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The Celebration & Challenge of Spiritual Disciplines

Today’s post is from Lance Bolay. As we continue to focus on spiritual practiced this Lenten season, today we focus on celebration and challenge.


Beginning a spiritual discipline can be frustratingly complicated.  First, there are so many kinds of disciplines from which to choose.  Dallas Willard speaks of the disciplines of abstinence and the disciplines of engagement.  Richard Foster breaks it down according to the inward, outward, and corporate disciplines.  Urban Holmes, not for the faint of heart, defines them in terms of apophatic vs. kataphatic and speculative vs. affective.  Sounds like a lot of fun, right?

Putting all categories aside, what if I simply want to pray more?  Which prayer form will I choose?  Mark Thibodeaux outlines four kinds of prayer:  talking at God, talking to God, listening to God, and being with God.  And if I want to swim in the contemplative prayer stream, will it be Centering Prayer, Breath Prayer, or Welcoming Prayer?

But wait.  It gets even more complicated.  Isn’t all of life spiritual anyhow and thus one big discipline full of countless disciplines every day?  Responding kindly to a hateful email is a spiritual discipline.  Practicing peace in a tense staff meeting is a spiritual discipline.  Doing church is a spiritual discipline.  So now I have formal (planned) and informal (unplanned) disciplines!

Now, if I actually ever get around to choosing a particular discipline, the next challenge is space.  This is a question of time and location.  Will I wake up twenty minutes earlier to pray or will I devote fifteen minutes of my lunch hour for prayer?  Where will I pray?  Do I go on a prayer walk around the neighborhood, sit on my back porch, or light a candle at my kitchen table?

If you are ready to throw in the towel, I don’t blame you.  All of this talk about spiritual formation in general and the spiritual disciplines in particular can be quite overwhelming.  However, don’t give up because some of us enjoy making things complicated.

Despite all of the confusion, it’s actually quite simple.  All the disciplines share the same primary intent:  presence.  Our deepest need is to be present to God in all things and to give and receive love out of this simple presence.  I don’t want to be overly consumed with either the past or the future while missing the gift of life in the present moment.  I don’t want to live like Martha, worried and distracted by all sorts of things.  I want to live like Mary, choosing the “one necessary thing”!  Our soul’s deepest longing echoes the famous prayer of St. Augustine:  “You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”

In fact, my intention is not necessarily even to grow “closer” to God.  Rather, I long to realize more and more the incomprehensible union that already exists.  According to the Christian Tradition, I live and move and have my being in God and God lives and moves and has His being within me.  Drawing near to God, then, is a matter of perspective and presence.  A willing, trusting presence to the One Who is Love, is where transformation, community, and ministry happen.

So how do we begin to cultivate a life of presence?  Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Experiment.  Experiment with a variety of disciplines, preferably with a small group or with the guidance of a spiritual director.  I am currently leading a six-week contemplative prayer group with fourteen other people.  Each Monday we experience a different contemplative prayer form together.  After a week of individual practice we gather to share our observations, challenges, and questions.  The objective is to discover which form(s) are most life-giving for each person.  Some may find Ignatian Contemplation easier than Centering Prayer, or Breath Prayer more fruitful than Lectio Divina.  Find what fits and stick with it.  James Bryan Smith’s Good and Beautiful series is a great resource for experimenting with the disciplines as a small group.  Mark Scandrette has also written an outstanding resource entitled, Practicing the Way of Jesus: Life Together in the Kingdom of Love.
  2. Start Small.  If you want more solitude and silence, start with five or ten minutes a day instead of thirty.   If you feel the need to take a retreat with God, take a walk with Him around the neighborhood a few nights a week.  Every Wednesday I offer a 30-minute guided retreat for people who need a quiet space for prayer and stillness before God in the middle of the week.  Eventually, an extended retreat may be necessary, but it’s easy to get discouraged when our expectations are too high.  It’s OK to think small and go slow.
  3. Relax.  Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said it best:  “Above all, trust in the slow work of God.  We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay…  Accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.  Above all, trust in the slow work of God.”  Let’s relax our perfectionistic and legalistic tendencies to get everything just right.  Embrace the mystery of our formation and trust in the One who is Love.  Because in the end, Love does in fact win and that is all that matters.


Lance BolayLance Bolay is the Minister of Spiritual Formation at the Glenwood Church of Christ in Tyler, TX.  He received his Bachelor’s degree in Bible from Oklahoma Christian University and a Master’s in Christian Ministry from Abilene Christian University.  He has a certification in Spiritual Direction from the Institute for Christian Spirituality in Nashville, Tennessee and is a candidate for certification in Leading Contemplative Prayer Groups and Retreats from the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Washington, D.C.  Lance enjoys reading, spin, yoga, raquetball, powerlifting and spending time with his wife Daphne and their three children: Caleb, Abigail, and Aletheia.  Lance has a passion to walk alongside others in their longing for wholeness and transformation, pointing them to the ultimate source of love and healing in Jesus.

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