I want to begin this post with a simple request. Close your eyes, and imagine a spiritual guru.
What pictures came to mind? An old man with a beard? A Buddhist monk? A friar alone in their cave? Joel Osteen?
It’s interesting that – for most people – when they picture a spiritual leader, they think of them as aloof and alone. Meditating on a mountain top or voluntarily confined to a cell – they exist in an almost-solitary life, away from the distractions of the world.
There’s some truth to this image – with history telling us of St Simeon the Stylite, who lived atop a stone column for 37 years, or St Francis of Assisi’s 40 days of fasting and meditation atop La Verna.
History has a bias, however. It tells us the stories that are worthy of being a story. So the narrative of a guy who lives away from the world for 37 years is most definitely a fascinating tale – while the tale of a spiritual leader living a seemingly normal existence, doing normal things – is not.
I mean – look at Jesus. When we think of his spiritual practice, our minds probably go to the time of temptation in the wilderness. For forty days Jesus had no food or water, and spent the time in solitude – wrestling in prayer with his calling and the very-real offer of avoiding the cross. Yet perhaps what is more surprising in Jesus’ life is that this moment was the exception – rather than the norm.
The Gospels do not tell of Jesus regularly going away for 40 day solitude sessions, or retreating for months onto mountaintops. Instead, Jesus life had a rhythm of withdrawal and engagement – of spirituality alone and together.
Getting Down with the Didache
The early church appeared to have modelled their spiritual life on this pattern of Christ’s. One of the earliest written texts from the church – the Didache – talks about the role of spiritual formation and discipleship – developing your spiritual life. The new members of the church were brought into a new way of life – fasting on certain days, called to obey their teacher’s words, the act of confession.
Missing from this little book, however, is anything that we would today call ‘theology’. There’s no mention of soteriology, eschatology, pneumatology or any of the other big theological words.
William Varner says, “My perception is that the vast majority of instruction classes in our churches today deal primarily with what we are to believe, not how we are to obey.” The Didache, instead, is a guideline of how we are to believe – and this is grounded in being coached and modelled by others.
Similarly, the monks weren’t quite the isolated loners that I used to imagine. Standard practice in most Franciscan, Dominican and Benedictine monastery was times of silence – and then times with your spiritual director. They recognised that spirituality was not solely solitary – but required community, and required a coach to guide you along the way.
A Quick Pause
It’s at this point, I find myself pausing – as if caught on a prickle-infested lawn with bare feet.
On the one hand – I like the stories of supreme spiritual leaders – because they take the onus off of me. I marvel at their self-control, and I am in awe of their aesthetic abilities – yet all I see is the gap between them and me. It is a paralysis of presence – their achievements seem so other-worldly that I can delight in them, but not emulate them.
And then, when I read about the every-day training that was normal for the early church and the monastery – I am suddenly challenged by a response. Why would I not follow them in this pattern? It’s more comfortable to simply watch the greats – than to be urged to join in.
In Genesis, one of God’s first words to humanity was – “It is not good for man to be alone.” That’s true – but it’s also not easy to be with someone else.
Stubborn As A Me
A couple of months ago, I got married. At the reception, my Dad had a few words of wisdom for my lovely wife, saying – “Jeremy always needs to have the last word.”
Everyone laughed – but his story had a truth-sting to it. I am stubborn. I love to think my way is best. I hate getting lessons. I don’t like being coached. I’m happy to read books about the best-way forward – but dislike others telling me.
Why is this?
Pride. In accepting the help of another, I am admitting that I need somebody. I am not autonomous, and I cannot have a flourishing life on my own.
St Augustine famously described sin as the life of incurvatus in se – or, a life curved inward on itself. And humility is the act of seeking help and direction – which goes against this curve.
From my somewhat limited experience, having a spiritual director (or discipler, mentor – whatever you want to call it) helps your spiritual growth in two ways.
First, it is humbling. As mentioned above – sin makes us want to pursue a life of independence and faux-autonomy. But the very act of asking someone to guide you is humbling, and the first step in growth.
It has to be said – this isn’t rocket-science. Whenever we want to develop in any area of life – we seek a coach. This may be formal – such as getting a guitar lesson, seeking an academic tutor, or doing an online course run by a master. Or, it could be informal – going for a run with someone much fitter than you, or playing squash with a father-in-law who wants to see you sweat.
We recognise that this process is always humbling – you will look and feel like a fool, as you are asked to practice things that are new to you. And yet, it is this humility that enables growth.
And secondly, despite what we tend to proclaim from our pulpits – we’re not all spiritually equal with our development.
Peter writes for the believers to grow in the grace of God, and that the young believers should crave ‘milk’ to grow in their faith,
Paul critiques the church in Corinth for still being infants in Christ, and not growing up.
The writer of Hebrews says, “Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.”
John lovingly refers to his church as children, young men and fathers.
The New Testament and the early church were not ashamed to recognise that there are different maturities we can attain in our spiritual development – and that beginners need training.
As the church has tended to embrace evangelism and ignore discipleship, we can unwittingly communicate that all Christ-followers are equal in their understanding and development in becoming a truth-seeker. Unfortunately, that’s not true – and can be dangerous to hold onto. Additionally, it creates a culture of anti-discipleship – with people not seeing the need to change and grow.
We require the nurturing and support of experienced truth-seekers to guide us on our journey of development. We need people who can provide us with discipline, truth, advice and wisdom – and encourage us to not just listen, but to do.
As a Youth Pastor, I used to simply ask my teenagers – “Who would you like to be like? Who would you like to model as you follow Jesus?”
Then go and ask that person if they would direct you.
Who would you like to emulate? Who would you like to be like? Do you have someone directing or guiding you?