Spirituality, or the spiritual life, “is simply the increasing vitality and sway of God’s Spirit in us.”1 The spiritual life is therefore dynamic, with God’s Spirit working in us to make us more like Christ in response to our thirst for God. It is a continual conversation between God and us, which brings about our increasing transformation as our relationship with God goes deeper.
What is this relationship like? It is a relationship where God reaches out to us and we in turn respond. But how do we respond? How do we communicate with God?
Up until the last quarter of the 20th century, Protestants concentrated on prayer, Bible study, and worship as spiritual disciplines. Then gradually an interest awakened in how earlier Christians devoted themselves to God and in the contemplative life in general. Practices that were previously thought of as the sole domain of monks and nuns or the Catholic Church were rediscovered. Writers such as Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Richard Foster, Parker Palmer, Kathleen Norris, Fredrick Buechner, Eugene Peterson, Phyllis Tickle, and Marjorie Thompson wrote about the contemplative life and the elements that form it. Those elements, or practices, that we use to deepen our relationship with God are called spiritual practices or disciplines.
Spiritual practices are the tools at our disposal to help us regularly engage with God and to notice how grace is working in our lives. As the term implies, they are rituals or disciplines that we practice on a regular basis. They both help us grow in our relationship with God, but also help order our lives toward God. Yes, they include prayer, worship, and Bible study, which many of us already practice. But they also include fasting, hospitality, lectitio divina (spiritual reading), silence, discernment, contemplation, a personal Rule of Life, Sabbath rest, confession, and service. Many of the spiritual practices can be observed being used in the Bible and are still useful to us today as we seek to respond to, and grow into a deeper relationship with, God.
Do I have to use all the spiritual practices? We may already use some of the practices, such as Bible study, prayer, and worship. As we explore a deeper relationship with God we can add one or two others to our lives, but, no, we do not need to use them all. As we grow spiritually we may seek to use more as we hunger for God. However, we will find that some feel very comfortable and fit who we are better than others. For example, a friend of mine that had trouble sitting still to pray for longer than a few minutes and was very easily distracted tried praying the labyrinth and fasting. She found them to be two practices that fit her life and personality well and were valuable in deepening her relationship with God.
I encourage you to explore the various practices or disciplines and be intentional about using them. Our attitude can impact our actions so it is important to be sincere and aware of what our goal is for using them – they are not an end in themselves. Casual use will not benefit our spiritual growth. Practicing the spiritual disciplines takes time and effort but the result is that we open ourselves up to the work of the Holy Spirit and tend to the spiritual dimension of our lives.
“By themselves the Spiritual Disciplines can do nothing; they can only get us to the place where something can be done. . . . [they are] the means by which we place ourselves where [God] can bless us.”2
Some examples of how we can start: Fasting may be a discipline that could be tried at specific times of the church year, for example, weekly during Lent. Our fast may be from just one meal and gradually, after a few weeks, build up to a whole day of fasting. Sabbath rest can be an intentional practice of ceasing all work on Sunday and concentrating on not just our spiritual life but also our family life and our personal well-being. Silence is a practice that is extremely counter-cultural but very valuable in our spiritual life. If we cannot learn to be silent, turn-off the noise of the world, and be aware of our interiority, it will be hard for us to hear God. It is said, “silence is the language of God.”
God calls us to a banquet where he lays a feast before us; as we partake of the feast and use everything that he has given us, our joy in God will grow. I encourage you to explore the spiritual practices as you seek a deeper relationship with God.
“Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new. It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it?” –Isaiah 43: 19 (MSG)
Marjorie F. Thompson, Soul Feast (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 7.
Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth (Sna Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), 7.
About Sue Palmer
Sue Palmer grew up in England and came to the U.S. in her 20’s with her husband. She is currently a spiritual director, retreat leader, and writer, and received her spiritual director certification through John Carroll University’s Ignatian Spirituality Institute. Her passions are to help people go deeper in their walk with God and to discover their creative potential. A former social worker, library assistant, and teacher, Sue is an award-winning non-fiction writer.
Sue has written and facilitated Bible studies, retreats, and workshops, with an emphasis on Ignatian Spirituality, Prayer, Spiritual Practices, blogging, and the art of writing.
Sue is currently pursuing graduate studies in grief and bereavement, and has facilitated for DivorceCare support groups. She is working on creating retreats to help people move through grief and loss using prayer, art and the written word. Creating with paint, mixed media and knitting keeps her busy when not writing. Gardening and hiking keep her grounded in nature.
Sue is married with two adult children and, after living in 6 states, she and her husband Roger, reside in Cave Creek, Arizona, in the beautiful Sonoran Desert.