When we talk about Spiritual Practices I can think off of the top of my head of at least three different takes on this:
1) Acts of Mercy. Dr. Beck captures this very well here and here. Another way to view these might be the St. Therese’s ‘little way’. If I live a life of mercy, of seeing Christ in those I serve, I am constantly in the presence of God. Not a bad way to live life. The basis here is Matt 25:31-46 which is the scene of the last judgement.
2) Evangelical Counsels. This is a very old Catholic understanding and the basis of monasticism getting its start from Matt 19:21 in what Jesus says to the Rich Young Man. The RYM says he has kept the commandments. Jesus says if he wants to be perfect go sell everything. The counsel taken by the monastics is a life of poverty, chastity and obedience. These are not placed on everyone in Catholic teaching. In Lutheran teaching these are dangerous. The Augsburg Confession in Article 27 on Monastic Vows gives the Lutheran warning and rejection. But, you might hear people putting these forward.
3) Prayer, Fasting, Almsgiving. This is what I’m going to concentrate on. As we’ve developed this it comes from Matt 6 and the sermon on the mount. At this point in the sermon on the mount we’ve been told we are part of the Kingdom in the beatitudes and then we’ve heard the law in its amplified form. Each one of those should send up back to that first beatitude – blessed are the poor. But what is the way forward, or how do we persevere in the sanctified life?
Matt 6:1-4 Jesus talks about almsgiving or charity to the needy. One comment here – you can probably view this in a large sense as a practice of mercy. All of the items in that last judgement scene could be read into the care for the needy which goes above and beyond simple duty. Jesus issues a warning – “beware of practicing your righteousness before others”. First we can take from that warning that he expects us to practice righteousness. Second that righteousness can be practiced in giving to the needy – acts of mercy. The warning assumes a positive.
The warning itself talks about the attitude of our heart. If we are doing the acts of mercy to be seen doing the acts of mercy – we’ve already received the reward. The core of a Spiritual Practice is that it is something that connects us to God; it is in the vertical dimension. For acts of mercy to be communion with God we need to see Christ in those we serve. If our gaze is away from Christ or attempting to see something other than Christ present, we have lost the Spiritual Communion of the practice. Not that the act isn’t a worthy act, but the attitude of the heart is off for a Spiritual Practice.
If the attitude is correct, “your Father who sees in secret will reward you”. The reward is simply the presence of God. In doing these acts out of love for God we are acting in Christ – we are living out of the Gospel. We are persevering, and it is God’s presence that enables that perseverance. We are persevering because this is a fulfilling of the law, a fulfilling of how God intended His people to live.
In the next post I’ll look at Matt 6:5-14 which is Jesus on prayer as a Spiritual Practice.