Monday, December 10, 2012

Spiritual disciplines

A couple of months ago I received a copy of Lynne Baab's new book, Joy Together: spiritual practices for your congregation.  At first sight it seemed to be covering ground that was well-worn by a number of other writers, perhaps most notably, Richard Foster in his Celebration of Discipline.  Baab's approach is different in that she's focused on how such spiritual disciplines might be appropriated by groups or congregations rather than individuals.   Some of her suggestions in this regard have worked with groups she'd interviewed before she wrote the book, and she offers further ideas for congregations to use the disciplines.  However, at the end of the day, the focus comes back to the individual: if an individual is not willing to bring some discipline to his or her spiritual life, then an increase in numbers of people won't make a lot of difference.  Certainly a group can offer support to each member of the group, and this is an advantage, but the process in our individualistic society has to start with each single person.

All that said, the book is a worthwhile read, and I was pleased that she began with a focus on Thankfulness, or Gratitude.  At first sight this doesn't seem like much of a 'discipline' and yet how many of us are thankful for small or great things in our lives?  It becomes very easy to take the gifts we're given on a daily basis for granted, especially when there seems - in Western society, anyway - to be an abundance of everything we're likely to need.  Cultivating a poverty of spirit takes a bit of doing in our kind of world and without a sense of that, we become casual about where everything comes from.   For me, being grateful is something I find it too easy to forget, though there are one or two things in my life for which I'm grateful on an ongoing basis.   But being grateful for what is given to us each day is another matter, and Baab's chapter on this subject is helpful in thinking about being more proactive in this regard.

She covers some of the other more usual disciplines: fasting, contemplative prayer, seeing the need for a real Sabbath mentality in our lives.  On this last subject Baab comes in a line of 20th and 21st century writers who have commended the concept of the Sabbath as something we moderns need to take hold of; we're not good at hearing these people, I think, especially since the society around us has almost completely ditched  the idea of a day - or a way - of rest.  Hospitality is another matter may be less familiar as a spiritual discipline; it's something we're called to do anyway, you'd think, so why be 'disciplined' about it. But called or not, it's worth reflecting on what Baab has to say.

In a stimulating chapter towards the end of the book Baab brings in William Willimon, a well-known American writer who has spoken out against spiritual practices.  His concern is that the practices may take over from our relationship with God.  Willimon may be writing, in part, as a kind of devil's advocate, but Baab takes his points seriously, and then argues her case for the need for spiritual disciplines all the same.  

I don't myself find some of the disciplines discussed in her book to be helpful to me personally: centering and breath prayer and labyrinths don't grab me, and though I've looked at the Lectio Divina more than once I don't seem to get very far with it.  But there's more than enough other material to think about, and the book is of value to the individual reader as well as those thinking of starting groups, or working with their congregations.  For me this book is the best thing Lynne Baab has written in recent years, and I'll be dipping in and out of it again to keep myself in check!

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