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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Love and spiritual practice

A.H. Almaas is a spiritual teacher who merges modern depth psychology with spirituality. In order to familiarize myself with Almaas, I was recently listening to a Youtube lecture, and he made the comment that in spiritual practices (or spiritual disciplines), the person must love the practice.

It is interesting to me that so often we lose sight of the fact that love is the primary motivation for spiritual practice. For so many, spiritual disciplines become a means to an end: enlightenment, mental focus, peace, feeling closer to God, fulfilling one’s religious duty, changing the world via prayer, etc. There are many ways in which our spiritual practice becomes a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

Is it really all that surprising that we so easily lose sight of love? Doesn’t it seem like love is the first thing to go? Love is so fragile. So delicate. So beyond our ability to control it or capture it. Perhaps it is not “the first thing to go.” Perhaps it is just the thing we lose sight of, even if it is still there, supporting us in ways unseen.

Spiritual practice can involve so many different things. There are the usual culprits: contemplative prayer, reading of scripture, meditation, intercessory prayer, liturgical services, corporate worship, spiritual journaling, fasting, etc. But there are so many diverse ways to engage the sacred in spiritual practice: walking, painting, cycling, writing (of all kinds), washing the dishes, eating, singing, and the list can go on and on. In reality, anything one does can be an act of contemplation. Anything can be a spiritual practice.

I suppose what makes one particular spiritual practice more significant for a person is love. That is, there are some spiritual practices that we just love more than others. Why do we love one (or a few) spiritual practice(s) more than others? Well, that’s the mystery of love, I suppose. Love itself is mysterious and beyond our ability to explain it in its entire depth.

If love is the foundation of spiritual practice, then we can compare spiritual practice with love for a partner or spouse. Sure, we love certain things about people. We might think a person is beautiful, sexual, or attractive. We may enjoy the dialog and conversation that we can generate with a person. But when we love, there is some sense in which we fall. Something just happens. Something that seems best to leave unexplained. There is a mystery to love.

There is a mystery to love, and there is love in touching mystery. Spiritual practice is this merging of mystery and love.

And yet we so easily lose sight of love and mystery in our spiritual lives and practice. This is to be expected, even for the most learned theologian, the most experienced pastor/priest, or the most advanced spiritual guru. In fact, advancement seems to be one of the greatest enemies of mystery and love.

Yet when we lose sight of love, there is always grace. Grace surrounds us in practice, even when we are using practice as a means to an end, or when our minds have strayed from focus and concentration, or when we just don’t want to have anything to do with spiritual practice. Grace surrounds us. Perhaps we might say that grace is most present when we are most absent.

Based on our knowledge of a grace that surrounds us, we are free to open our hearts again to the love of practice and the joy of spiritual discipline.


john doyle said...

Would you say that anything you love doing is by definition a spiritual practice?

Jonathan Erdman said...

Let's tentatively say that everything we love doing is a spiritual practice.....we could certainly say, imo, that everything we do with love is a spiritual practice....but I would tend to affirm that everything we love doing is by definition a spiritual practice. Yes, I think I would agree with that, John.