body, prayer, spirituality

Frank Answers About Developing a Spiritual Discipline

I was asked to give a talk to a group of pastors in my synod (ELCA) about pastoral self-care, both spiritual and physical. The following remarks are the gist of my presentation. They concern developing a discipline of personal prayer and taking care of one’s body. But what I have to recommend applies to lay people as well as clergy. So, with allowance for vocational issues that pastors have, these remarks are general enough for everyone. The talk was given during Lent, but spiritual disciplines are not for Lent only.

I begin by making some assumptions. The first is that every devoted Christian wants to have a personal relationship with God. This relationship is brought about by the Holy Spirit working through means. It is a relationship begun in Baptism and nurtured by the word of God, the sacraments of Christ, and prayer formed by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us (read Romans 8).

My second assumption is that for Christianity there is no separation of the spiritual from the physical. As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit; therefore we glorify God in our bodies (1 Corinthians 6:19). Whatever we do to express a personal relationship with God, it will be done through the body.

My third assumption is that because our spirit may be willing but the flesh is weak, we need a discipline to counter the lethargy of the flesh. The Greek word for “discipline” is ascesis. We derive the word “asceticism” from it. It is the physical exercise practiced by athletes, for example, runners who subdue the flesh in order to compete for the crown of victory (I Corinthians 9:24-27).

My fourth assumption is a philosophical one: that there is a connection between our spirits, our minds, and our bodies. The YMCA triangle reminds us of the interconnected unity of body, mind, and spirit. It is on to something. Cognitive science confirms that the mind is an embodied reality, and not only because of the brain. We are learning that the body has its own intelligence. The Christian belief in the unity of body and soul means that the soul or spirit is not disembodied. Each one of these dimensions of ourselves—body, mind, soul—can take the lead and impact the other two—for better or for worse.

In terms of developing a spiritual discipline the body cannot be ignored. I could just say: you should get regular exercise and watch  your diet. Clergy and lay people know down deep that they should do these things–and many do. But what I want to discuss is: why we should do these things.

We want to develop a spiritual discipline in order to cultivate a relationship with God. Sometimes we equate doing the work of God (especially clergy) and trying to be a good Christian in an ethically challenging world (especially lay people) with having a relationship with God. We may very well be doing the work of God or trying to live a God-pleasing life. But we might not take time to cultivate our own personal relationship with God.

I compare our marriage relationship with our relationship with God (as the biblical authors also do). Just as a married couple can fail to give attention to their marital relationship as they pursue careers (or at least work at gainful employment) and raise children and take care of household matters, so we can fail to give attention to our relationship with God while doing the work of God and living a God-pleasing life.

What we need to do is not just cultivate an awareness of God’s presence in our lives, but be intentionally present to God. That’s what private devotional time is for. In public worship our minds are divided between being present to God and being present to others in the congregation and other activities in the parish. Don’t get me wrong. Participating in public worship is important. But sometimes I think God gets the short end of our amount of mindfulness. That’s why the devotional life is so important. We need to have a time when we are present to God, just as busy marital spouses need times just to be present to each other.

The late Middle Ages was a time when many spiritual writers devoted themselves to cultivating a personal relationship with God. We see this in such devotional works as the Middle English Lay People’s Mass Book, books of the hours (prayer books commissioned by noble men and women for personal use), and classical spiritual writings. In the latter category is the anonymous late 14th century Middle English work entitled, The Cloud of Unknowing. It was not published until the late 19th century, and has appeared in several updated versions in modern English (reading Middle English is not easy). One of those versions was by the well known spiritual writer Evelyn Underhill.

The Cloud of Unknowing  counsels a young student to seek God, not through knowledge and the faculties of the mind, but through intense contemplation, motivated by love, and stripped of all thought. This writing can be seen as part of a wider reaction to the scholasticism that prevailed in the universities of the 12th-14th centuries. Our anonymous writer says that we can come to know God by putting all thoughts under a “cloud of forgetting” and piercing God’s cloud of unknowing with a “dart of longing love” from the heart. In other words, contemplation is not directed by the intellect; it is directed by the heart. The writer says:

For [God] can well be loved, but he cannot be thought. By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held. And therefore, though it may be good at times to think specifically of the kindness and excellence of God, and though this may be a light and a part of contemplation, all the same, in the work of contemplation itself, it must be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And you must step above it stoutly but deftly, with a devout and delightful stirring of love, and struggle to pierce that darkness above you; and beat on that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love, and do not give up, whatever happens.” [ The Cloud of Unknowing and other works, Translated by A. C. Spearing (New York: Penguin Classics. 2001.]

To have a discipline means having a routine. I have found that making time for meditation and private prayer works best early in the morning when everything is still. But I can’t just wake up and begin. I make the coffee and do some stretching after a night of being prone. I awaken my body in order to begin to awaken my mind and then do some meditation to calm and focus the mind to tune into the word of God.

After stretching and meditation and a cup of coffee (yes, I need the caffein jolt), I sit in my corner chair by the windows, taking in the first light of day. I open my breviary and read the appointed psalms and biblical readings in a non-critical way with plenty of pauses to meditate on the words and contemplate what they tell me about God, whom I desire to know. Our 14th century spiritual guide would suggest that we shed everything we think we know about God in our heads and just go where the text leads our heart. I think this is not easy for pastors, because we know a lot about God; we all have theological degrees. But clergy and lay people alike tend to read the Bible in a utilitarian way. We mine it for wisdom that applies to our own personal situations. We ask: what does this mean for me? But this is no way to develop a relationship with God, a relationship of love and devotion. I like the Sanscrit word bhakti (which is also the word for worship in the Indonesian language). It suggests love and devotion. The focus is on God, not on ourselves.

As a practice exercise in the workshop I led for the pastors I suggested turning to one of the psalms assigned for the day in a breviary such as For All the Saints (American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, 1994, 1995) or the Benedictine Daily Prayer: A Short Breviary, ed. Maxwell E. Johnson (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2005). The advantage of a breviary is that it relates personal daily prayer to the daily prayer of the church and provides an ordered course of psalmody, a daily lectionary, and proper prayers. We don’t just choose what we like.  The season of Advent is a good time to begin a discipline of praying with the Breviary since it is the beginning of the liturgical year and therefore the beginning of the Breviary.

I chose Psalm 44 from the psalms assigned to morning prayer on the 9th day of the month in the Book of Common Prayer and For All the Saints. I read the psalm aloud slowly, pausing between verses. I noted that the psalmists are usually praying to God. They may be praising God or lamenting their situation before God, and sometimes both in the same psalm. The psalmist has a presumed relationship with God. But we want to focus on what understanding of God comes through this particular psalm.  Pay less attention to the psalmist’s situation than to our impression of the God whom the psalmist addresses. How does the God addressed in this psalm challenge what we think we know about God?

In the discussion after the deliberate reading of the psalm participants commented on how difficult it was to try to focus just on God in the psalm text without taking the psalmist’s situation or our own into consideration. The point of this exercise is not to contemplate ourselves but God. What knowledge of God do we gain just from meditating on God in the psalms or other scriptural readings? This contemplation isn’t easy and it takes practice.

Likewise when it comes to the care of the body, I think we need to be intentionally present to ourselves as bodily creatures. Clergy, like people in helping professions, can be so busy tending to the needs of parishioners that we forget to take care of our own bodily needs. We visit the hospitalized and ill, a few of whom may be suffering the medical consequences of their own poor life style choices. This ought to be a clue that we should pay attention to our own life style choices. Many of us tend to eat irregularly and not the healthiest foods. We may have a sedentary job, spending many hours sitting at a computer or driving. We don’t make time to go to the gym or swim or run or walk or bike or even attend a yoga class. As we must have a time to be present to God, so we must have a time to be present to our bodily selves. As we must rekindle our relationship with God, so we must awaken our awareness of our bodies and how we use them. We need healthy bodies if we are to be of service to God and our neighbor.

Advent and Lent are good times to renew a spiritual discipline because these are seasons of fasting (although the church has historically had fasting seasons throughout the course of the year). In fasting the body is deprived of meat and meat-related products. This detoxifies the body—cleans out the digestive system—and puts us in mind of our dependence on God for all the gifts of life. Jesus quoted Deuteronomy to the devil who tempted him to give into his hunger, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).

Have you ever thought about why every fast in the Bible is for 40 days—the fasts of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus? Perhaps because it takes about that long to make changes in the body.  There are many diets available to people today that are 30-day diets. Perhaps 30 days of being on a diet provides an easy way to account for the discipline over a month’s duration.  Lent is a full 40-day fast. Advent as we observe it is a lesser time of fasting, and fraught with difficulties because of the encroachment of Christmas parties.  But it provides a time to begin with the church’s traditional fasting days of Wednesday and Friday that can be resumed after the Christmas season.

The thing about diets is that once you’ve done one, you don’t really want to go back to the kind of food you ate and the way you ate before you undertook the diet. So, too, with the 40-day Lenten fast. You’re happy when Easter comes and you can return to the meat and the chocolate and other goodies that you gave up during Lent. But after an initial binge of feasting, you’re ready to get back on track with the disciplines you’ve been working on. You’ve made changes that are positive in your life and you don’t want to lose them. Especially you don’t want to lose your sense of the presence of God in your life through  the Spirit of the Father and the Son as the directing force of your body, mind, and spirit. The rest of the Christian year will become an alternation of fasting and feasting.

The spiritual disciplines you develop will provide opportunities to be present to God in your devotional time and to be aware of your relationship with God in such mundane bodily activities as fasting and feasting. A further contemplation is to discern the connections between the God you come to know in Scripture and your bodily self you come to know  by diet and exercise.

Pastor Frank Senn

Give glory to God, our light and our life.


  1. Erma Wolf

    This triggered a memory for me. Many years ago I gave up all meat for Lent. Following the Easter Vigil service, there was a potluck feast at the church, and for the first time since Shrove Tuesday I ate meat. And like you described above, while I enjoyed it, I found that I didn’t want very much, and that in the weeks following, I only ate meat occasionally. While I am not vegetarian, that experience changed how I use meat in my diet. I had not connected it to other spiritual practices before reading this blog post; but now I see a connection. Do you have any suggestions for ways to learn more about how fasting (from food, or in other ways) is a positive spiritual discipline? And one more question: Would the Benedictine tradition of “Ora et Labora” (Pray and work, not sure if my Latin is spelled correctly) have anything in common with a discipline of exercise and bodily care as one of the spiritual disciplines?

    • Frank Senn

      Modern Christians, especially Protestants, have little awareness of just how integral fasting has been to Christian life generally down through the centuries. For that matter, modern Western people have no awareness that for ancient people meat was eaten only when animals were sacrificed and for communal festivals. Meat was not part of the daily diet. I think this needs to be taken into account when we consider the usual Christian fasts of Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year (except during Eastertide) plus the fasting seasons during the year. This amount of fasting strikes us as severe only because there is so much more we would have to “give up” than the ordinary ancient or medieval Christian did (who added meat products to the fasting). But a principal spiritual reason for fasting, as a curb on gluttony, still seems relevant today. We eat too much and we tend to carry too much weight. The Benedictine monastic Rule of ora et labora (your spelling was correct) provided a regular discipline of exercise and bodily care in its provision for manual labor and regulated eating and drinking that we can only envy. My cholesterol numbers aren’t what they should be. Aerobic exercise and Mediterranean diet, advises my doctor. Does this advice have spiritual significance? Yes, if I want to stay healthy enough to be of service of God and to others.

      On the theological significance of fasting and feasting see my book, Embodied Liturgy (Fortress Press 2016), 149-62

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