The Importance of Spiritual Practices

The Importance of Spiritual Practices

John Haralson   •   February 23, 2017

Energy & Form: The Importance of Regular Spiritual Practices 

This post is the first in a series on becoming a people of prayer. During the season of Lent, the leadership at Grace is inviting our congregation into committing to morning and evening prayer using the prayer book Seeking God’s Face and the Prayer of Examen

I had a cherry tree cut down from our front yard last year. I don’t know that much about wood, but cherry is absolutely gorgeous. I wanted to keep some of the wood and have it turned into bowls. I thought it would be great to eat from a bowl that grew in my yard.

The first step was to cut the wood into smaller chunks so it could begin to dry. I borrowed a chain saw and cut up the tree trunk into more manageable, half-cylinder shapes. Then, I needed to get these pieces cut into circular pieces called “bowl blanks” that I would give to a wood turner and have them made into the bowls.

The challenge was how to cut such large pieces of wood into circular shapes. It’s an even bigger challenge given the fact that I’m not a woodworker, and I lack the tools and expertise to get this done. 

This brings me to my friend, Jeff. He is a pretty skilled woodworker, and he’s also very generous with his time. He has a big band saw that could cut through the wood. And, he built a “jig” that he could attach to the half-cylinders and rotate them as he cut in order to make the bowl blanks. The jig’s purpose was to guide the piece of wood so that the saw made the right kind of shape.

Here is a piece ready for cutting. The half-cylinder log rests on top of the jig.

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As the blade cut, Jeff slowly rotated the wood on the jig. The jig allowed the cut to be made in a nice, even circle.

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A partially-completed piece.

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And, the finished bowl blank!

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I want to think about the importance of the jig in this process. The jig is what allowed us to focus the energy of the saw and put it to good use. Without the jig, it would have been an unwieldy and dangerous process of trying to cut the wood in a circular shape while trying to guide the saw with our hands. The form and structure of the jig was needed to channel the energy of the saw in an appropriate manner. 

So, what does this have to do with our spiritual practices? I’m not Wendell Berry, so I’m not going to tell you to take up woodworking. But, I do think there is a valuable lesson to be learned here.

Our spiritual lives are a combination of energy and form. We need both energy and form in order to grow in a relationship with God. Form without energy is lifeless formalism, just going through the religious motions. But, energy without form is unnecessarily difficult and, perhaps, even dangerous.

As I have grown in my own faith, I have come to appreciate more and more the value of forms. I love the pattern of liturgical worship. It is a form we give ourselves to every Sunday as a congregation. I have also grown in my love for the church calendar and the order it imposes on our days and months. Instead of letting our culture define time for us, we allow the life of Jesus to be the structure imposed on our annual rhythms.

And, I have particularly grown in my appreciation for structure in my daily life with God. Like most people, I have struggled to maintain consistency in my life of prayer. I pray less than I want to. However, I have found that if I give myself to a form of prayer (regularly scheduled times of prayer and liturgical guides for prayer to shape and direct my time of prayer), I find myself praying more often and slowly growing in my relationship with God. 

In other words, a structured prayer life can work like a jig and help channel and focus our spiritual energy in the right direction. Far from being a death blow to our prayer life, embracing a pre-made form can actually help us channel our hearts and minds to the Lord.

(This post was inspired by a talk given by Bishop Stephen Scarlett & the Winter 2016 issue of Comment magazine).