A spiritual practice is any regular and intentional activity that establishes, develops, and nourishes a personal relationship with the Divine in which we allow ourselves to be transformed.
Let’s take each of the elements of this definition one at a time:
1. It is regular: a practice is something that has become built in to one’s life. It becomes as regular as brushing your teeth, taking the dog for a walk. Developing such a regular habit takes perseverance, determination and good humour. Many of us get excited about a new practice, start it, then start slipping. Like sticking to a diet! It gets easier when we see the practice as comfortable, helpful, beneficial. If you want to establish a spiritual practice, experiment with something you think you can become comfortable with. Return to it even if you slip for a while. Modify it until you think you have the right balance for you.
2. It is intentional: a practice is something that you deliberately build into your life. You make a conscious decision to try something. You have thought about it. You have experimented with alternatives. You know why you are trying this. You’ve learned that being a Christian is more about how you live your life than about what you believe. There is, as they say, an “intentionality” about a practice. It’s not just something that happens by the way. It’s the fruit of a mature decision.
3. It establishes, develops and nourishes a personal relationship with the Divine: for Christians, spiritual practice is not about developing greater inner peace (though, of course, this may be a side benefit) or about any of the other goals one might read about in “how to” books. Spiritual practice is what one intentionally and regularly engages in because one wishes to deepen a relationship with God, the Divine, the Transcendent, Jesus, the Christ, the Spirit, the divine spark within… however you wish to frame it. The key word here is “relationship”: as with any relationship, a relationship with God grows through frequent contact. (Think of how you get to know a friend… it’s all about talking and listening on a regular basis, and reflecting on the experience.)
4. One engages in spiritual practices in order to be transformed. If you are happy just the way you are; if you are afraid of what might happen if you were transformed, then spiritual practices are not for you. One enters regular, intentional spiritual practices in order so that the God one discovers in relationship might gradually transform us into who we are called to be.
Still interested? Read on!
There is a wide range of traditional spiritual practices. Each of us figures out which practices work best for us. Some of us take long walks in silence; others wake up and watch the rising sun with a cup of coffee; still others practice yoga, etc. Not all practices qualify as “spiritual practices.” In the Christian tradition a spiritual practice must intentionally focus on our relationship with the Divine.
For an inventory of typical Christian practices, click here.
What in your life would fit this understanding of a “spiritual practice”?
What aspect of your life might you be able to transform into a spiritual practice with little effort?
The classical spiritual practices include three main thrusts: study, spirituality and service. Some authors distinguish between individual, public and corporate practices as well. The following list of practices we have adopted for this website is a composite of the work of Richard Foster (The Celebration of Discipline. The Path to Spiritual Growth, (ISBN 0-06-062839-1)), Dorothy C. Bass (ed.) (Practicing our Faith (ISBN 0-7879-3883-1)), Diana Butler Bass (Christianity for the Rest of Us. (ISBN 978-0-06-085949-7)), and Brian McLaren (Finding our Way Again. The Return of the Ancient Practices (ISBN 978-0-8499-0114-0)). (Check out this website: Practicing our Faith. This is the website of the Valparaiso University project, led by Dorothy Bass on spiritual practices. It is rich in insights and suggestions.)
For examples of Christian communities intentionally engaging in Spiritual practices, check the “new monasticism” movement.
If you’re at a more advanced stage of spiritual practice, you might be ready to consider the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius.