I don’t know just exactly when it was. I don’t know exactly why. But, many years ago, some time while I was living up in the Boyne City area, I made a quiet spiritual breakthrough in my life. I started keeping regular morning devotions. It was not just that I started praying regularly in the mornings. That wasn’t the breakthrough.
The breakthrough was this: I wanted to pray.
To some, keeping morning devotions may not seem like much of an accomplishment. Isn’t this how Christians are supposed to begin their day? Maybe for some people prayer comes more naturally. Maybe for some people spiritual discipline comes more naturally. For me, it never did. So when I began keeping regular morning devotions, it was really something new.
Now, there had been many times when I resolved to be more faithful in prayer. I knew I should be. I determined to make myself pray — to turn over a new leaf spiritually. For a while I would. But, always, the regular practice of prayer was laid aside.
I am a person who depends a lot on inspiration and creativity. I like to respond to the moment. Discipline often comes hard for me. (On a Myer-Briggs test I always show a clear preference for “P” over “J.”)
Yet, I have always believed I would be a better Christian if I prayed, studied and meditated every day. I know I’ve always believed it. I have faithfully preached and taught it. I’ve told the pilgrims on the Walk to Emmaus that the disciplines of the spirit are essential to the vitality of their Christian life. Therefore, they should be more regular and disciplined in their prayer life.
I’m sure it’s good advice.
Often, I’ve compared spiritual disciplines to calisthenics. Muscles in our bodies atrophy if unused. Our spiritual lives atrophy without spiritual discipline. That sounds logical. But, to be honest, this analogy has never helped me much. Many, many years ago, Robin and I bought an exercise bike. it seemed like a good purchase at the time — but it wasn’t. It sat around unused for years. Then it just sort of got in the way. Then we got rid of it. It’s been gone a long time now. We wouldn’t ever be foolish enough to buy something like that again.
Spiritual self-interest has never been a very strong motivation for me. Over the years, I’ve picked up many books on spirituality — only to lay them aside. It was always something I felt I should read about — but it often was not something I wanted to read about. How can I express this? I figured I could be more spiritual — certainly, and that would be great — but I didn’t really need to be. Sure, I figured: I’d like to have a greater measure of peace, assurance and wisdom. But, on the other hand, I could probably muddle through life as I was, too. For a long time, the great classics of Western spirituality were a foreign world to me. I had trouble maintaining an interest in the literature of spirituality. It didn’t matter if it were the writings of Thomas Merton or Henri Nouwen, or if it were Thomas á Kempis or The Cloud of Unknowing — I soon bored of it. I soon laid it aside.
Maybe it’s my (left brain dominant male) rationalism that so often got in the way. I don’t know. Spiritual Formation always sounded like a good idea — on a wholly theoretical level. I just never had the time or interest. (On the aforementioned Myers-Briggs test I also show a strong preference for “T” over “F.”)
But, one day a strange thing happened. It occurred to me to look at my morning devotions as an act of love and intercession. Honestly — this was a new thought. And, that was the breakthrough.
And ever since then, it has become love that draws me to the place of prayer. I read and pray and meditate because there are so many people on my heart. I can do and say so little for them. I want to do and say — and be — so much.
Solitude and quiet do not take me away from others. They bind me nearer to them. Faces I no longer see, voices I no longer hear, call me back to the place of prayer. I pray because I love my family. I pray because there are people for whom I have a powerful affection. I pray because we are all in this strange human struggle together.
And, ever since then — strangely enough — I find there is within me a hunger and thirst after God. I usually follow a plan of sorts. I read the Bible. I try to expose myself to a wide range of Biblical material. I often meditate on the Psalms in Hebrew (see: Praying the Psalms). I take time to read and pray. I name the names that are on my heart. And, yes, I even read devotional literature.
But, here’s the thing: it is not for myself, or my own spiritual self-interest that I pray. In all I do my prayer is this: “My God, accept these acts of devotion as my sacrifice of love and devotion to You, on behalf of those whose names and faces are on my heart today. Let it not be for nothing that I have remembered them.”