The Underlying Design of the Classic Spiritual Disciplines

NOTE** The reflection that follows was originally a response to a post by a fellow blogger. Visit Phil’s blog to carefully read the original post. Then read this, my response. Here is the address where you may find the post entitled, “Left to Listen.”

The “great company of strugglers” otherwise known as the “great cloud of witnesses”

You are portraying the Scriptures as an exhaustive record of the life of Moses and other characters. Of course they struggled (just like me and you) with “clarity” regarding God’s will and the direction they were to take. The fact that Moses received the revelation of God’s purpose at the burning bush in Midian is a good example. Moses was clueless when he first “heard the voice of God”. It was the fact that he had NO clarity that got him in Midian in the first place! That is part of the point of the story. Moses had to be humbled by God in Midian for a number of years. He had to learn the art of tending sheep (dumb and rebellious creatures) in order to learn the basics of “tending” the Hebrew flock (dumb and rebellious). Not only that, but he was STILL a wimp (just like me, hmmm)… He makes all kinds of excuses when he DOES hear God clearly. He wasn’t “clear,” which includes being on board and willing to act on what he heard clearly, any more than we are most of the time.

And that is just Moses! What about Jeremiah? We are, fortunately, provided with a window into the prophet’s inner struggle with the issues of “clarity” and “commitment to action,” which are two sides of the same coin in my understanding of the dynamic. Perhaps Jeremiah is chosen by God (along with Abram, Jacob, Joseph to name only three) who struggled with clarity. I would submit that the Scriptural record doesn’t include much of the months and months of disciplined struggle with prayer, fasting, vigils, seeking to put the struggle in the context of the sacred narrative, seeking the counsel of trusted others, obedience with repentance when necessary, and last but not least listening/listening/listening…

But, according to your portrayal, they didn’t need to do all of that. They just magically heard with clarity. NOT!

The “Bible folks” do not represent the “golden age of clarity without struggle.” They represent, if we take a look at the whole story, how to faithfully struggle toward “clarity” (by the way, I don’t like that word as a representation of “knowing the will of God for your life”). I prefer the word “confidence”… The word “clarity” at least hints at the concept of “certainty without struggle” which I fear like the plague! Acts of the Apostles is a record of deep and abiding struggle in the area of “clarity.” For example:

·         The controversy among the apostles over inclusion of the Gentiles into the Church and whether or not the Gentile men converts need circumcision

·         The controversy over to what degree the dietary laws of Judaism apply in the Church

·         The need which the new convert Paul had to spend years in the desert being shaped into the kind of person who could hear and know the voice of God in terms of His will

·         The initiation of the diaconate to minister to the needs of the widows within the believing community

·         The whole Macedonian mission struggle

Giants of the faith – Stephen, Peter, Paul and the like were fairly “unclear” and needed the disciplines. They did not magically possess the ability to “clearly hear and know the will of God.” They acquired the ability over time with much discipline.

There is something positively transformative about the struggle. God would, I believe, have us embrace the need to listen, listen, listen with joy. Being “Left to Listen” is a gift not a problem or second rate shape until we begin to “get it.”

The disciplines as a multifaceted gift for the healthy not remedial class for the hopeless

What is more, you seem to portray the classic spiritual disciplines which, by the way, span the denominational barriers of the “tradition vs. non-tradition” debate, as if they are meant for the “remedial Christian.” I come away from your article with the distinct impression that, “If you can’t hear with clarity, like the really ‘mature’ folks, then you need to do these things.” Spiritual disciplines are the intended context of normal Christian living not the “remedial class.”

The spiritual disciplines have been instituted by God and are administered in the person of the Holy Spirit for three basic purposes:

·         Purgation – removal and purification

·         Maintenance – strengthen and establish

·         Oblation – the shape of our offering or sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving (spirit of gratitude)

Please do not misunderstand. I list the “purgation” facet of the disciplines first for good reason. We need redemption both in our inner life and outer life. There is much in my life that hinders my access that that “confident conviction” (I use that instead of “clarity”) regarding God’s will and ways. The patriarchs and apostles are included in the company (read here “great cloud of witnesses) of all who have the same need. I like to say that the “great cloud of witnesses” might better be termed as the “great company of strugglers.” They needed the disciplines you list as much as we do and for the same reason – purgation.

But I want to add two other reasons for the disciplines. They are not just “remedial” in their function. The disciplines also serve to establish and strengthen that which is conformed to the likeness of Christ in me. Through and by them, God speaks, nourishes, and strengthens. They do not just deal with what gets in the way of hearing God, but are the very instrumentation for His speaking by which He indicates His will. Moses, Isaiah, Peter, Paul and the rest, were men in whose lives, the tradition was a dynamic vehicle through which God indicated “with clarity” His will and ways. Without that tradition, present in an appropriate and lively way, they would not have had the “clarity” you see exhibited to the degree they possessed it. It is my firm belief that much of the “lack of clarity” we experience in the Body of Christ over against the example of the patriarchs and apostles is because we have jettisoned the right and appropriate Holy Tradition. We have, in many segments of the Body of Christ “thrown the baby out with the bath water” and yet expect to hear God with “clarity.” “Clarity” is pretty difficult if most of what fosters and establishes it is missing!

Finally, the disciplines are also oblational. They are “The Way of Life” a disciple (“disciplined-one” or “one who lives under a particular discipline” is the faithful way of comprehending the word “disciple”). The spiritual disciplines resemble Jesus. They, taken as a whole, show forth the person, work, and offices of our Lord. The disciplines are The Way the One Who is The Way lived(s) His Life in us and through us by grace. Jesus embraced the Holy Tradition of Judaism and carries it forward in the Holy Tradition of the Body of Christ. He, therefore, instituted the Holy Tradition to enable Him to continue to live and minister through His people. They are His Way of Life in a literal sense. They are not “optional” therefore. Without them, the will and way of Christ we so intensely desire to know with “clarity” cannot be lived out – ministered in the world “for the life of the world.”

The disciplines, not just the skeletal observance but the content as well, are depositories for the “clarity” you seek. Sometimes, we ask for the Lord to speak regarding something about which He has already spoken. The Holy Tradition – the disciplines with redemptive content – contains many of the “answers” or way of addressing the dilemmas we face. It is like God might be saying in not giving us “clarity,” “If you had listened and treasured what I have already spoken you wouldn’t be asking me about this again and again.”

The spiritual disciplines are the shape of life the disciple offers to God as a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. We are meant to pray, fast, seek the wisdom of God in the Scriptures, and all of the rest of it out of gratitude, not grim necessity because we can’t hear God! It is BECAUSE I have heard the voice of God that I embrace and live the classic disciplines. I love to fast. I am grateful for the hunger. It reminds me that God is my true bread! I offer to God my fast out of gratitude to Him for the “bread of life.” I don’t live the disciplines to “get something” only but also because I have already been “given something” – a “confident conviction” regarding His will and ways. That is what “oblation” is in the life of a disciple – an offering in gratitude of the very SHAPE of his or her life to God through which He may make Himself more known and obeyed by others.

Jesus, the disciplined man

As regards the spiritual disciplines, we see Jesus as our model. If anyone heard the word of the Father in terms of His will and ways, it was Jesus. And yet, Jesus observes the same disciplines that you say you are somehow reluctantly left to observe. Jesus did not, of course, embrace the disciplines to purge Himself of sin or corruption that would hinder His hearing and knowing of the Father’s will and ways. But, clearly, Jesus embraced the disciplined life to maintain His intimacy with the Father and as the very shape of His life of dynamic gratitude to the Father for knowing His will and ways. Hebrews 12 clearly testifies to the disciplined Jesus.

God’s word to me is God’s word to us and vice versa

The last thing I would like to point out is that Moses’ “thus says the Lord,” is not individualistic but deeply communal. Moses heard the Lord in the context of the community’s life not isolation. Yes, he may have heard in a private setting, but that word from the Lord had to endure the community’s testing either directly and explicitly or indirectly and implicitly. Each and every person in Scripture who really heard the Lord, did so with fear and trembling – humility. The punishment for falsely proclaiming as “the word of the Lord” what was not the “word of the Lord’ was death. I am not, of course, suggesting that we adopt that tactic. However, it would be, I think, a great idea to instill in the hearts of God’s people the sobriety and accountability one must have who presumes to say, “thus says the Lord.” The Holy Tradition is a great aid in this regard. It provides a Living context in which we may listen, discern, and speak with humility. That is why is shy away from the word “clarity” and prefer the phrase “confident conviction.” The word of the Lord is for all of us if it is for any one of us. This is a beautifully ideal statement, I know. But we strive faithfully for just such an ideal to be realized grace by grace in our lives personally and communally. We CAN hear with “confident conviction” just like Moses, Peter, and Paul. There is no reason to slip into grim resignation and begin to portray the “biblical folks” as recipients of an intimacy that we cannot attain. But, let us be “confidently convicted” that God has given what is necessary to hear Him and know it is He who speaks. The question we all need to ask ourselves is, “Will I embrace the fullness of that Way of Life that makes hearing and obeying with joy possible?”

And so, we pray, fast, search the Scriptures, listen, and all the rest not as some lesser fate for the dull but as a rich and wonderful shape of life as the faithful people of God. And most of all, I do all of this not because I have to but because I desire to deep within my heart. Confident conviction of God’s will and ways is the bonus.

Fr.  Thomas

“Institutions, Education, the Passing on of Core Values and God’s Original Design”

Opening Stuff

This article is a reflection on an “Op-Ed” article by David Brooks that appeared on the New York Times website entitled “What Life Asks of Us.” It can be found at The article was drawn to my attention by Phil Ware. Pastor Ware, and I, agreed to reflect on the article via our blog sites. His site is and I invite you to consult it for another “take” on the original article. My reflection uses the article as a launching pad for a discussion of the place of the “institution” in the will of God and the human community.

Primary Conviction – Everybody Has One

Everyone, in the course of their life, arrives at a primary conviction. I would like to call that primary conviction, “the best way to live.” This journey toward the “governing conviction” as to “the best way to live,” is not only, in my opinion, healthy but essential in the realization of our full humanity. We can see this principle in operation as we watch toddler’s at play; the elementary school girl struggling with basic percentage problem in math class; the adolescent who seems to persist believing that “hiding something from mom” will ever work; the middle aged couple who, for the first time in 25 years, look “cluelessly” at each other over the breakfast table at each other now that the nest is empty and realize they don’t know one another. In every one of these cases, there is learning taking place. The learning is deeper than the immediate dilemma at hand. Underneath every learning struggle is the need to arrive at the application of that learning. The application is either the construction of or refining of their conviction of “the best way to live.”

Let me “over-simplify” for the sake of being brief and generating the necessary conversation… Since the article dealt with the educational enterprise and institutions I will limit myself to responding to just these.  Yes, I know, it is more complex and subtle than what I am going to propose. But it is a place to begin…

What Is In a Word?

What is education? Well, that depends on who you ask! If you ask the student they will give you one answer. If you ask the teacher he or she will likely give you another answer. If you ask the university president you will receive another answer. In the case of the student you have the energy of the struggle to construct or realize. In the case of the university president you have the energy to instill respect as well as preserve and guard integrity what is taught and the teaching/learning environment. In the case of the teacher you have the energy to pass on what has been realized and yet provide an environment in which questioning must occur. Education involves questioning, passing on creatively, instilling respect, and preserving. All three must be present and “in conversation” so that all may discover and embody in a practical manner “the best way to live.”

What is an institution? The trusty (?) “Wikipedia” site offers this definition: “Institutions are structures and mechanisms of social order and cooperation governing the behavior of a set of individuals.” It is a usable definition. Did you notice the phrase, “governing the behavior?” Institutions “preserve and defend” to quote a famous oath… Without institutions that govern behavior of those who populate the institution, the prevailing belief is, the group (society) will spiral downward in a cycle of ever increasing chaos and self-destruction. There is plenty of evidence for this conviction. But, on the other hand, there are the voices of those men and women throughout history who warn us of the dangers inherent in “governing behavior.” Governing can become oppressive, suppressing life and leading to the very same end as a lack of governing.  The Inquisition, the heinous crimes surrounding the Reformation in Europe, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao are just a few of the examples of this extreme. If you do not like my list, I am sure you can generate your own “favorite list” of institutional atrocities that are the result of “governing go awry.” The revolutionary would say, without the “prophetic voice” institutions cannot continue to promote the wellbeing of its constituents. The revolutionary, the establishment man, the free thinker, the worshipper, and the patriot, if you like – can either be the heroes or the villains. The point is that just as in the case of education, institutions must include questioning, passing on creatively, instilling respect, and preserving that are “in conversation.”

What is tradition? The word comes from the latin, traditio which means “handing over, passing on.” It designates not only the content that is passed on but the practices that make the “passing on” possible. The concept of tradition is most often associated with a particular “way of doing things” or a “way of life.” That is accurate but too narrow. Traditions can be dead or they can be alive. A tradition can be said to  be “living” in as much as it serves two essential purposes. First, it must successfully preserve the integrity of what has been received and be passed on. Second, it must be received as a living reality in the lives of those who receive it. That means that there must be an ongoing reinterpretation of the content while at the same time a preservation of the content. A living tradition is the dynamic interplay of values, questioning, circumstance, people, and the need to preserve and pass on intact a way of life that the adherents to the tradition believe is – “the best way to live.” Does that sound like the dynamics of the educational enterprise and every healthy institution for that matter? Of course it does.

Now Then…

If you are like most people, you have agreed and disagreed (perhaps strongly) with what I have said so far. Either way, you are doing so based on your “primary conviction”. You are reading this from that “frame of reference.” You received an education that involved a wide variety of cultural institutions – family, nation, local community, faith, career, race, age, gender, mental health, physical abilities, etc. Each of these facets of our human existence included an educational component and an institutional component. I other words, you learned and came to (or continue to make) primary conclusions about yourself based on your physical abilities. Not only that but the culture in which you live did and does the same thing. Education and institutions are a normal part of the human endeavor. We may resist this “fact of life” but it is true nonetheless. They can reveal the truth and shape us and direct us toward the fulfillment of the truth or just the opposite. The dilemma involves the human(s) who populate these “systems.”

It’s All Done With Mirrors, But Who is Holding the Mirrors?!

If you are following all of this so far, you realize that we have now reached the place where we must admit “the nesting doll” and “the endless progression” dimensions to systems. How do we know that the educational system and institutions that affect us are valid? Are these systems accountable to even larger systems? Where did these systems originate? Someone somewhere must have decided what was worthwhile for me to learn in 8th grade as opposed to 5th grade. Someone or some group of people developed the criteria for “institutional normalcy” in terms of gender, race, age and the like. And so, not only must we recognize that all educational and institutional systems exist within others that are larger (more primary?) that them but these systems emerged over time as the fruit of the systems that preceded them. The conclusion we could reasonably come to as a result of all of this is, “Everything is relative so do the best you can because it doesn’t mean anything anyway.”

All of this causes me to remember the first I experienced the endless series of mirrors when I was a kid trying on clothes in the department store. I remember thinking, “Wow, there is no end to the series. Where does all this start?! “Quite frankly, it scared the hell out of me or at least some of the hell…

No matter how much we would like to throw away ALL THE MIRRORS that get us into terrible trouble personally and as groups, we cannot. No matter how much we would like to “just be spontaneous” or get rid of those “stale traditions” that are the real problem (we think), we don’t end up making things better. Things end up being just as bad without the traditions as they were with them… Why? Because, “getting rid of the stale traditions” BECOMES A TRADITION OF ITS OWN !! O wretchedness!! Who will deliver me from this prison of mirrors?! It is not until we face the fact of our own helplessness in the midst of the systems of the created universe about which we had and have no choice as well the ones we have made for ourselves that we are brought to a screeching halt and fall flat on our faces in terror and desperate need for something that is not just more “relativism” or “you’ve got to make your own way in life” or “I have a better idea.”

A Possum, A Swamp and the Enemy

I spent much of my adolescence reading “Pogo” drawn and written by Walt Kelly. One of the  most famous lines he ever wrote was, “Yep, son, we have met the enemy and he is us.” It was made famous in associate with the first “Earth Day” in 1970. (By the way, I participated in it by being part of a “demonstration” on the commons of my high school!)In the particular strip, Pogo and his best friend, Porkypine, were walking in the Okefenokee Swamp.  Porkypine said, “Ah, Pogo, the beauty of the forest primeval gets me in the heart.”  Pogo, walking on tiptoes, responded, “It gets me in the feet, Porkypine.”  In the next panel, the Swamp is filled with garbage and Porkypine said, “It is hard walking on this stuff.”  Pogo responded with, “Yep, son, we have met the enemy and he is us.”

The point and question back in the 70’s with regard to the environment was, “What failed us with regard to the environment?” I have to admit, I blamed the institutions. I was disestablishment at that time. But was it particular institutions? What role did the educational system take?

Now, in order to be really honest, I have to say that I oppose the existence of particular institutions. But, I do not oppose the necessity of institutions. There is a difference. The difference must be laid at the feet of people like you and me. We created certain institutions that perpetuated pollution back then. We supplied the educational content that supported the institutions that perpetuated the behaviors and on and on and on.

 “Yep, son, we have met the enemy and he is us.”

I seem to keep coming back to the nagging sense that we are fighting shadows when we fight with the necessity for institutions, such as education, in order to realize our full humanity. What is more, it takes a lot of energy to attempt to invent “new and improved” institutions that “aren’t so institutional!” In reality, we are just changing the wrapper and doing the same thing – shaping humans to match our “primary conviction.”

Back To The Basics, Darn It Anyhow!!

So, what is behind the necessity for institutions? According to the creation narrative, we were created in the image of God to display His likeness in a unique fashion. Among the almost infinite diversity of the created order, only the human possesses consciousness and is capable of self-transcendence. Only to the humans does God issue the invitation to share with Him the authority and administration of the universe. God created the universe and humans in it to administer “dominion” as a co-laborers with God. There is a sense in which, the created order is an institution.

·         It is creative. The universe keeps unfolding. It is not a snapshot. It is not a frozen reality. The creation progresses. The boundaries of oceans and mountains and grasslands and animals are constantly shifting in a wonderfully mysterious “creative questioning” and “expansion” into territories “where no man has gone before.”

·         The created universe is orderly. There are aspects to it that do not change. The creation narrative uses the phrase “according to its kind” to speak of the manner in which God desires for critical aspects of the order to be preserved and “passed on” if you will, while at the same time, according to the same order, diversity and newness continues to burst forth.

·         It exists with the aspects of “form” and “content.” It is both physical and spiritual. The river, for example is by definition not just water and not just banks. It is both the water and the banks in “righteousness” – dynamic right relationship.

Humanity is a chosen creature that is more like God than like any other creature in the universe. Only into the nostrils of the man and the woman did the Father choose to breathe the Holy Spirit. In a manner of speaking, each human is a living institution. Humanity is both the icon of God and the icon of creation!!  In the human and the human alone do we experience the fullness of institutional reality at its pinnacle.

All human institutions, in as much as they are the proper expression of our humanity are God-given instruments by which we administer dominion within the context of the universe as co-laborers with God. The first human community is the icon of the Body of Christ (the Church) – the icon of all human institutions. This at its core, is the meaning and purpose of the Church, to be the embodiment of the mind, heart, and life of God the Father, in the person of His Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit for the life of the world…

“The fall” is chaos and anarchy in its most extreme expression. It is rebellion against the divinely institute-d creation and God as it Lord.

The consequences of the fall are to name a few:

·         Isolation

·         Alienation

·         Fear

·         Futility

·         Decay

·         Death

·         The ever-increasing severity of “all of the above”

As a result of the fall, institutions are fallen. They are marred by legalism or laxity; unclear boundaries (or none at all) instead of clear, life-engendering order; domination instead of dominion; slavery instead of freedom; despondency instead of hope; hate and indifference instead of love; doubt, suspicion, and betrayal instead of trust and fidelity. We need institutions… There is a urgency deep within that knows somehow that to have them is basically right. And yet, they always fail us. The spiral of need and disappointment is never-ending.” O wretched people that we are. Who will deliver us from this vicious spiral of death?!”

God in Christ has and is recapitulating all things. That includes, perhaps most basically, institutions – the created order and the human order in the relational context. God in Christ crucifies the destructive aspects of institutions and raises up the institution in Himself. Christ Jesus is the living truth, way and life. From Him, in Him, through Him, by Him, and for Him does the institution exist. “In Him we live and move and have our being.


Remember, the created universe exists to display the glory of God. Each facet of it is intended to “declare the glory of God”. But God is Spirit. OPPS… But wait. No opps at all!! God’s design is to manifest Himself in tree, ocean, cloud, planets, and flesh and blood… Not pantheism. God is not IN the tree or the bush or the mountain. But, His glory is in them and displayed by them. Form and content and all the rest of the aspects of institution are clearly displayed in a penultimate sense in the non-human created order. But, in humanity, what the rest of the created order only points to is fulfilled in lived reality, the union between divinity and the created. In you and I God and His universe intersect ETERNALLY NOT TEMPORARILY. That means that Christ Jesus, the incarnate Son of God and Son of Man in Himself recapitulated the created order as the penultimate institution and humanity as the ultimate institution. So, the Christian life is not as a stale set of beliefs or customs to which we adhere but Christ Himself breathing His life in us and expressing His life through us – the original design for human life. It is, quite simply, “the best way to live!”

As we live out this recapitulation, we embrace the divinely institute-d institution (the LIVING Holy Tradition which is the very Church herself) through which you and I as co-laborers (the spouse of God?! – bride of Christ) with God execute the dominion or the universe. This, obviously involves transformational education. Education in the Christian context is always (ideally) the work of the Holy Spirit. Where and when this is not the case, we have and shall witness the aberration of the Holy Tradition – Divine/human institution as a living reality. It becomes a dead thing. Education under the authority of the Holy Spirit involves questioning, passing on creatively, instilling respect, and preserving. There is, of course, more involved in our education (discipline) under the authority of the Holy Spirit. I additionally submit the following convictions regarding some of the basic elements of any life-creating institution in Christ Jesus. This is not intended to be a comprehensive form:

·         A time for recollection in heritage—stability in rootedness—in which the Spirit can draw on and use the richness of the Holy Tradition in all its aspects.

·         A relational context—solidarity in fellowship—in which to pursue the meaning of and effective engagement with life as a person in community rather than isolation. The Christian life is, therefore, a “conversation of fellowship” for the journey of eternity upon which we are embarked as disciples in Christ. This community is of a divine and human character it is communion with God and with others.

·         A safe place—sanctuary acceptance—to honestly articulate, through words and actions, the feelings and convictions associated with doubt and new confidence that accompany being in “the hands of the Living God.”

·         A set apart time and space—sacredness—to have these words and actions, doubts and certainties, held, accepted, and interpreted in the context of the Holy Tradition. This serves to calm the frightened heart as it is encouraged by the Spirit to abide in the mutual love of God the Father and God the Son. A sacred time inclines us to recognize the validity of sacred space and the sacredness of the material world by the action of grace (Incarnational / Sacramental / Mysterious).

·         All humans are called to the fullness of Christ by grace. The life of fullness is one of perfection and holiness. It is God’s original design. It consists not in outward or inward actions or observances for their own sake. The work of the Living God in the person of the Holy Spirit, is to bring chaos into order through the process of inner and outer revelation, ascesis, and transformation. The “ascesis” or “disciplined struggle” of the disciple “to die and so to live” is for the purpose of transforming the heart, mind, and soul in the love of Christ for the manifestation of the likeness of Christ in union with Christ. As a result, what is sown inwardly by transformation, bears the peaceful fruit of righteousness outwardly “for the life of the world” to the glory of God. The fullness of Life in Christ is the fullness of the Life of Christ in the believer.

Fr. Thomas