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An Introductory Course in Christian Spirituality

What are spiritual disciplines?

What is spirituality?
Christian Spirituality...
What are spiritual disciplines?
Contemplative disciplines
Reflection and Discernment
Prayer and Worship
Moral Action
Course Instructor

Devotion, or spiritual discipline, is not about doing something but about finding something and being transformed by it.[1]


Spiritual discipline simply means systematic and ongoing practice, carried out with gentleness and flexibility. We can characterize such practice as spiritual skills for handling our mind, our speech and our actions. Practices can be grouped into mental and practical disciplines. These disciplines are not practiced in isolation from one another but relate to every aspect of our lives.[2]


Our minds have tendency to be scattered and fragmented. In addition, mind has the tendency to lose itself in a self-created and self-centered mental world that obscures our vision. This mental world becomes a filter through which phenomena are perceived.[3] The mental disciplines assist us to see things as they are. These disciplines are mindfulness and insight (discernment). Within Christianity, contemplation is the term which refers to mindfulness. 


Contemplation begins when a person stops being totally preoccupied with his own concerns and lets another person, event, or object take his attention. Contemplative prayer in the Christian tradition simply means paying attention to and becoming at least slightly absorbed in the person of Jesus, in God or other elements of the tradition. A contemplative attitude can develop from such prayer and allows one to find some ease and spontaneity in paying attention to the Lord as he reveals himself in Scripture, creation, one’s own life, and the life of the world. To contemplate is to let the other be the other and to allow one’s responses to be elicited by the reality of the other. When we contemplate God, we let him be himself and not our projection of him, and to be real ourselves before God.[4]


The disciplines of insight (discernment) rest upon the openmindedness that is the fruit of mindfulness. The disciplines of insight offer the opportunity to study the stream of our experience without assuming a specific conceptual framework that limits our experience. These disciplines lead to “knowledge” of God that is intuitive and not conceptual, it is an experiential awareness. We see our pettiness in the light of the Holy Spirit without self-created illusions to hide behind.[5]


The practical disciplines deal with the conduct of our lives. They are closely connected to the mental disciplines both as the fruit of the mental disciplines and in providing support for them. There are many challenges in life that present us with concrete situations in which we can move in the direction of compassion and insight. The practical disciplines help us meet these challenges and in so doing produce the seeds of inner life. The practical disciplines help us to surrender our inclination to protect our illusions and self-interest, as well as to keep the world at a distance.[6]


The Christian is called to be a contemplative in the world, with both the mental and practical disciplines contributing to an ever deepening holiness of life characterized by communion, self-emptying, service and self-transcendence. Thomas Merton explains,


The discipline of the contemplative in the world is the discipline of fidelity to one’s duty arising from state in life—as the head of a family, member of a profession, and as a citizen. … The contemplation of the married Christian is bound up with his married life. His marriage is a sacramental center from which grace radiates into every aspect of his life, and consequently it is his marriage that will enable his work, his leisure, his sacrifices, and even his distractions to become in some degree contemplative. For by his marriage all these things are ordered to Christ and centered in Christ.


It is clear that for the married Christian, contemplation does not involve the disciplines and attitudes proper to a virgin. The married Christian should beware of allowing himself to be too influenced by a virginal or priestly spirituality that has nothing to do with his state and only blinds him to its essential dignity. What the married Christian needs most of all is a contemplative spirituality centered in the mystery of marriage.[7]


Merton’s statement has particular relevance to married persons. While contemplation and the other spiritual disciplines are of great value to the practice of Christian spirituality in whatever context it finds expression, including that of the married, the context of marriage is significantly different from the monk and even the parish priest. One’s spiritual practice must be consistent with one’s life circumstances.


It is not just that one’s spiritual practices must reflect his or her life circumstances but they also require a systematic and regular character. Eugene Peterson describes Christian spirituality as not simply a matter of

…selecting from a potpourri of spiritual disciplines, nor is it willing oneself to be faithful to some spiritual practice. Rather, it is all of life, all worship, ministry and work experienced as prayer and set in a structure (askesis) adequate to the actual conditions in which it is lived out. If it is not seen as encompassing the whole of life then spirituality is reduced to a few spiritual disciplines and put into a cubby-hole for devotional narcissism.[8]


It is the systematic and regular character of the spiritual disciplines that provide structure for the spiritual life. This structure must reflect the actual conditions of one’s life. The Church provides believers the two foundational elements of such a structure in its liturgy: the Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Hours.


The Eucharistic celebration anchors spirituality in Christ, revelation, community and service. The Eucharist is experienced in a particular location with a particular assembly. It takes spirituality from the abstract to the concrete.


The Liturgy of the Hours is the other foundational element. It is a daily immersion in sacred Scripture. It gives voice to our deepest emotions. Its formality, while off-putting at times, ensures that the focus of our prayer is not dominated by our sense of self but by a sense of God.[9]


Within the basic structure of the Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Hours, prayer, meditation, lectio divina and contemplation are all ways of giving mindful attention to the Lord, of spending time with the Lord and of careful listening. Reflection, journaling, and the examination of conscience are ways of being open and vulnerable before the divine Beloved; as a result, they are opportunities for discernment. Just how the believer makes use of the various forms of spending time with the Lord, listening carefully and being open before the divine Beloved depends on one’s specific life circumstances. However one chooses to make use of these prayer forms and mental-spiritual disciplines, they must be integral with the practical disciplines inherent to one’s state in life.


It is important to keep in mind that the performance of spiritual practices is not about numbers, nor is it about earning any special favors from the Lord. God has no need of any spiritual practices on our part. The value of spiritual practices is in helping to bring about a change in us. Regular spiritual practice ensures that we are exposed to a steady diet of God's word, that we reflect on what God is doing in our lives, that we develop the habit of mindfulness as our basic mode of living in the world and that we develop the habit of virtue. What happens is that as we do these things we are slowly changed. We are slowly transformed into a clearer icon of the divine, a more more pliable instrument of God's will; a hollow reed through which flows the grace of God. A useful image is to think of our spiritual practices as threads. Each thread is our loving response to God. By itself a single thread is a fairly simple and ordinary thing. However, as we weave the threads throughout the fabric of our lives a beautiful tapestry emerges.


The change is palpable and affects not only our individual lives. A friend of mind involved in religious education/spiritual formation of lay groups recently explained that when the members of the groups with whom he works are regular in spiritual disciplines to which they are obliged or take upon themselves, a critical mass is often reached. At this point not only does he see a change in the individual members but there is a qualitative difference in the way the group operates. It is more unified and able to cooperate. It is better able to focus on the spiritual priorities. While some members may have brought wonderful gifts to the group, the gifts of all the members are drawn out so that the result transcends prior efforts.

[1] Neville, The Truth of Broken Symbols, 177-179, 199.

[2] De Wit, The Spiritual Path, 174.

[3] Ibid., 200-201.

[4] William Barry and William Connolly, The Practice of Spiritual Direction, (New York: The Seabury Press, 1983), 48-51.

[5] De Wit, The Spiritual Path, 230.

[6] Ibid., 252-256.

[7] Thomas Merton, The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation, edited by William H. Shannon (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003), 139-141.

[8] Eugene Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdsmans Publishing Company, 1992), 89-91, 98-99.

[9] Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness, 102-107.


Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, 25th Anniversary Edition
Richard J. Foster

The Spiritual Path: An Introduction to the Psychology of the Spiritual Traditions
H. F. De Wit

Care of Mind/Care of Spirit
Gerald G. May

The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction
Eugene H. Peterson

The Inner Experience : Notes on Contemplation
Thomas Merton

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