The Beginning of True Spirituality

Yesterday I wrote about the danger of theology. What is truly needed is not a profound academic theological system that we can master or comprehend. What is needed to be godly is deep, true, vital spiritual life. This true spirituality, as the late Francis Schaeffer called it decades ago when evangelicals did not talk this way, always begins with the simple recognition that we need God in our lives. It begins when we place ourselves in his loving hands with complete trust. We can do this because we have become confident, in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, that the Father truly loves us and nothing can change that fact. “God is love” (1 John 4:8).

images The principal reason that we cannot rest in the love of God is that we are too conscious of our own sins and failures. No matter what we tell ourselves something inside of us keeps saying, like an alarm system, “You have no right to God’s love so forget it!” But this is precisely what makes the love of God so utterly amazing. God loves us not because we are deserving of his love but because he is love. He has overflowing compassion and mercy toward us in Jesus Christ, the reconciler of the whole world through the blood of his cross (Colossians 1:20).

Jesus addressed crowds of people as children and called them a “little flock” (sheep). He spoke about the birds of the air and the flowers of the field being cared for by his Father and of how much more the Father cares for us. If you begin a journey to Christ without a firm belief that God is open to you, and thus kindly disposed toward you, then your journey will never last. You will turn inward, grow bitter and judgmental and in the end you will very like become either a Pharisee or a cynic/agnostic/atheist.

Newman Recently I was reading a book about Cardinal John Henry Newman, the most famous English-speaking Protestant convert to Catholicism in the 19th century. Newman was surrounded by an unusual cast of characters, all of them a bit socially odd you might say. One of his friends was a convert from atheism to evangelicalism. He was then converted to Anglicanism and then to high-church Anglicanism. Then he, like John Henry Newman, became a Catholic. Unlike Newman, this man ended up where be began: atheist. When I read something like that I know this man’s journey was not simply about ideas and intellectual struggles. It is always much deeper, at least in every case I’ve ever known. I had to wonder, “Did this man ever know the love of God experientially?” And if he did not then why not?

We must all approach God as prodigals. But the Father we approach is the Father of prodigals who greets those who return to him with open arms, ready to share his life with them. Jesus is “the friend of sinners” And God rejoices over even one sinner who comes to him (Luke 15:7). The only fitness required is to feel your need of him and to run home.

True spirituality always begins by taking the first step of a journey that leads home. It is not based on keeping a list of rules, even good evangelical ones. Let me illustrate.

I have been taught since I was a young child to have “daily devotions.” Would it shock you to know that I have a hard time doing this and often find very different ways of seeking God and growing my spiritual life? I cannot read the Bible for sustained periods of time without my mind racing here and there. This once troubled me but less so in recent years. I read Scripture, but in many diverse ways and styles. I often meditate on one verse, even one word or phrase in one verse. I often use “The Divine Hours” or other forms for reading. I pray the Psalter sometimes. In fact, I pray all day long. I pray while watching a movie, while watching a game, while talking to people. I have also learned how to do private contemplative prayer, which is mostly being quiet and listening. I spent most of my life talking too much so this has been a major breakthrough to say the least. Having an active, at times unquiet, mind is both a blessing and a curse. I go to bed thinking and wake up thinking. I simply cannot turn the motor off easily but I am learning, by practice and with help.

I have also added more frequent celebration of the eucharist and other ways of hearing the Word of God in my life. Public reading of Scripture has become rich to me in worship. (I am saddened that so few evangelical churches bother to read the Bible these days.) I need a rich variety of approaches that will allow me to express myself within the knowledge that I have of who I am and how I best learn and grow. Reading Scripture for 20 minutes each morning and praying through a list of various names and things just doesn’t work for me. It hasn’t since I was about 22 or 23 years old. I am done feeling guilty about this. I am celebrating the myriad ways that God’s people have sought him and grown spiritually by adopting many approaches to spiritual growth that fit me the best. This is where my catholicity has become so vital to true spirituality.

Sometimes knowing God seems impossible. Most of the time it seems like desperation, the plaintive cry of the soul from deep within. Either way God uses these circumstances to lead me to him. Sometimes I sense his presence is so great that I am overwhelmed. Most of the time there is just a still, quiet realization that I love him because he first loved (and still loves) me. Whatever is going on around me I am aware that God is always calling me to deeper intimacy with him.

Jesus teaches us that we should cultivate a “childlike” trust in God. This is not a commandment. It is “his attempt to teach us how to establish a healthy relationship with His Father whom He knows so well” (Never Alone, Girzone, 14). Remember, “Your heavenly Father knows what you need before you ask him.” You can trust him because he really does love you. If you begin here then true spirituality will be the end result as you grow in grace and the knowledge of Christ.