Day 12 of my 30-day writing challenge
Many Christians undertake Bible reading, prayer, and other spiritual disciplines like fasting out of a desire to “work for Christ” or out of guilt for not doing more. Ultimately, these activities can drain and frustrate, drawing us further away from God, not closer. God invites us to something different: spiritual transformation and a deeper life with him.
Ruth Haley Barton’s practical, introductory book, Sacred Rhythms: Arranging our Lives for Spiritual Transformation, is for all of us who experience an “invitation” to a deeper life: a longing and searching for connection with God. Barton helps us to recognize and follow this invitation to deepened relationship through the practice of spiritual disciplines. Prompted by the desires of our truest selves, we enter into the mystery of God’s transforming presence.
Sacred Rhythms leads us through step-by-step guides to a number of spiritual disciplines, with the goal of making these disciplines part of our regular practice. These disciplines include approaches to Scripture reading and prayer, but because they are focused on being with God, rather than doing for God, they lead us towards a new way of life in relationship with God instead of more task-oriented work. As we embrace these disciplines, we will discover openness to the “everyday beauty and fullness that comes from paying attention and finding God in the midst of it all.”
In each subsequent chapter, Barton introduces a new practice or grouping of practices: solitude (especially important in an age of technology), Lectio Divina, prayer (silent, breath, intercessory, community, and life-as-prayer), cultivating bodily wholeness (caring for and listening to your body through exercise, prayer, and meditation), the examen of conscience, Sabbath rest, and creating a personal rule of life. These practices do not necessarily have to be learned in the order the book gives, but they each build on and support each other. Together they all lead up to the logical end of creating the rule of life: a set of prayerfully determined, individualized commitments to “values, practices and relationships” that determine what one does daily, weekly, monthly, yearly in order to sustain openness to God.
The book is a valuable resource for any individual seeking a deepened journey with God, whether new to the spiritual disciplines, needing a reminder, or hoping to create a rule of life. It can also be used by a small group, a spiritual director and directee, or a couple.
Appendix A is a guide for taking a group through the book, with prompts for the leader and study questions for everyone. Barton emphasizes that anyone who wants to go through this book as a small community must commit to the journey together – to the prayer and practices outlined, as well to creating a safe environment of support for all, where God (not any person or persons within the group) is understood to be in charge of each person’s spiritual transformation. Appendix B offers a short list of disciplines that may help an individual counter particular sins and negative patterns; for example, the practice of Sabbath keeping as a way of transforming patterns of over-busyness.
Although Barton confesses at one point that it is only in solitude with God that she does not feel lonely, she also establishes the importance of entering into spiritual transformation within the context of Christian community and spiritual friendship. She names Christian community as a discipline in itself, and a vital element of the formation process. It was first modeled by Jesus and the disciples – both by the larger group of 12, and by the select few that he choose to be with him in more vulnerable moments.
Barton is a gentle and encouraging guide, modeling the kind of unhurried listening to self and to God that she is advocating. Without making the book about herself, she helps the reader identify with the physical and spiritual exhaustion that led her to seek transformation. Her simple confession at the end that she has slipped out of her own sacred rhythms while finishing this book also demonstrates the generous acceptance of self that comes from a fuller understanding of God’s love for each of us, and his patience for wherever we may be on our journeys.