One of the features of practice-oriented spirituality that seems to get overlooked is that, in addition to having a social aspect, it also makes room for tradition.
As Robert Wuthnow notes in After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s, “the people [he] talked to emphasized the value of rooting their spiritual practice in a specific tradition…rather than having to pursue their activities in a vacuum.”
“They feel less alone because they know they are following practices that people have been engaged in for generations.”
I wholeheartedly agree with Wuthnow on this. In fact, one of the core assumptions of the Clergy Seminar Series on Congregation-Based Spiritual Direction is that religious traditions still have something to offer spiritual seekers.
We’re not just talking about religious community here. We’re talking about religious traditions.
One of the ways I like to look at this comes from Richard Rohr, founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation. In his book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Rohr says
The task of the first half of life is to create a proper container for one’s life and answer the first essential questions: “What makes me significant?” “How can I support myself?” and “Who will go with me?” The task of the second half of life is, quite simply, to find the actual contents that this container was meant to hold and deliver.
Elsewhere, Rohr notes that “Spiritually, people in the first half of life are often drawn to order, to religious routine. We are developing habits and letting ourselves be shaped by the norms and practices of our family and community.”
Religious routine. Habits. Norms and practices. Sounds like religious tradition to me.
Of course, religious traditions are more than than routines and habits. And Wuthnow points out that “the historical aspect of spiritual practice is not simply a set of writings that link people abstractly to some religious tradition.”
Wuthnow says that “for some people, it is more tangibly expressed in the lives of particular individuals who have gone before them or who set an example walking beside them.”
And that is where I see religious tradition and religious community coming together. The cloud of witnesses from the past and the companions on the journey in the present. And it doesn’t have to be perfect, either.
“What is remarkable is finding God in the context of flawed human community, and a tradition bigger than you are with people who may not reflect God back to you in your own image,” says Lillian Daniel, author of When “Spiritual but Not Religious” Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church.
Just because there’s been a decline in membership and attendance in our congregations doesn’t mean our traditions don’t have something to offer. We can help people in the first half of life build the containers they need for their lives.
And small group spiritual direction, even in the flawed human communities that our congregations inevitably are, can help them fill those containers.