During the remaining six weeks of Lent Ethical Musings will feature posts focused on spiritual development. Several previous posts have described my understanding of the human spirit, most recently in Rethinking spiritual practices, posted December 17, 2015.
The human spirit – a person's quintessence – consists of these six facets:
- Self-awareness (sometimes described as self-transcendence)
- Linguistic ability (especially the symbolic use of language, which enables humans to find meaning in life and to build community)
- The aesthetic sense (art can add depth to life, offer a fresh perspective and increase self-awareness, improve communication, and contribute to community)
- Creativity (humans have introduced significant novelty into the cosmos, unlike any other species, and implicitly poses questions of value, i.e., it points to moral concerns)
- Limited autonomy (located between determinism and freedom, but probably closer to the former than to the latter)
- Loving and being loved (sometimes called reciprocal altruism, but that term minimizes the importance of emotion for this facet of the spirit; this facet explicitly adds a moral dimension to spirituality).
Each week during this Lent, an Ethical Musings' post will identify specific spiritual disciplines that a person can use to cultivate a particular facet of her/his spirituality.
Although Christians have traditionally emphasized Lent and Advent as seasons for adopting a spiritual discipline, that practice has both contributed to a misperception and caused unhelpful confusion. Persons serious about walking the Jesus path (or any other spiritual path, for that matter!) recognize that spiritual growth is not something to which one pays attention only during a particular season of the year. Individuals who want to achieve spiritual maturity make spiritual growth a continuing concern. A practice adopted during a particular season, such as Lent or Advent, may become an integral element of the person's spiritual life or, having been tested and found unsatisfactory, set aside in favor of other practices. Sometimes a spiritual practice may prove useful for a period and then the practitioner will recognize that the practice is no longer helpful and set it aside.
The confusion surrounding annual calls for persons to adopting a spiritual discipline for Lent, Advent, or another season stems from these calls rarely providing any description of spiritual maturity or guidance on selecting a discipline for achieving spiritual growth. Consequently, many individuals select a spiritual discipline from habit (e.g., someone who each Lent abstained from alcoholic beverages), convenience (e.g., someone who abstained from chocolate or intentionally helped another person each day during Lent), or social justice commitments (e.g., becoming a vegetarian during Lent). All of these can be good disciplines. I selected those illustrations based on choices friends have made. None of those persons could explain why s/he adopted that particular discipline nor identify the spiritual gain they hoped to achieve. These friends are not unique but exemplify a general lack of definitional clarity about spiritual maturity. And, to apply a familiar adage, if you don't know where you are going, any path will get you there.
These five guidelines may help you to choose and keep a spiritual discipline:
- Choose a practice for which you feel some energy or enthusiasm. That energy or enthusiasm is essential to transform desire into commitment.
- Select a discipline that adds balance to your current spiritual life. If, for example, you spend considerable time in reflection, then you may find balance by selecting a spiritual practice that requires physical creative activity.
- Aim for measured progress instead of attempting giant leaps. Most change is incremental rather than radical. Generally, a person is most likely to persevere practicing a spiritual discipline that requires modest alterations in lifestyle or activities.
- Stick with the new discipline long enough – at least seven weeks – that your practice becomes habitual. If at the end of seven weeks you have not habituated the practice, examine your motives and aims: Why are you, consciously or subconsciously, resisting habituating this practice? What can you discern about your actual motives for having chosen this discipline?
- Being accountable for practicing the spiritual discipline significantly improves the odds of actually fulfilling your commitment to adopt the discipline. Choose a method that fits your personality and lifestyle. Options may include adding the practice to your daily to do list, keeping a chart of days you keep the discipline, and having regular meetings with a spiritual director or confessor to discuss your adherence to the practice since your last session together.