. It may be for some a “mountain top experience”, but in fact answering the call and being baptized are but getting to the trailhead in the foothills, at the beginning of our trek. At this point we are picking up our trail maps and donning the clothes and tools we need for the climb, but hard work remains ahead. The mountain top lies before us, in the remote distance. We will get there, with God’s help.
It should be made clear that these activities we call the “spiritual disciplines” are tools to help us to draw closer to God’s presence, but ultimately the work of transforming our inner being belongs to God alone. In advocating these disciplines, we are not endorsing a “works” based doctrine of salvation. Christianity teaches that “works” flow from “faith”, and not vice versa. Furthermore, even faith itself is mysteriously a gift to us, and not something we conjured up alone. A vital (living) faith produces good works, while dead faith produces none.
We should also make clear that our efforts are designed to bend ourselves toward God. We don’t pray or meditate in order to bend God or the Cosmos to our wills. We are not wizards or necromancers. There are disciplines that if used wrong can become empty incantations, and lead to a false sense of power. You might hear in some quarters about plugging into or wielding the power of the Spirit, or reaping the benefits of prayer. And there is something to that, but the major effort of God’s power is to scrub us and polish us, not merely that we may shine with our own glory, but that we may be better mirrors to reflect God’s glory.
What are the disciplines? Well, you will find a variety of categories and lists. The biggies would be prayer, Bible study, and the various activities that are done in community, what some refer to as “corporate” disciplines. Prayer is a discipline that connects us to God. Bible study connects us to the history of God’s work in the world, His teachings through prophets, and the words of His Son, our Lord, Jesus. “Church” or corporate disciplines involve what we find in Acts 2:42: “And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.”
One of the recent classics of the subject spiritual disciplines is the book A Celebration of Discipline, by Richard Foster, founder of the “Renovare” movement. He is not universally embraced, of course, but that aside, I have borrowed his classification of the disciplines.
He perceives three categories or types of disciplines: Inward, Outward, and Corporate. The four inward disciplines are meditation, prayer, fasting, and study. He lists four outward disciplines as simplicity, solitude, submission, and service. The remaining corporate disciplines focus on the development of Christian community as a whole; these are confession, worship, guidance, and celebration.