The Future of Christian Spirituality: Part 3 | A Spirituality that is Practice-Oriented and Practice-Based

“We do not know God by thinking, but by encountering.” –John of the Cross

As my director and I transitioned into a new kind of relationship I was still thinking that the answers would come primarily through verbal exchange. I was hoping for advice and a quick fix—in 3 easy steps if possible! Now, I thought, rather than doing psychological talking we would do spiritual talking. And we did do some talking but eventually this wise woman said to me, “Ruth you are like a jar of river water all shaken up. What you need is to sit still long enough so the sediment can settle, and the water can become clear.”

Well, I couldn’t even imagine at that point what it would be like to sit still long enough for anything to settle! I couldn’t imagine not having an agenda or a prayer list or a study plan. Even methods that don’t work are better than no method at all! I couldn’t imagine not using words—even if they were just formed in my head but never spoken. After all, I am a word person. My whole life as a writer and speaker revolves around being able to make sense out of things by putting them into words. If something couldn’t be put into words or processed with words or solved with words, what good could it be? I couldn’t imagine letting go of what I now call “effortful Christianity”—that is, a spirituality based on my own efforts to fix and to solve and to make progress in my spiritual life.

I had been working at things so hard for so long that such a seemingly non-productive “activity” as sitting alone in silence was completely outside my normal categories.

A Jar of River Water All Shaken Up

Even though my mind had a hard time grasping what this settling would actually be like, the image of the jar of river water captured what I knew to be true about myself. I was the jar of river water all shaken up and the sediment that swirled inside the jar was the busy-ness, the emotions, the thoughts, the inner wrestlings that I had not been able to control by any other means I had tried. This was a moment of self-knowledge—which is where all good spiritual journeying begins. As Richard Rohr writes, “A good journey begins with knowing where you are and being willing to go someplace else.”

The image of the jar of river water helped me identify where I was, but it also captured my longing and desire to go somewhere else. To be still long enough so the swirling sediment could settle, the waters of my soul could become clear, and I could see whatever it was that needed to be seen . . . well, that image called to me with the hope of peace, clarity and a deeper level of grounded-ness in God I had not yet known. In the desire this image stirred up, I recognized an invitation to be still and know beyond my addiction to noise, words, and performance-oriented activity. It captured my desire for something more and different, something beyond the head knowledge that was no longer sustaining my soul.

Beyond Belief

This movement in my own journey brings me to my third observation about the future of Christian spirituality—that it will be practice-oriented and even practice-based, rather than merely beliefs-oriented and institution-based. This is hard news for those of us who are part of churches and institutions whose mission is to get people to believe stuff and join the institution. But for us to enter into the future the Holy Spirit is stirring up, we must grapple with the fact that there comes a point when human beings are looking for an experience of the Divine and true seekers will go anywhere to find it.

We must also face the fact that we live in a spiritually savvy culture where people have lots of options for satisfying their spiritual hungers and we’d better be ready to offer that which truly satisfies. Just like there came a point in my own life where I could not and would not settle for less than a real encounter with the Divine, the generations coming along behind me will not settle either. Sometimes those encounters happen unbidden and unsought, but most often they take place in and through intentional engagement in a wide variety of spiritual practices that open us to the transforming presence and activity of God. (The word “wide” is important here because oftentimes different traditions only emphasize a narrow selection of preferred and approved practices rather than offering up the full array of practices found in the broader Judeo-Catholic Christian tradition.)

These practices are not magic, nor are they a way of forcing God to show up on our own terms. They are not a means for making brownie points with God or proving our spiritual superiority to others. They are not a self-help program by which we take control of our journey and work hard to change ourselves. They are not a legalistic straitjacket designed to help us gain acceptance into a group we want to be a part of. Rather, spiritual practices are means of grace—concrete ways of opening to the mystery of God and the work only God can do.

The Power of Practicing

My spiritual director knew all this, and she was ready for me. She began by inviting me into the practices of solitude and silence without actually calling them that because she knew that as a Protestant Christian (known by what we protest!) I would have been afraid to move beyond the narrow confines of my own tradition. She knew that at that point it would not have been helpful to point out that these practices were emphasized within the Catholic tradition because at the time I wasn’t even sure Catholics were Christians—I am embarrassed to say. But through her wise guidance and care, I pressed on and began discovering new (for me) spiritual practices that were actually very old—practices that we as Protestants had lost access to in the Protestant Reformation. I was humbled to learn that we literally threw the baby out with the bathwater and that was one of the reasons I felt so spiritually impoverished.

What was helpful, though, was knowing that all the great ones of our faith practiced solitude and silence—Jesus did it, Elijah did it, David did it, Moses did it, Mary did it, and Paul did it. Only later—once I had experienced the power of what God could do in and through these practices—was I able to grasp the fact that they are a part of my own historic Christian faith, reaching back farther than the more short-lived Protestant tradition. I discovered Catholic theologians like Fr. Ron Rolheiser who have carried these practices forward for us in a compelling and highly nuanced way. In Fr. Ron’s book, The Restless Heart, I encountered his description of the inward journey and the practices that take us beyond loneliness and restlessness to finding our true home in God. I underlined most of that book and was truly humbled by the riches contained within a tradition that my own “tribe” had taught me to reject.

By the Renewing of Your Minds

I am telling you all this to make the point that it was what I experienced in the practice that showed me my wrong-headedness and changed my belief. Not the other way around. I eventually learned that my spiritual director was encouraging the use of two classic spiritual practices that spiritual seekers have engaged down through the ages in order to open to the experience of knowing and hearing God more deeply. Solitude and silence were practices that helped me experience what Scripture was describing in verses like Psalm 46:10 “Be still and know that I am God.” I can’t just make myself be still; but what I can do is enter into a practice that creates the environment in which this can happen. Now I was experiencing the reality of God in my own life rather than just believing things.

So, this is a good place to talk about the limits of the mind when it comes to spiritual transformation. Too often we assume that the word “mind” as we encounter it in verses like Romans 12:2 (“be transformed by the renewing of your mind”) and Philippians 2:5 (“let the same mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus”) refers primarily to the intellect. And from there we have concluded that being a Christian and behaving Christianly has to do with believing the right things.   

This could not be further from the truth. We have all known brilliant teachers and theologians who have all the “right” theology but somehow it hasn’t changed anything; they are still selfish, or arrogant, or unable to love and fully engage with those around them. Sometimes they even use their knowledge and intelligence to bully others. How can this be?

The reason people can know so much and still not change is that spiritual transformation is not primarily about having the right belief systems in place—although that can be a good place to begin. For transformation to take place, it must impact us at every level of our being. Paul’s choice of words bears this out. The Greek word nous (translated mind in Romans 12:2) includes, but goes far beyond, intellectual or cognitive knowing. It denotes the seat of reflective consciousness—the thought patterns from which our behaviors originate. The mind encompasses both how a person perceives and understands the world as well as the patterns of feeling, judging and determining that shape our actions and responses in the world.

It is these thought patterns and the attitudes and behaviors that emerge from them that need to be transformed.

Desperately Seeking Change

The mind functions in large part to protect the self, to figure things out on its own terms according to the relationships and experiences that have shaped it over time. It works hard to control and manage reality and has its own plans for remedying the human situation outside of Christ and abandonment to His divine will. Thus, any approach to transformation that seeks to bring about real change must go beyond merely grasping information at the cognitive level. It must incorporate full, experiential knowledge of God that impacts our deepest inner orientations and trust structures, our false-self patterns, and any other obstacles that prevent us from fully surrendering to God. This is what the Holy Spirit of God must penetrate in order to change us, and spiritual practices open us to this.

Here is an example. I am a nervous flyer and have been for years. When I have a flight coming up, I dread it for days. At takeoff, my palms sweat. During the flight I feel every little bit of turbulence as a shock through my body and my heart rate accelerates. I talk to myself a lot in order to stay calm, reminding myself that most intelligent people I know do this and they are completely confident and peaceful in doing so. I watch the faces of those around me who don’t seem to be nervous at all—in fact, some are sound asleep!—and try to mimic their peaceful demeanor. The minute the plane touches down, I am thanking God for another day of life on this planet.

People have tried to help me with this by sharing facts and statistics demonstrating that more people die in car accidents than plane crashes. They offer reassuring statements about planes being able to handle a whole lot more turbulence than what we are experiencing right now. And on and on the facts go. But the thing is—at the level of my body and my emotions, I am still afraid! No matter all the reassuring facts I have learned, my palms are still sweating, my heart is still beating wildly, and I can’t concentrate on what I’m reading! Knowing the facts help a little bit but it is not deeply transforming. I’m still afraid of something that all good reason tells me I needn’t be afraid of. Knowing the facts has not transformed the fear. There are other levels of my being that are not transformed and would need to be for me to be released from this fear.

Practicing New Ways of Being

So, yes, transformation begins with clear teaching that illuminates the path to true change; in fact, we need good information because without it grave mistakes can be made. But teaching is only the beginning. Authentic change and transformation requires engaging in the behaviors, relationships, practices and experiences that help us internalize truth then live out of that truth in ways that change how we respond in the world. To paraphrase a statement from Richard Rohr, we do not believe our way into new ways of living; through practice, we live into new ways of believing.

Thus, the future of Christian spirituality must be and will be practice-oriented and practice-based—because we will not settle for anything less than real encounters with God that bring about real change.

© Ruth Haley Barton, 2024. For a more detailed account of this journey, see Ruth Haley Barton, Invitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God’s Transforming Presence (InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove: IL, 2004)

Read more from our ongoing series The Future of Christian Spirituality.

Ruth Haley Barton

Ruth (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is founder and chief essence officer of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, Ruth is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, Invitation to Retreat, and Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest.
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“Ruth you are like a jar of river water all shaken up. What you need is to sit still long enough so the sediment can settle, and the water can become clear.”

I first read these words in your book “Invitation to Solitude and Silence” in 2004 as I began my first retirement/rewirement. Here I am again, 20 years later, in full retirement and grappling again with the necessary practice of Solitude and Silence. I am back in the cave with Elijah, waiting and listening! I also frequent Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.😀

So much of what has been achieved through me has come from this awareness and practice of Solitude and Silence. Thank you for being an inspiration in my life through your writings and gifts!

So glad to hear it!

I joined a “Fit Body Boot Camp” gym last month and find myself thinking about parallels between practice-based spirituality and physical exercise. How often are we so flooded with devotional options that we freeze and don’t do any of them? At the Boot Camp, the exercises have been carefully pre-selected and are set-up around the room. I can literally turn my brain off and rotate through the stations getting a full-body workout. I wonder if we’d experience transformation in this way allowing a ‘Spiritual Trainer’ to set our pace and choose our ‘exercises’ – at least until we’ve gotten into a grove of being aware of our needs/seasons as well as have accumulated a toolbox of practices to engage in on our own. A “Spiritual Bootcamp”…hmm. Then again, we achievers would probably turn it into another box to check for our day and separate our spirituality from the sacredness of life, but there’s got to be a way, a process, a path to invite us all to engage in these practices as a way to establish healthy routines and to experience God. Thanks for your article. It’s encouraging me to consider how to creatively invite people into experiential places. My children (in their 20’s) are not looking for a belief-system, but for an experience. We’ve got to do better.

Amen, sister!

This is spot on! I have been practicing Lectio Divina for 1 year and it has been life changing-spirit life changing, Hard to find like minded seekers in today’s church tho. They are more concerned about “correct theology” or trying to use God to give them a prosperous life

Thank you for this many-sided reflection. I am one who believes that our discipleship is that we are to become disciples and communities of practice. Included in this idea is that practices are grounded in curiosity and less in certainty other than God is always present.

“Grounded in curiosity and less certainty other than God is always present.” Love this!

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