What are ‘Exercises’?
The Exercises in this program are intended to strengthen us spiritually. They are ‘Spiritual Exercises’ that help us mature as disciples of Jesus Christ, requiring changes to the way we live. Meditation, prayer, solitude, simplicity, rest, worship, service, celebration– for centuries Christians have valued these and other disciplines. They play a unique role in the Christian life as a way to address ourselves to God and to other people. Throughout the year, each month, we aim to introduce these one at a time and try them out.
These exercises are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. Our aim is to know Christ and grow in his likeness through the process of discipleship. God does the transforming work while we occupy ourselves with the exercises. There is no sausage-factory correlation between input (time in the exercise) and output (knowing Christ) but Christians over the centuries attest to the value of these exercises, sometimes called ‘Spiritual Disciplines’.
Discipline is not a popular topic for our generation. It makes us think of cruel punishments, unrealistic expectations and monotony. We want to recover this word. As its etymology suggests, discipline is connected to being disciples. Besides, as we engage with the spiritual disciplines it very likely that our concept of a well-disciplined life will be challenged. Consider this description by Henri Nouwen: “In the spiritual life, the word discipline means ‘the effort to create some space in which God can act.’ Discipline means that somewhere you’re not occupied, and certainly not preoccupied. In the spiritual life, discipline means to create that space in which something can happen that you hadn’t planned or counted on.”
Isn’t that remarkable– and a bit scary? We live immersed in a popular culture (and sadly, often a church culture) that sees discipline as a vehicle for doing more. Nouwen suggests the opposite: that such filling and ‘more-ness’ might actually be evidence of our lack of discipline. We might need to set aside our FOMO and learn the discipline of de-cluttering our lives. That’s what we’re about here.
This is not a quick fix. Most of us have been running too fast for too long, so don’t be surprised if it takes a while to see significant change. And don’t be surprised if your initial response to Scripture or the Monthly Exercises (the disciplines) is that they seem a little dry. That dryness can be the result of previous bad experiences, perhaps in an atmosphere of legalism or obligation. With that in mind, we’ll find some (attempted!) creativity and freedom in the readings and practices. Retraining our appetites can take time. The scuba diver knows the ocean in a way that the jet-skier will never appreciate.
Each month will feature a brief description of an ‘Exercise’ (Spiritual Discipline). This will be followed by a series of suggested ways to introduce some aspect of that discipline into your own life. Most months there will be four suggested exercises– roughly, one for each week– but occasionally there are fewer if an exercise involves a little more planning or reflection.
Simply knowing what the exercises are won’t get you anywhere: the whole point is that they need to be practiced. They are behaviours to repeat, bringing a benefit through their repetition. For example, prayer is one of the ‘spiritual disciples’ that gets better the more we do it. You might like to share your progress in these exercises with some trusted friends.