You have probably heard about folks who are “spiritual but not religious.” It is a popular option for modern humans. But rarely do you hear much about Christian spirituality. So it might be surprising to find out that Mirriam Webster (the dictionary folks) define spirituality as: something that in ecclesiastical law belongs to the church or to a cleric as such.
Spirituality and ecclesiastical law (church law) are not exactly popularly linked. But that old (some might say outdated) definition reveals something important: spirituality is not anathema to religion, and certainly not to Christianity. And yet, for the last 100 years very little of Christian teaching has actually done a good job of teaching spirituality and spiritual practice to followers of Jesus. The result has been a lack of spiritual growth and maturity in Christians and in our churches.
Christian faith is far less about beliefs, than it is actions. The Way that Jesus taught was a way of living that impacted very part of our lives. Our spiritual practices, or spiritual disciplines are simply the way we live out our faith tradition in our everyday spiritual life. Through regular practice we experience growth and transformation. It isn’t magic, it’s practice.
Christian Spirituality: Begin at the beginning
Christianity is a diverse religion, and there is no single spiritual journey that defines Christian life. Which makes it very hard to say anything definitive about Christian spiritual traditions. American Evangelicals share very little in common with the Russian Orthodox church (for example) and there are many expressions of Christianity that (thankfully) are not rooted in whiteness or the Western world.
My own particular Christian tradition is Anglican (Church of England) in origin. I am an ordained priest in the Episcopal church. And we are a wild and wooly group who agree on very little but who practice together anyway and this embodied spirituality is what I would like to offer for your Christian spiritual practice.
The early Christian church, before it was even “the church” was already a diverse place. It was filled with Jews, and non-Jews, and these various people brought their own philosophies and experiences. It’s communities listened to the teachings of a dizzying variety of people who claimed to have known, or had a post death experience, of Jesus himself. And the scriptures we have today are a tiny fraction of the Christian writing that was used, loved, and studied in the first few hundred years of the Jesus movement.
All of that matters because Christian spirituality is old, and it is diverse.
What makes a spiritual practice Christian?
This will offend some folks but here goes: a spiritual practice is Christian if a Christian is doing it. Being Christian doesn’t mean you can only choose from a set of five spiritual practices, or that everything you do must involve the word Jesus (or Jesus Christ). There are a plethora of spiritual practices to choose from and I encourage you to experiment and try something new.
In this article however I’d like to focus on XXX practices which stem from communal Christian practices. There’s a reason for this. While we are an increasingly individualistic society being Christian isn’t an individual act. We aren’t Christian alone, you might be a Jesus follower solo, but you aren’t Christian.
Christianity is a community attempting to live out the Kingdom/Queendom of God as described by Jesus of Nazareth and that requires other people. Which is too bad, because people screw everything up. The spiritual practices I suggest below are all based on an aspect of common Christian community life. (I am an ordained Episcopal priest, so these practices reflect just one way of being in community together, there are obviously more.)
In fact all of them come from a part of the divine liturgy, otherwise known as the Eucharistic service, or communion service. For many Christians this worship service is the weekly practice that binds us together with one another, and with other Christians across the world and throughout time. The Eucharist is practiced regularly by Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Evangelical Lutheran churches and more. Because this way of prayer and worship is so important for so many the practices we can derive from it will resonate with many.
Christians gather regularly for communal prayer, worship, study, and companionship. And the single thing that binds them together, the only reason they are gathering as that particular group is that they follow a fellow named Jesus. You might not know it from some churches, but Christians are not required to gather with people who look like them, talk like them, or agree with them. In fact, we’re best following Jesus and his own mottly band when we gather with people who aren’t like us at all.
My own little community disagrees on just about everything, except that we are all beloved Children of God. We are united, not by our beliefs, or demographics, but by our baptism (initiation into Christian practice) and the Eucharist (in which we become what we eat: the body of Christ).
Our weekly gathering is meant to help shape us into the sort of people who live our lives in the same way, who get together with people utterly unlike us; but who we respect and cherish as fellow children of God.
Intentional & Different
Who do you spend time with? Think about the groups of people you spend significant time with, those you could call in an emergency. If they are all the same race, class, religion, or political party as yourself then you have an opportunity for a new practice.
Think about where (and with whom) you can you spend time with people who aren’t like you, except being fellow human beings? If you live in homogeneous neighborhood, your kids attend a private school, and your church is all white you may have to get well outside your comfort zone to take on this Christian spiritual practice. All the more reason to do it.
We fear that which we don’t understand. And we fear people we don’t know. When we get to know those “other people” we discover every group of human beings has assholes and saints. Every group is full of complicated, weird, funny, and wonderful souls from whom we can learn a great deal, if we’re willing.
This practice will make you uncomfortable at first, but the rewards in a life of richness and difference are well worth it. (And it’s a good prep for the wild diversity of the kingdom of heaven.)
First in the liturgy we gather together. The second thing we do is to listen. As a community we sit down, and listen to someone read to us. Most adults haven’t been read to since they were children. Most of us, outside of this sort of ritual act, will rarely read aloud. (Unless we have children ourselves.)
There are a whole host of reasons why this practice matters so much, and why we should consider adding it to our everyday spiritual lives. First: listening engages an entirely other part of our brain than reading. You can get into real geeky territory here but ancient written language had no punctuation and often no spaces. (Greek, the language in which Christian scriptures were written for example, doesn’t use spaces or punctuation.) The advent of spaces in writing changed everything. Adding spaces to our written languages meant we no longer needed to read aloud, to sound out words as we went to know where one stopped and another began.
Reading has become a “head” act. But it didn’t used to be. It used to be vocal, and therefore communal. As we sit and listen to our sacred stories read aloud we get a tiny bit closer to the experience of our ancestors listening to those same stories.
Listening also requires our attention. When I have a text in front of me I can skim through it quickly and then be off day dreaming. If I have to listen to someone else read I have to stay with them or I’ll lose the meaning and flow of the story. This matters because we modern people are horrible at single tasking. When was the last time you weren’t on your phone while you listened to the radio or “watched” the ball game?
So we’re doing something important when we stop, and just listen. We listen for quite a while too. In my tradition we listen to a reading from Hebrew scripture, from the Gospel, and from the Epistles. (We also read a psalm together but that’s a different practice.) And then (you thought I was done didn’t you?) my congregation settles in and listens to the sermon I’ve prepared for them based on those lessons this week.
It’s a lot of listening, more than we get just about anywhere else. Listening that we are not expected to respond to immediately. We don’t have to come up with an answer, or the other half of the conversation. We simply listen. And there’s a gift in that.
Listen & Read
Try this. Sit down with someone else (a friend, prayer partner, or your family) and take turns reading aloud to one another. You could read scripture, the lives of the saints, or a book like Harry Potter. The text is a point but not the only point. As you take turns reading aloud and listening you practice important skills that will make you a better follower of Jesus.
When Jesus interacted with people he tended to ask them things: what do you want? And he listened to their responses. He held space for them, he paid attention to them, and he responded to what they actually said, not what he expected.
As you practice listening you may just find that you become more patient listening to your spouse, or friend tell the story of their hard day. You may find you can listen to someone explaining their passionate beliefs without needing to jump in with your own. Listening teaches us to slow down, and really hear.
And if we become skilled enough we might just begin to hear the Holy Spirit whispering Her wisdom through the people around us, and the stories we listen to.
Prayer: Intersession & Thankfulness
There is of course a response to the things we have heard that is built into our liturgy, and that is prayer. But not just any prayer (because prayer can be many things). We do two things specifically in the liturgy: we give thanks for God’s love and grace; and we pray for others.
These are important practices because they realign the way we think. When we pray for others (intersession) we are decentering ourselves and our own desires. We are saying (even for a few moments) that there are in fact other people in the world who need love and compassion. In my tradition we pray for the world first and it’s needs, then our own nation (and it’s leaders whether we like them or not), then our local area. That order matters, it puts us in mind that we are all in this together. It forces us to pray for our enemies, for people we’ve never heard of, for people who seem remote before we think about the things that directly impact us.
Everyday prayers – Macro to Micro
In the Prayers of the People we try to cover everything, from the oppressed and the hungry, to the powerful.
And we give thanks. It’s been well said many times that practicing thankfulness (naming things we are thankful for in our lives) actually changes our brain chemistry, it makes us happier and more content. If you need some structure to your prayer life I invite you to try following the rhythm of the liturgical intersessions.
- Pray for the whole world: for all the global issues you’ve seen on the news, for both sides of every fight. For the whole of creation.
- Pray for the leaders of your country: that they be wise and just. Pray for them especially if you dislike them. Pray for the issues your country faces.
- Then pray for your state/region/province. Pray for your leaders and those things in the news. Again, pray for all people involved.
- Pray for your local issues, for your neighbors and friends.
- Pray for those who suffer, who are ill, sick, hungry, unemployed, or unhoused. Pray for those who serve and help them.
- Pray for those who have died and those who mourn.
- Pray for your friends, your family, your religious community.
- Pray for yourself
- Give thanks for something.
This one is huge. The second way (in the liturgy) that we respond to the sacred stories we’ve heard is with repentance. Repentance isn’t a very “in vogue” spiritual practice anymore, you won’t find much about it. In fact our culture has mostly abandoned it. Pay attention to any public figure that screws up and here’s what happens:
- Shit occurs
- Someone calls them on it
- They issue an “apology” (that is really just a “sorry I got caught”)
- Everyone returns to “normal.”
The word repent comes from a root that means to “turn around.” Quite literally to turn 180 degrees and go in the other direction. Repentance does not mean saying “I’m sorry if you were offended/hurt/etc.” Repentance requires that we acknowledge that we caused harm (intentionally or not), and that we take concrete steps to alleviate that harm and prevent it in the future.
Now that is a spiritual practice worth devoting your lifetime to. In the liturgy we confess (admit we’ve done wrong), and commit ourselves to repentance weekly. We do it every single time. Because it’s not a once and done practice. We’re human, we will screw up and we will do it over and over again.
But the more often we admit our mistakes and take real steps to mend the damage we’ve done the better we become at avoiding those mistakes in the future. And that is a worthy goal. (Please note: this practice is not about shame. It is not about perfectionism. It is about compassion and mending relationships with ourselves and others.)
This is one of my absolute favorite spiritual practices and it doesn’t get nearly enough attention. Perhaps the single most Christian practice is eating together. Jesus does it constantly, food is a central part of much of his life and teachings.
And the community that followed him revolved around food just as much. The early church was a house movement led mostly by women, whose purview was the home and the care and feeding of their household. The ritual meal (what has become Eucharist or communion) was the central mark of these communities.
You don’t need a church service, or clergy around to break bread together. I love this one so much I have an entire guide to the practice of eating together, or hospitality. The key here is that you get together with others and you do this intimate thing: you eat with each other. It doesn’t matter if your house is messy, it doesn’t matter what you eat. Sharing food is sacred. Feeding hungry people is sacred.
It is theology embodied. When we feed someone we say (without words) that we love them, that their well-being matters to us. Over time this practice can shape us into people who give, who care for others, and who welcome.
At the end of our liturgy each week we are sent out into the world to “love and serve” God. Which (if we’ve been doing our listening) we will know is through loving and serving our fellow humans, and the world for which we are stewards.
Our liturgy really doesn’t end. Only our gathered formal portion ends, the dress rehearsal if you will ends, and we go out into the rest of our lives to actually enact the liturgy. We are sent out to do all the things above, and to serve our fellow children of God (that’s everyone, by the way, no exclusions). Service to others is an ancient form of Christian spiritual practice.
Monks and nuns for most of history were the ones who fed the poor, tended the sick, and eased the dying. (That’s not to say they were perfect, but service was an intentional part of their rule of life.) Most Christian saints are honored as they are in great part because of their life of service to others. (Often at great personal peril, like Constance and her companions.)
Make it a regular practice to do something that serves the needs of others rather than your own. Spend some of yourself on the rest of the world. You don’t have to be Mother Theresa. Give blood, cook dinner for the local youth shelter, shop for the local food bank, the possibilities are endless.
A Christian Life
The Christian life is a life of practice. Your practices and my practices may look quite a bit different, and that’s OK. Diversity is a good thing, and our God is big enough for our differences. Remember though that you are loved. You don’t have to earn God’s love, there is in fact nothing you can do which will make God love your one bit more or one bit less.
Living a life in Christ isn’t about getting into heaven. It’s about walking with a God who loves us, toward a future that is brighter and better for everything and everyone God has made. So give yourself grace when you inevitably fail at all this, God invites you to get back up and start again. Over and over, for your whole life.
And if none of these practices resonated with you right now? That’s OK. You can find a whole list of possible spiritual practices and best practices for sticking with them.