by James C. Sprouse, Senior Pastor
Mysticism, disciplines, holiness, devotion, spiritual warfare, spiritual formation, spiritual direction, penance, confirmation, journaling, silence, fasting, covenant groups, directed retreats, purification, piety… bookstores are brimming with works on spirituality. Many Protestant seminaries hasten to add courses on spiritual formation. Monastic guesthouses welcome thousands of exhausted go-getters every year.
The deep craving for spiritual nurture reminds us of the inability of global capitalism to ultimately satisfy and save. People who struggle to gain footing in a multicultural world desperately grab onto whatever looks like it will provide some stability, some guidance, some map for directing them to a moment of silence among the sound bites. Within the Christian tradition, there is a bewildering abundance of spiritual offerings.
In the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches, where the purpose of human life is intimacy with God, redemption and spirituality are closely linked. Deification, or theosis, is returning to a pure state of the soul in union with the Trinity, by a participation made possible through the incarnation. Salvation is a slow process of spiritual maturation in the purification of the soul; and because the process is slow, images, symbols, and sacraments aid illumination and transformation.
In the Roman Catholic Church salvation is associated with avoiding the consequences of God’s wrath. The spiritual life developed from penitential disciplines. People need to do something in order to quell their deep anxiety brought on by their anticipating the wrath of God. During the Middle Ages, the view was that through the sacrament of baptism, Christians regain their freedom to love and serve God, but much to their chagrin, they still fail to do so.
Protestantism views certain devotional practices as suspect and we often turn instead to reclaiming the authority of Scripture for the Christian life, sort of interpreting and devouring the Word of God as Eucharistic food for the soul. The Reformers distinguished justification from sanctification more sharply, with salvation equated with justification and sanctification understood to follow… classic Wesley. In the Calvinist traditions, sanctification became holding fast to the belief that God is merciful though we don’t deserve it. Puritan spirituality was highly activist, focusing on individual integrity and sincerity of purpose and energetic execution of life’s little tasks.
All of us acknowledge the difficulty of cultivating a godly life in our current climate. A godly life requires tempering our appetites and desires, titillated by advertising and consumer overload. Centering at the foot of the cross and then standing at the empty tomb doesn’t happen when 200 images per minute of booming, gyrating music relentlessly numb the soul. Life becomes an on-going music video. It is difficult to discover our desire for God so long as economic system requires that we crave money, sex and power. Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, once warned that spiritual health requires radically redirecting our desires. Perhaps in this light, we can admit that the orthodox East, the orthodox West and the full garden variety of Protestant expressions of faith, all offer us spiritual paths to a deeper relationship with God.
Assuming that most who read this article on Spiritual Formation are United Methodist or some other Protestant expression of Christianity, exercise your devotional life by exploring the writings of East [Origen, Cyril, Ignatius, John Chrysostom] and West [Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Merton] orthodox theologians and enjoy your spiritual travels.