Reading widely and broadly is an art. There can be great value in learning from others outside of one’s regular circle or home tradition. But I find it is also possible to spend so much time mining what others call classics that I discover why I am thankful for the familiar. Over the last six months, I spend time each week reading Spiritual Classics: Selected Readings on the Twelve Spiritual Disciplines, compiled and annotated by Richard Foster. I wouldn’t quite say that reading time was wasted. I did find some true gems. But I am reminded why I am thankful for the Bible’s spiritual clarity, for the Protestant Reformation, and for the reformed and evangelical tradition’s perspective on the spiritual disciplines. Mystical Christianity is not just a mystery to me, but has also proven throughout history to be a barrier between most people and God. It’s just not that hard to understand the gospel, and the Bible message regarding who God is, how we are to relate to him, and what God requires of us. Sometime practicing the spiritual disciplines can lead us away from the simplicity of the gospel to a “higher” (gnostic) form of spirituality. That is not the fault of the disciplines. The fault lies in the way we handle and practice them. Thus we must be careful who we choose as our spiritual guides.
Richard Foster, as the editor of Spiritual Classics, is the founder of Renovaré and the author of Celebration of Discipline and other books. He has devoted his life to promoting Christian spirituality and renewal, particularly from the Anabaptist and mystical traditions. Emilie Griffin is the co-editor.
This book is an anthology, thus discerning a unified main point is a bit difficult to discern. I think the editors are trying to communicate that the balanced spiritual life of the Christian ought to be shaped by twelve disciplines (practices) and informed by six Christian traditions (contemplative, holiness, social justice, evangelical, and incarnational).
Spiritual Classics is organized as a year-long journey for personal or group use. Foster organizes the spiritual disciplines into three categories: inward, outward, and corporate. The inward disciplines include meditation, prayer, fasting, and study. The outward disciplines include simplicity, solitude, submission, and service. The corporate disciplines include confession, worship, guidance, and celebration. Each discipline includes author introductions, four readings, a selection from the Bible, discussion questions, suggested exercises, Foster’s reflections on the reading, and a bibliography for going deeper into study. These readings cover 48 weeks (12 disciplines x 4 readings each). To make up the last four weeks of the year, readings for the “Fifth Week” of the month are included for a total of 52 weekly readings.
Because of the nature of this particular anthology, the book is aimed at a very broad audience. Anyone who considers himself “Christian” is the target audience.
Although the editor aims for an ecumenical audience, I wonder if it really connects with evangelicals. Even though the evangelical tradition shares the stage with five other Christian traditions, I get the sense that evangelicals are not really allowed their unique contribution to Christian spirituality, but instead their readings are selected to bolster the mystical and ecumenical traditions. I suppose this sounds like whining for more attention or preferential treatment, and I don’t mean that at all. What I mean is that non-evangelicals will probably feel well-represented and hear their spiritual emphases echoed throughout most of the readings. This book speaks their mother tongue. But for evangelicals, the book often speaks strange languages. There are some readings that just seem so far out there as to be ultimately unhelpful. Foster admirably tries to bridge the gap and act as spiritual broker to the uninitiated, but for a few of the readings I couldn’t get to the destination—even with his guidance.
However, there were a few beautiful and helpful readings (to me):
- The Gift of Meditation, by Thomas Merton
- A Fasting on Criticalness, by Catherine Marshall
- Three New Testament Serendipities, by J.B. Phillips
- The Blessedness of Possessing Nothing, by A.W. Tozer
- In My Great Task-Master’s Eye, by John Milton
- Hospitality to the Poor, by Dorothy Day
- Sinfulness in Society, by Dorothy L. Sayers
- The Traffic of the Temple, by Amy Carmichael
“If you desire intimate union with God you musts be willing to pay the price for it. The price is small enough. In fact, it is not even a price at all: it only seems to be so with us. We find it difficult to give up our desire for things that can never satisfy us in order to purchase the One Good in Whom is all our joy—and in Whom, moreover, we get back everything else that we have renounced besides!” ~ Thomas Merton, p. 18.
“A critical spirit focuses us on ourselves and makes us unhappy. We lose perspective and humor. A critical spirit blocks the positive creative thoughts God longs to give us. A critical spirit can prevent good relationships between individuals and often produces retaliatory criticalness. Criticalness blocks the work of the Spirit of God: love, good will, mercy. Whenever we see something genuinely wrong in another person’s behavior, rather than criticize him or her directly, or—far worse—gripe about him behind his back, we should ask the Spirit of God to do the correction needed. Convicted of the true destructiveness of a critical mind-set, on my knees I am repeating this prayer: ‘Lord, I repent of this sin of judgment. I am deeply sorry for having committed so gross an offense against You and against myself so continually. I claim Your promise of forgiveness and seek a new beginning.” ~ Catherine Marshall, p. 59.
“For we write for those who believe in prayer—not in the emasculated modern sense, but in the old Hebrew sense, deep as the other is shallow. We believe there is some connection between knowing and caring and praying, and what happens afterward. Otherwise we should leave the darkness to cover the things that belong to the dark…” ~ Amy Carmichael, p. 362.
The Life With God Bible. Formerly called the “Renovaré Spiritual Formation Bible”, this study Bible explores relationship with God through the means of the spiritual disciplines.
Read a sample of Spiritual Classics