Spirituality Unmoored

Spiritual experience sickens when detached from the nitty-gritty realities of daily, material life. 

The Transfiguration by Raphael Sanzio, 1520

Some 20 years ago, I served on an advisory board for a Protestant seminary. In our first gathering, the school’s administration sketched for us the broad dimensions of the seminary’s curriculum. The emphasis was heavy on academic theology and field education. That represented their best judgment as to what was proper preparation for the task of ministry.

At the end of the presentation, one in our group asked, “Who is teaching our future clergy to pray?” The question seemed to throw the administrators for a loop. They did not conceive the seminary teaching spiritual practices.

Much has changed since then. The current president of that same seminary writes a weekly blog on spirituality. Many seminaries around the country now offer not only courses in spirituality, but also certification courses in spirituality and spiritual direction.

Likewise many local congregations now give great emphasis to prayer practices as well as other spiritual disciplines. The church my wife and I attend is one. Every educational term there is at least one offering in spirituality, sometimes more than one.

I belong to a professional association for Christian educators. I note the frequency that discussions of spirituality come up in its newsletters and national conferences.

Mainline Protestantism seems to be awash in spirituality. I applaud this because the practice of contemplative prayer has played a very formative role in my own Christian life for the past 25 years. I believe in the spiritual journey. I am glad that many others now see its importance, too.

And Yet

Yes, and yet. I am becoming increasingly concerned about this growing popularity with spirituality. When popularization latches onto any thing profound, it tends to water down the profundity. Quickly the popularized version becomes something innocuous or disappointing.

This, I fear, may be happening with the fad for spirituality. It runs the risk of becoming something cloying, sweetly sentimental, and therefore riskless. We use spiritual practices not to enter more deeply into the nitty-gritty realities of daily life, but to escape them into an unreal never-never land where nothing bothers us.

Gordon Cosby, the late pastor of the Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C., always instructed his parishioners that they must be engaged in two simultaneous journeys in their individual lives and in the congregation’s life. One journey is a journey inward. It is the journey we pursue when we engage in spiritual practices. The other journey is a journey outward, as we engage in ministry and mission to the world outside our inner fellowship.

What has always impressed me about his vision is that he never regarded the two journeys as an either/or. We must engage in both…and simultaneously.

If we do not, our journey inward becomes very self-centered. Our spirituality will sicken. We need to journey outward as a check on that ego-centrism. But likewise, if we engage only in a journey outward, then we quickly burn out. Our inner energy is depleted. We lose either the joy or the momentum to serve. Our spiritual practices keep us in touch with the spiritual springs of our inner energy and inspiration.

I have always felt Cosby was spot on in his analysis. His vision has become my own.

What I fear is that with our current obsession with spirituality, many people and churches today are falling into the very trap that Cosby warns against. We are so focused on spiritual experiences that we are neglecting the simultaneous call to ministry outward.

Mountaintop Experiences and Life in the Valley

Here I find the beauty of Mark’s vision in his gospel. In Mark 9:2-29 Mark tells two stories about Jesus. As is usually the case with Mark, the two stories are not two independent stories that just happen to follow another. They belong together and comment on each other. So we must read them together.

Mark 9:2-8 tells the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on a high mountaintop. It describes what must have been a spectacular spiritual experience for the three witnessing disciples. Jesus glows in a dazzling white light. Moses and Elijah stand beside him in conversation.

Talk about a spiritual experience. Not much can top that. It so impresses Peter that he proposes to build three shrines on the mountain to commemorate the event. In this way he would like to hold on to the experience. This might mean that he, James, and John could return to the site over and over again to bask in the glorious memory.

But the brilliant light fades, as do Moses and Elijah. All that remains is the heavenly voice instructing them to listen to Jesus. Religious experiences never last. What does endure is the gospel word.

Jesus then leads them down the mountain. He tells them to say nothing about the experience until he rises again from the dead. His words make no sense to the disciples.

When they reach the valley (Mark 9:14-29), they encounter a confused scene where a desperate man seeks a healing for his epileptic son. He does not get it from the disciples. Only a fierce argument.

The man pleads for Jesus to step in and Jesus does, healing the boy. Afterwards the disciples ask Jesus why they could not heal the boy. Jesus responds, This kind can come only through prayer (Mark 9:29).

Together these two stories illustrate the point that Gordon Cosby makes. The three disciples are given a powerful spiritual experience on the mountaintop. But they are not meant nor allowed to remain there in its rarefied spiritual atmosphere. Instead Jesus leads them down into the pain, suffering, and frustrations of life in the valley. This is daily life, life in the material world of the body, the place where most of life is lived.

What gives Jesus and his disciples the power and resources for serving those demanding needs in the valley is the practice of prayer. And so Jesus and Mark would have us travel to a quiet place of retreat for prayer and then back into the valley over and over again. This is the  cycle that leads to spiritual maturity.