January 29, 2009
by Patrick Lafferty
But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
If you haven’t already heard, religion is out and spirituality is in. Religion stifles, while spirituality liberates. No longer must you subscribe to the antiquated dictates of religion encrusted with ill-informed notions of reality. Now spirituality merely invites you into a larger universe of realities largely obscured by this world and its conflicting philosophies. What distinguishes this new spirituality from that old religious ethic is that the former codifies nothing, insists upon nothing, demands nothing. Therein lies part of its attraction: the mystique of the ultimate pursued in an almost autonomous way.
Still, with the meteoric rise of interest in the spiritual has come a corresponding interest in “spiritual formation”: a more structured, disciplined approach to becoming aware of, connected to, and in harmony with the realities our physical senses allegedly are not privy to. Now instead of just sitting in a room with candles and incense, waiting for Illumination, you can take matters into your own hands: readings in ancient texts, participation in obscure rituals, contemplation of countercultural ideas—they all become the climbing gear for ascending to the ultimate heights. That approach to spiritual formation tends to center on contemplation and disconnection from the world, and in that sense it is very modern.
But even if we in our Reformed circles do not subscribe to this unanchored view of spirituality, are we not prone to follow its error of limiting spiritual formation to the mind? Do we tend to truncate spiritual formation into just reading, thinking, and praying? Those activities are central to the spiritual life—reflection upon the mysteries and revelations of God, consideration of my congruence (or incongruence) with life in God, voicing cries for help and songs of praise before God. But while those things are central, they are not alone. Something else forms the spirit as crucially.
Ambrose, a mentor of Augustine, said centuries ago: “I, then, wish also myself to wash the feet of my brethren, I wish to fulfill the commandment of my Lord, I will not be ashamed in myself, nor disdain what He Himself did first. Good is the mystery of humility, because while washing the pollutions of others I wash away my own” (On the Holy Spirit, Vol. 1).
For two reasons he followed the example of his Lord. Abiding by those reasons contributed to the formation of his spirit.
He followed this example because his Lord did no less. Love bent the Lord’s knee to wash the feet of sinful but beloved people. How could Ambrose exempt himself from doing likewise? If Christ is to be formed in us (Galatians 4:19), it will come through doing as He did. He came unto His own, and brought them mercy of the highest order.
Even more intriguing is Ambrose’s second reason for following Christ’s example. He followed this example because in washing others’ pollutions he found his own likewise being washed. How can this be? In seeing and ministering to an odious thing in others, did he see his own greater spiritual odium before the Lord more clearly? In participating in a small portion of what the Lord Jesus had done for him, might he have felt the glory and mercy of the Lord more palpably? Or could it be that in leaning against those resistances of soul (pride, sloth, self-indulgence) which kept him from showing mercy, he discovered what it was to put those resistances to death (Romans 8:13)? Acts of faith tend to strengthen the very faith we hope will grow. As we wash, we are washed.
Participating in the acts of mercy is as much your spiritual formation as any sermon you might listen to, any passage of scripture you might read, any prayer you might offer. Does your spiritual formation include attentive care for the least of these (Matthew 25:31-46)? Can we, as Mark mentioned, so prize busyness—in family, school, work, recreational activities—that we leave no time for seeing to the welfare of the city? Might we, as Randy commented, shy away from mercy because we think that others are undeserving, that they are too unlike us, or that their lives are unsalvageable? This last weekend has opened up a variety of paths toward places where mercy is needed. Might the next step down one of those paths be the next milestone in our spiritual formation?