by Marjorie George
From “Spiritual Practices – Living the Gift,” the Spring/Summer 2014 issue of Reflections magazine. To read the entire issue, click here.
In his book Finding Our Way Again, Brian McLaren imagines the scenario of an expert violinist who plays 200 concerts a year.
Three of the concerts are disasters – she has the flu or the bridge on the violin breaks in the middle of the performance or some such devastating thing.
On 190 concert evenings, the violinist is good; crowds are satisfied, and the violinist knows she has done well.
But on seven of the 200 nights, supposes McLaren, the performance transcends “good” or even “great.” It is almost magical, the way the sound flows from the instrument and connects with the concert-goers. They are taken to a higher level; some describe it as “heavenly.”
The violinist herself cannot explain it; “she was every bit as prepared, practiced, serious, committed, and dedicated the other nights as well,” says McLaren. But on those seven nights, something inspirational unites the violinist, the instrument, and the crowd.
Perhaps you have experienced these awe-filled moments in your own life – when looking at your sleeping child and wept for joy; when you came across a landscape that took your breath away; when you knelt for worship and knew the presence of God.
You recognize it as a gift. “But,” says McLaren, “although the gift never stops being a gift, it ‘happens’ to those who are practiced in ways it doesn’t typically happen to those who aren’t.”
Mark it well, for that is the crux of spiritual practices.
Spiritual practices, some call them spiritual disciplines, assist in connecting us with God and the life God desires for us. Rather than being drudgery, as they are often characterized, they make the Christian life easier. In the spiritual practices, we do not “conjure up” God; we do not stress and strain to coax him into our lives. God is already there. As Jane Patterson says in her article on page 22, “When I go to my prayer chair, God is already there. God has already started the prayer.”
The practices, says McLaren “make prayer ordinary in our daily schedule; they make generosity normal and habitual.” Through the practices we make regular time for rest every single week whether we think we need it or not; we practice simplicity instead of consumption, counter violence with peacemaking.
Spiritual practices are ways we become awake and stay awake to God.
This issue of Reflections magazine is about spiritual practices. In these pages, we are not going to lay upon you the “oughts and shoulds” of the spiritual life. We are not going to hand you a list and send you to the heavenly gym to sweat it out – although we will name some practices as a starting point.
Rather, we intend to invite you into a way of life that centers on God. Not all of the practices will be right for you; God made you a certain way and is calling you into a certain life and it does not – and need not – look like my life or your priest’s life or the life of St. Therese of Lisieux. (But if you are interested in St. Therese, the Church of the Little Flower in San Antonio is dedicated to her. In fact it is her national shrine – did you know that?).
Here’s my confession for the day – I hate the spiritual practice of journaling. Hate it. Yes, I know I’m a writer and should love journaling. I don’t. Move on.
The spiritual practices are not about becoming better at the practice. In practicing meditation, my goal is not to become better at meditating – “my meditation period is up to 43.5 minutes, what’s yours?” The practices are about things we can do to put us in touch with the things God does. And it is always about what God does as he molds us into the person he is crafting us to be.
Nor are the practices adequate unto themselves. It is the Holy Spirit who initiates and sustains our journey and who is present in our awakenings, urging us onward, showing us this new revelation and that, surprising us with awe from time to time. As McLaren points out in his story of the violinist, practice is a necessary but not sufficient condition for receiving the gift.
“Practices,” says McLaren, “are means by which we become prepared for grace to surprise us. They are ways of opening our hands so that we can receive the gifts God wants to give us.”