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• Last updated: September 25, 2021

An Introduction to the Spiritual Disciplines

An introduction to the spiritual disciplines.

“The meaning of earthly existence is not, as we have grown used to thinking, in prosperity, but in the development of the soul.” —Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Last month we explored the profound parallels between training the physical body and training the spiritual soul: both “physiques” atrophy from lack of use; increase in strength and agility when exercised; require pain, effort, weight, and opposition to grow; and can only be honed through consistent, continual practice.

Everyone is familiar with the kinds of exercises employed in training the body: calisthenics, running, biking, lifting weights, stretching, plyometrics, etc.

But what are the “barbells” and “push-ups” that build spiritual strength? What exercises can be used to train the soul?

Over the next several months, we will be running a series of articles on just these exercises — known as spiritual disciplines — and today offer a general introduction to what they’re all about.

What Are Spiritual Disciplines?

“The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.” —Richard J. Foster

Spiritual disciplines are habits, practices, and experiences that are designed to develop, grow, and strengthen certain qualities of spirit — to build the “muscles” of one’s character and expand the breadth of one’s inner life. They structure the “workouts” which train the soul. Some spiritual disciplines are personal, inward exercises that are practiced alone; others require interpersonal relationships and are practiced in community.

Throughout time, many philosophers, theologians, and writers have proposed a number of practices that might be considered spiritual disciplines. These include:

  • Meditation
  • Prayer
  • Fasting
  • Simplicity
  • Fellowship
  • Journaling
  • Chastity
  • Stewardship
  • Submission/Obedience
  • Study
  • Evangelism
  • Contemplation
  • Confession
  • Solitude
  • Gratitude
  • Self-Examination
  • Silence
  • Celebration

We have chosen eight of these spiritual disciplines as being the most vital for men in the modern day and inclusive of varying belief systems, and which incorporate several of the other disciplines within them. This series will explore these eight as four complementary pairs:

  • Study and Self-Examination
  • Silence and Solitude
  • Simplicity and Fasting
  • Gratitude and Service

Are the Spiritual Disciplines for Me?

“Perhaps somewhere in the subterranean chambers of your life you have heard the call to deeper, fuller living. You have become weary of frothy experiences and shallow teaching. Every now and then you have caught glimpses, hints of something more than you have known. Inwardly you long to launch out into the deep.” —Richard J. Foster

The spiritual disciplines grew out of the early Orthodox and Catholic churches, particularly their monastic orders, with their emphasis on ascetic practices. But they’ve been widely adopted by Protestant denominations as well.

Though the idea of “spiritual disciplines,” defined and categorized as such, is associated with the Christian tradition, many of the disciplines themselves are common to all the world’s religions, as well as philosophical schools like Stoicism. They can be practiced not only by men of every faith tradition, but also by those who espouse none at all.

Theists will see the soul they are aiming to train as an eternally-created essence; non-theists may simply see it as the mind’s higher capacity or the human will. Those with different belief systems will also see the reasons for and the aims of the spiritual disciplines in different ways. But there is much overlap for all, especially when it comes to the “mechanics” of the practices. This series will thus seek to describe the potential purposes, benefits, and applications of the disciplines in an inclusive, practical, and yet still meaningful way.

So, if there’s something about having a deeper, richer inner life that appeals, then the spiritual disciplines (and this series) is for you.

If there’s something that stirs inside whenever you hear words like solitude, silence, simplicity, the spiritual disciplines are for you.

If you’re nagged by a restless feeling that there must be more to life than your day-to-day existence, the spiritual disciplines are for you.

If there’s a part of you that feels strangely attracted to a life of ascetic monasticism — that yearns to become something of a warrior monk, though you don’t actually want to go off and live in a cloister — the spiritual disciplines are most definitely for you.

What Are the Purposes of the Spiritual Disciplines?

“Ask me not where I live and what I like to eat. Ask me what I am living for and what I think is keeping me from living fully for that.” —Thomas Merton

There is very little meaning in physical exercises themselves — jumping jacks or squats are just motions and muscle contractions; their purpose is in what they produce: fitness and strength. Likewise, spiritual exercises are means to ends. Their meaning is not found in the practices themselves, but in the strength and growth they create in the soul.

The nature of this strength takes many forms (which are developed to greater and lesser degrees, depending on the particular spiritual discipline practiced), but generally include an increase in one’s ability to:

  • Delay gratification
  • Receive insight
  • Hear God’s voice/one’s inner voice
  • Make better decisions
  • Remain centered and unaffected by external events
  • Demonstrate moral courage
  • Detach from distractions
  • Feel inner peace
  • Behave unselfishly
  • Act with practical wisdom
  • Follow one’s own course
  • Endure hardship
  • Forge good habits
  • Conquer the worst parts of yourself

If you start any kind of physical exercise program, you’ll enhance your health. But people who are most successful in making exercise a habit, who stick with a program and see real results — significant transformations in their physical aptitudes and physique — are those who have a higher purpose beyond simply “better health.” Without this kind of higher purpose — a desire to hit certain PRs, run a particular race, be around for one’s children — the motivation required to complete regular workouts is easily overcome by the entropy and busyness of daily life. Without a more animating aim, physical exercise can seem less important — pointless drudgery that’s not worth the time and effort. With a higher purpose, workouts still require effort, but the participant pushes himself harder, and with more relish, and even joy.

Likewise, doing the spiritual disciplines out of a simple desire to improve the general health of the soul will certainly garner something of the intended effect. But this effect will be much smaller, and the disciplines far harder to stick with, than if they were approached with a higher purpose in mind. It’s hard enough to find time in one’s day for such habits when you’re clear on their raison d’etre. Without one, activities that require discipline will assuredly fall victim to those that don’t, like smartphone surfing and Netflix watching.

For many adherents of the Abrahamic religions, in which God has required his followers to practice good works, the higher purpose for the spiritual disciplines is obvious: to follow this command and live a life that’s less sinful and more holy.

For Christians who believe in salvation by grace alone, the spiritual disciplines are not a way to earn one’s way to heaven, but rather are the means by which to put oneself in position to more fully receive that grace. As Richard J. Foster puts it in Celebration of Discipline:

“The Disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that he can transform us . . . The inner righteousness we seek is not something that is poured on our heads. God has ordained the Disciplines of the spiritual life as the means by which we place ourselves where he can bless us.

In this regard it would be proper to speak of ‘the path of disciplined grace.’ It is ‘grace’ because it is free; it is ‘disciplined’ because there is something for us to do.”

Or as Donald S. Whitney writes: “Although God will grant Christlikeness to us when Jesus returns, until then He intends for us to grow toward it. We aren’t merely to wait for holiness; we’re to pursue it.”

For an atheist or agnostic, their higher purpose may be to live a fully flourishing life: to be able to know oneself, enjoy healthy relationships, find meaning in work, and become a happier, more mindful, and all-around better friend, husband, father, and man.

One particularly compelling purpose for practicing the spiritual disciplines, that nearly all might agree on, is this: learning how to properly “order our loves.”

In his writings, Saint Augustine argues that virtue is essentially “rightly ordered love,” and that sin, conversely, is disordered love:

“But living a just and holy life requires one to be capable of an objective and impartial evaluation of things: to love things, that is to say, in the right order, so that you do not love what is not to be loved, or fail to love what is to be loved, or have a greater love for what should be loved less, or an equal love for things that should be loved less or more, or a lesser or greater love for things that should be loved equally.”

If you say God is the thing you love most in life, but you spend two hours each day on social media, and five minutes reading your Bible, you really love Instagram more than God. If you say you love your family more than your job, but you keep saying yes to unnecessary overtime hours at work, you really love work more than your family. If you say you love the ideal of friendship, but you snub a nerdy acquaintance to look cooler in front of your buddies, you really love popularity more than friendship. Your loves are out of order.

The purpose of training the soul, of practicing the spiritual disciplines, is to align them aright.

Saint Ignatius is famous for writing a book commonly known as The Spiritual Exercises. But its original title was: Spiritual Exercises to Overcome Oneself, and to Order One’s Life, Without Reaching a Decision Though Some Disordered Affection.

That’s a mouthful, but perhaps the best summation of the ultimate purpose of the spiritual disciplines.

Shouldn’t Spirituality Be Spontaneous?

“Do you have less respect for your own nature than the engraver does for engraving, the dancer for dance, the miser for money or the social climber for status? When they’re really possessed by what they do, they’d rather stop eating and sleeping than give up practicing their arts.” —Marcus Aurelius

It’s popular these days for people to say they are “spiritual but not religious.” What this usually means is that they still see a deeper, even transcendent meaning in life, but don’t want their views and pursuit of it to hemmed in by institutional rules and calcified dogmas, doctrines, and traditions. Personal spirituality, the thinking goes, should be completely untrammeled and free, left to roam and explore wherever an individual wishes. Spirituality should be spontaneous.

While this idea sounds great in theory, it works far poorer in reality. The paradox of not just spirituality, but all creative endeavors, is that the more an individual disciplines his talents and yearnings, the freer and more spontaneous he can be.

Someone who is just starting to learn to play an instrument can only haltingly play with sheet music at hand, and then only a very limited number of basic tunes. A musician who has spent thousands of hours mastering his instrument, however, can play an astonishing range of soaring, beautiful songs, and can improvise his own music. Discipline has liberated his art.

Just like a budding musician must practice the scales before playing a classical concerto, you must practice spiritual fundamentals if you wish your soul to become capable of producing great beauty, of improvising the right moral decisions, at the right times, for the right reasons. Joy awaits anyone who seeks to master a craft, including the craft of the soul. The Latin root of “discipline” in fact traces to words like “instruction” and “knowledge” and that’s what the spiritual disciplines essentially are: courses of learning. The more your soul-knowledge grows, the freer you become: free from addiction to superficial pleasures, free from self-centeredness, free from following the enticements of advertising and other people’s “should’s,” free from the mindless distractions and appetites that sabotage our higher goals — free from the tyranny of the worst parts of ourselves.

Here’s another analogy. Author John Guest compares “The ‘spontaneous’ person who shrugs off the need for discipline” to “the farmer who went out to gather the eggs”:

“As he walked across the farmyard toward the hen house, he noticed the pump was leaking. So he stopped to fix it. It needed a new washer, so he set off to the barn to get one. But on the way he saw that the hayloft needed straightening, so he went to fetch the pitchfork. Hanging next to the pitchfork was a broom with a broken handle. ‘I must make a note to myself to buy a broom handle the next time I get to town,’ he thought. . . .

By now it is clear that the farmer is not going to get his eggs gathered, nor is he likely to accomplish anything else he sets out to do. He is utterly, gloriously spontaneous, but he is hardly free. He is, if anything, a prisoner to his unbridled spontaneity. The fact of the matter is that discipline is the only way to freedom; it is the necessary context for spontaneity.”

Spirituality without discipline moves in hapless fits and starts; it is sporadic, dependent on fluctuating feelings and external circumstances. It requires little to no effort, but also produces little to no sustained growth, and thus little to no fruit.

This is as true for the “spiritual but not religious” as for those who do consider themselves religious, or at least nominally adopt the trappings of a faith. They may go to church every week, maybe even pray every night, but their spirituality has been almost completely stagnant for years. They go through the motions, but don’t really discipline themselves, and thus only produce the barest of fruit. They’re like the people above who “work out” without real purpose, and without putting forth much effort. They may be getting a tad healthier, but their physiques look exactly the same as they did two years ago when they first joined the gym.

For the soul to strengthen, it has to be trained in a consistent, deliberate way. Just like your physical muscles, it needs something to push against, it needs resistance. If you really want your spirit to be able to soar to adventurous heights and explore the profoundest of depths, if you really want it to possess power — if you really want it to be free — it paradoxically needs some structure. It needs discipline.

How Should I Approach the Spiritual Disciplines?

“Spiritual discipline, then, is developing soul reflexes so that we know how to live. We discipline ourselves to develop soul memory in normal times so that we’ll be equipped for the times of high demand or deep crisis.” —Douglas Rumford

You’re likely no stranger to discipline in at least one, and probably several areas of your life. You discipline yourself to graduate from college. You discipline yourself to make it on a sports team. You discipline yourself to learn to play an instrument, or to speak a foreign language. You discipline yourself to go to the gym every day. You discipline yourself to get ahead at work. You know that in order to master a course of study, lose weight, and get to where you want to be in life, you’re going to have to put forth effort. You’re going to have to dedicate time to the pursuit. You’re going to have to sacrifice.

You may never have thought much about disciplining yourself spiritually, however. But the same immutable laws that underlie all other pursuits in life, underlie the growth and development of your soul.

You can’t hope that circumstances will somehow naturally shape its course and hone its strength. You can’t only attend to the soul as your feelings dictate.

The decision to train the soul must be intentionally chosen, and then consistently practiced. Persistence is essential.

Just like you (hopefully) carve out time each day to exercise your body, you must make the spiritual disciplines a nearly inalterable part of your schedule.

Just as when you decide to go to the gym, even when you don’t feel like it, you invariably feel awesome by the end of your workout, rather than waiting to feel like working on your soul, you must work on it anyway, knowing the feelings will follow.

Just like a single workout at the start of the month won’t sustain your strength for the rest of it, you must exercise your soul on a regular basis.

And just like a novice weightlifter needs to learn the best exercises for building strength, and how to perform them for maximum effectiveness, you must learn the time-tested spiritual disciplines that best train and grow the soul.

To those specific disciplines, we will turn in the months to come.

Read the Other Articles in the Series

An Introduction 
Study & Self-Examination 
Solitude & Silence

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