Spiritual life, to be successful, calls for spiritually disciplined living. This series of reflections provides tips on spiritual goals, prayer discipline and spiritual reading.
Chapter 9 of Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians uses Olympic Games imagery of runners competing for a perishable prize and giving it all they can – living for the gold. The people of God too are in a life race, but they run for a much more valuable, eternal prize. It is therefore even more important that they give it their all and engage in spiritually disciplined living. As we each consider our race for eternal life, it might be helpful to think of the choir of saints, angels and archangels as our fans and enthusiastic onlookers, and to realize that the King himself is watching us and hoping that he can give us the gold of his eternal love.
A clear goal is vital to succeed in any endeavour, be it sports or spiritual life. Without a clear goal, we’ll always become distracted and spend energy on secondary, often unimportant things. Martin Luther King exhorted his people to “Keep your eyes on the prize.” Our prize was proclaimed to us by Jesus Christ – it is eternal life, divine life with and in God (John 3:16). While it is not easy to keep focusing on eternal life in a world full of distractions and seemingly urgent things to do, one specific discipline will help. Through the discipline of prayer we will be able to bring God back again and again to the centre of our life. If we set aside regular time and place to return to our God who offers eternal life, the many necessary pursuits of life will become less distracting, but will instead lead us closer to our goal. Prayer keeps our goal clear and sharpens it when it becomes vague and hazy.
Eternal life is not only life after death, but is reachable here and now. Being life in and with God, it must be where we are, for God is where we are. Jesus says: “Dwell in me as I dwell in you.” This is eternal life – the divine indwelling, the active presence of God at the centre of our life, the movement of the Holy Spirit within. When we live in communion with God and belong to God’s household, death loses its power – in a sense, it is no longer the dividing line, because God is a God of the living, not of the dead. Once we have tasted the joy and peace as a result of being embraced by God’s love, we no longer need to fear death – we know all is well and will be well. Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid, I have overcome the powers of death.”
Spiritual reading is another important discipline in the life of the Spirit. It helps us to control what enters into our minds and to counteract all the words and images we are bombarded with by our society. Obviously we don’t want our minds to be filled with all kinds of often negative and unprofitable information that determines our thoughts and feelings. Therefore, we need to practise real discipline to let God and not the world be the Lord of our mind. Selecting and having handy books that nurture our minds and bring us closer to God will always reset our minds in the direction we want to go. These can be books about inspiring individuals or activities, or about principles of spiritual life. Reading only 15 minutes a day will soon start turning our mind from a garbage can to a vase filled with good thoughts.
Uplifting books also need to be read in a spiritual way – that is with a desire to let God come closer to us. While we often read to acquire knowledge or information, the purpose of spiritual reading is for God to master us. In a special way, we allow God to read us! For example, an account of an event in Jesus life can be read with the question, “How does God speak to me here and call me to a more generous love?” A news item can be read to become more aware of the reality of a world that needs God’s words and saving actions. Spiritual reading then is reading with an inner attentiveness to the movement of the Holy Spirit in our outer and inner lives. That way we’ll allow God to read us and to explain to us what we are truly about.
Spiritual reading helps to give meaning to our lives. Meaning is essential – without it humans cannot survive for long in adverse circumstances as became clearly apparent in the case of concentration camp victims. Yet, much of our lives are spent without reflection on its meaning, and as a result, life becomes meaningless and boring. Spiritual reading is a discipline to keep us reflecting on our lives as we live them. Regarding any experience, we should ideally ask: “What does it all mean? What is God trying to tell us? How are we called to live in the midst of all this?” There are answers to these questions, but we’ll find them only if we are first willing to live the questions. As we keep spiritual books in one hand and the newspaper in the other, and keep asking and faithfully living the questions that come to mind, gradually, almost imperceptibly, we’ll grow into the answers.
Reference: The above series of reflections on spiritually disciplined living is based on Henri Nouwen’s book, Here and Now, Living in the Spirit (London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd, 1994), 53-60.
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