By Neal Windham
I recently took six college students to a state park not far from my home for an afternoon of prayer. It was a dreary spring day. Intermittent rain showers soaked our plans, cooled the air, and beckoned us to drier conditions after we toured the park.
So we went to a Dairy Queen—you can always pray at a Dairy Queen—where we celebrated Abbey’s birthday over Blizzards and swapped some great stories.
On the drive home, students began to sing. One of them asked if I had a request. “Sure,” I said, “How about something from The Sound of Music? It’s my favorite movie.”
I wasn’t expecting much, thinking they’d probably never heard of Julie Andrews or the 1965 box office hit. But to my complete surprise, Katie belted out tune after tune in a strong mezzo, with impeccable British accent, taking me back some 50 years to the Broadway Theater in Galveston, Texas, where I first saw this movie. Among the tunes she sang was “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?”
Perhaps you remember the comical way in which Maria, the wayward Austrian nun, came racing into the courtyard, fresh off a songfest of her own in the hills surrounding the abbey. And do you recall how, at the sight of the Reverend Mother, she stopped dead in her tracks?
At this point, as only happens in musicals and operas, several nuns broke into song. “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” alludes to Maria climbing trees and tearing her dress, waltzing to Mass, whistling, and even “singing in the abbey.” Solving a problem like Maria, the song says, is like trying to “hold a moonbeam in your hand.”
Because Maria was different, because she frequently “got lost” in her native woods and meadows, virtually everyone assumed there was something wrong with her. And the verdict of most was that she simply did not belong in the abbey.
But I’ve come to see a different side of a “problem” like this.
No Two Are Alike
I am a teacher. My task is to challenge every student I teach to life and leadership transformed by the gospel. Trouble is, no two of my students are alike, and in fact, some are very much like Maria—rushed, late, distracted, and yet somehow pure, devoted, and free. The combination proves both deeply challenging and greatly rewarding, and I am repeatedly awed at the rich variety of ways my students respond to the tasks of learning.
Several years ago, I was assigned a sophomore-level course, “SF260 Christian Spirituality.” It was an elective, and the students who signed on were generally attentive and engaged. Initially, I set the course up in three units:
1. “Lovers and Longings” (an attempt to establish the fundamental human impulse, love for God).
2. “Holy Habits” (an in-depth examination and practice of selected spiritual disciplines designed to cultivate love for God).
3. “The Fruit Born of Devotion” (what students could reasonably expect to experience as a result of acquiring these holy habits).
As we got into the second unit of the class, “Holy Habits,” I vividly recall how the lectures and exercises received a mixed reception. Some students latched on to journaling while others hated it; some were drawn to intercession while others craved adoration; some prayed best with background music while others preferred complete silence; some wanted to pray alone, others in small groups. And so on.
You might just chalk this up to the so-called “me-ism” of millennials (honest boomers should be ashamed of talking about any other generation in this way!), but I think there’s more, much more, than meets the eye here. In time, I discovered it is not enough to piece together lectures and spiritual practices based solely upon my reading, research, preferences, and experiences. As with learning styles, spiritual gifting, personality types, and musical preferences, there are distinctive spiritual tracks, or “sacred pathways,” as Gary Thomas calls them, unique ways of relating to God.
In Sacred Pathways, Thomas cites “naturalists, sensates, traditionalists, ascetics, activists, caregivers, enthusiasts, contemplatives, and intellectuals,”1 providing descriptions and suitable exercises for each. (It is important to note in passing that, while all believers will have a primary pathway, they will also have a secondary pathway, and a third; the pathways are not mutually exclusive.)
This new realization led me to incorporate yet another unit in my already-packed course on Christian spirituality, one called, for lack of a more accurate descriptor, “Authentics.”
No Cookie Cutters
“Authentics,” as I see it, is the call to be true to our life circumstances, personality types, and spiritual dispositions, regularly adjusting and aligning our unique spiritual gifts, capacities, and behaviors to conform to God’s expectations and purposes for our lives in relationship to himself, the church, and the world. In short, this means we’ve got to be ourselves before God and people, and that means certain spiritual practices will vary from person to person; cookie-cutter spirituality doesn’t work.
Intellectuals, for example, continually probe deep spiritual writers, searching for answers to the vexing questions of life. I once had a very seasoned, godly colleague come into my office inquiring about his spiritual life. He was not praying in ways he thought necessary and appropriate, and he assumed something wasn’t quite right.
After lengthy conversation, I finally asked, “How best do you connect with God?”
Through tears he explained, “Virtue. I love to read Thomas Aquinas. I long to grow in character and teach my students the same. This is where I most connect with God, where I am at home spiritually.”
It was an amazing moment, a healing moment, a moment of deep inner recognition that the spirituality that is his is a good and holy thing, a well-suited spirituality, a “virtuous” spirituality, to use his language. To be sure, his prayer life, like yours and mine, needed improvement, but I am convinced that improvement comes only with a growing awareness and acceptance of how each of us best relates to God, a keen sense of our primary sacred pathway.
Caregivers, as another example, experience God in a different way. They live to help and serve people in deep need. I am reminded of a dear friend who weekly mentors roughly a dozen guys over coffee in his “office” at Hardee’s, one at a time. I think of a woman who befriends people struggling with addictions, treating them as equals, as real friends, in her work with Celebrate Recovery. I consider the couple who sold their house and moved into an under-resourced part of town to walk in solidarity with its residents, extending their lives in a very tangible way. These are the caregivers. This is their primary, though not their only, sacred pathway.
And so it is with all the sacred pathways. Each is, in its own right, an appropriate and authentic means of experiencing God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each is in some way grounded in Holy Scripture and bathed in prayer, connected to all others in the unifying experience of corporate worship, expressed in service according to gifting, and sustained by the hand of our one great God. But each is also unique, representing a distinct current within the larger stream of Christendom.
To “solve a problem” like Maria is to understand there is no problem to solve. It is to accept Maria’s lovely spirituality for what it is.
Her wanderlust, so reminiscent of the ancient Celtic monks who set out in tiny coracles searching for God on the perilous North Atlantic, is at base who she is and how she relates to God, people, and all creation. She is a person of strong faith and deep adventure. Her song is beautiful, her devotion real, and her curious, inventive gifting a thing to uphold and celebrate.
The next time someone attempts to manipulate you spiritually by forcing you (let’s say) to journal or fast, to take a vow of silence or to organize a boycott, you might want to remind them gently that these practices, while good, holy, and beneficial for some, are not, therefore, mandated for all. The quality and, at least in some cases, even the means of another’s spiritual life is the last thing anyone is called upon to judge.
1Gary Thomas, Sacred Pathways: Discover Your Soul’s Path to God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996).
Neal Windham is professor of Christian spiritual formation at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian University.