By Neal Windham
A word may not mean what we think it means, especially if our emotions or preconceptions get in the way. Nowhere is this more true than when we talk about words associated with Spiritual formation.
At age 2, my grandson Whit sometimes misunderstood the words of the songs he was learning. For example, “Jesus loves meat, this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” and “You make all things beautiful out of dups” (not “dust”). Not surprisingly, as a 5-year-old, his father, Luke, used to sing, “Elsha died, Elsha died” in a minor key, dirgelike, weeping alongside his buddy Christopher, as the rest of us sang, “El Shaddai”—God Almighty—not exactly something we were mourning.
I’m not sure anyone really knew why those boys were crying in church at the time. Proud parents, we probably assumed it was an early indicator of great piety.
What’s This Babel?
Confusion in language and language learning is quite common, and not only for children. This has created problems for the church, particularly as new and not-so-new words—like meditation, contemplation, and mystical—are introduced and reintroduced in the midst of controversy over the value of Spiritual1 formation in general and the intended meanings of these words in particular.
Sometimes we hear the wrong words, as did Whit and Luke (“dups” and “Elsha”). Other times we hear the right words but attach wrong meanings. For example, when Christians hear meditation and think Zen, they leap into the fighting ring, not knowing that no fight has been scheduled. The two terms are hardly synonymous. Meditation no more means Zen than alcohol means whiskey.
We have this problem, in part, because most words have multiple meanings, what linguists call polysemy. Run may, for example, suggest that someone is going at a pace faster than a walk, or it may refer to a series of steps, or it may refer to a close grouping of notes in a musical score. And there are, of course, many other meanings for run. Only as we pay careful heed to context may we hope to get the meaning right.
Another way of putting it is to say that misunderstanding often occurs because words are wrongly labeled or marked as conveying a fixed meaning, often with strong emotional attachments, depending upon who is hearing them. Social justice, for example, is a charged phrase with alternately positive or negative implications depending upon the hearer’s cultural, religious, and/or political convictions and affiliations. That’s just the way language works—and doesn’t work. Trouble is, sometimes we don’t take time to discuss what the author of these words may have intended, and this is especially true when it comes to religious buzzwords.
The purpose of this article is thus twofold: (1) to illustrate the complexity of two commonly used and often misunderstood phrases related to Spiritual formation, and (2) to plead for a loving, listening, informed dialogue among all parties interested in the subject.
Every discipline or branch of learning has its own technical vocabulary. Lawyers do pro bono casework. Doctors treat encephalopathy as brain function deteriorates. Biblical scholars frequently work with speech-act theory as they consider how language shapes life. Counselors treat codependency. Think of these technical terms as tools of the trade, words and phrases whose meanings help both specialists and interested nonspecialists to communicate with each other effectively and efficiently.
Christian Spirituality also employs technical terms. For example, Spiritual direction is “a discipline of soul care and formation that involves a process of discernment. In it a directee enlists a director to listen together to God’s voice in pursuit of a deepening relationship with God and increasing reflection of Jesus in his or her life choices.”2 Not to be confused with palm readers, tarot cards, or other similar spiritual aberrations, Christian Spiritual direction is a well-established practice dating back at least to the fourth century.
Today it is enjoying a remarkable surge of interest as people are sensing that something (more correctly, Someone) is missing in contemporary therapies and self-help “preaching” that neglect God, Scripture, and faith. The question at the heart of Spiritual direction is, “What is God doing in your life, your marriage, your church, your work, etc.?” As such, this practice is actually reframing how we speak and think about God, faith, and ourselves, and thus rewiring our relationships with God and people. It is no longer “Chuck’s program” or “Mary’s ministry” or “our church,” for example, but “God’s,” and the question is not, “How can I improve this situation?” but “What does God want us to see and do here?”
Of course, practitioners of this discipline (both directors and directees) need thorough grounding in the Bible, a deepening prayer life, and solid commitment to Jesus. Additionally, directors need to get training (generally in graduate programs and/or two-year certification classes).
Moreover, it is important to notice that not all spiritual directors are Christian. Just as there are elders in multiple religions, there are also spiritual directors in multiple religions. Believers must be discerning in locating a Christian Spiritual director who is biblically grounded.
If you want to learn more, read David Benner’s Sacred Companions (Intervarsity Press, 2004), a wonderful introduction to Spiritual friendship and direction.
“The Jesus Prayer”
Another practice common in Spiritual formation today is “the Jesus Prayer.” This prayer is often traced to the Hesychast movement, a medieval Byzantine school whose practice sought to bring the practitioner into a place of quiet reflection via repeated cries for mercy. But actually the prayer has much deeper and older roots in the biblical text itself, particularly in Luke’s Gospel, where we hear it, in one form or another, from the lips of the rich man in Hades (16:24), 10 lepers (17:13), a penitent tax collector (18:13), and a blind beggar (18:38, 39). In each case we hear a cry for mercy, and in the case of the blind man, repeated cries for mercy.
The most-cited use of the prayer today comes from the tax collector: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Orthodox Christians have been known to repeat this prayer hundreds of times, much as Psalm 136 repeats “His love endures forever” in each of its 26 verses, in an attempt to feel its significance, allowing its words “to move from the head to the heart,” as many practitioners put it.
Undoubtedly, there are abuses of the practice. Critics cite Jesus: “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans” (Matthew 6:7). And others claim the seemingly endless cries for mercy are an affront to a robust embrace of God’s grace, a point worthy of consideration. The church’s history is clearly littered with spiritual excesses that obscure both grace and God.
However, rightly appropriated, the Jesus Prayer calls attention both to our profound need and God’s extraordinary capacity to rescue. I call it the least common denominator of all prayer. Everyone prone to prayer, and some who aren’t, will at some point offer this prayer in one form or another. It is just a matter of time.
Personally, I offer the prayer, not in a highly compressed form involving many repetitions (though I don’t think this is wrong), but rather throughout the day as I am tempted, or when I sin, or when I see someone in great need. Some days I do actually say the prayer a hundred times or so. It has become for me a very regular prayer, restoring a proper sense of proportion, reminding me of my dependence upon God, as well as the great gift of his mercy, leading me back to 1 Thessalonians 5:17 (“Pray continually”).
Do you see how, in associating every mention of the Jesus Prayer with one possibly excessive version of it, we are robbed of its great potential to help us see how deeply we need God in every circumstance of life? And this word association fallacy (as we’ll call it) holds for other Spiritual terms and practices as well.
Mystical and mystery (from Greek muo, “to silence”), for example, do not always reference a spectacular visionary experience (the sort of which Paul had at least once, in 2 Corinthians 12:1-4, and thus not necessarily a bad thing!), but are often “focused less on explaining the inexplicable and more on experiencing God’s unfathomable love and abiding presence.”3
Similarly, there is no necessary correlation between Christian contemplation and corrupt pagan influences. Contemplation was largely thrown away at the time of the Reformation as Protestant leaders rejected Catholic mysticism and its language.4 But today, Richard Foster speaks of contemplation as “the steady gaze of the soul upon the God who loves us.”5 What Christian could possibly argue against such a practice?
Jean Vanier says fear leads to exclusion.6 Sometimes we quit listening at the very mention of controversial words in order to fence ourselves off from enemies, real and imagined, simply because we’re afraid of the unknown and unfamiliar. But the reality is this: Christian Spirituality and Christian Spiritual formation are here to stay—at least for the present.
We can either ignore this reality or seek to understand why people whose souls have been ravaged and left for dead by modernity’s flattened Christianity and its stubborn god—deism—are now hungering and thirsting for God via ancient pathways, like Spiritual direction and the Jesus Prayer. Better, I think, to try to understand what’s happening in our midst and learn from it.
Spirituality, meditation, contemplation (as Foster defines it), the Jesus Prayer, even Spiritual direction—all are, in one form or another, sanctioned in the Bible itself. So why should we continue to dwell in a house of fear?
1I consistently capitalize Spiritual and Spirituality throughout this article to call attention to the presence and role of the Holy Spirit in the process of being formed Spiritually (see 1 Corinthians 2:12, 13). In other words, Spiritual formation is not the same as spiritual formation. The former fronts the Holy Spirit’s role in shaping us. The latter might be nothing more than a self-help fix. See Gordon Fee, “On Getting the Spirit Back into Spirituality,” in Life in the Spirit, edited Jeffrey P. Greenman and George Kalantzis (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2010), 36-44.
2Kim Olstad, “Direction, Spiritual,” in Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, edited by Glen G. Scorgie (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 402.
3Charles J. Conniry Jr., “Mystery,” in Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, edited by Glen G. Scorgie (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 631.
4Keith J. Egan, “Contemplation,” in The New Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, edited by Philip Sheldrake (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 212.
5Richard Foster, Streams of Living Water (New York: Harper SanFrancisco, 1998), 49.
6Jean Vanier, Becoming Human (New York: Paulist, 1998), 71.
Neal Windham is professor of spiritual formation at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian University.