Lately I’ve been feeling a bit like the rich young ruler in Matthew 19, despite the fact that I am neither rich, nor young, nor a ruler. Like him, I’ve been badgering Jesus—and my friends—with the question of how to go deeper in the spiritual life. They’ve all been saying pretty much the same thing: You can water and fertilize yourself, but you can’t make yourself grow. Do the things you know you’re supposed to do; then wait.
I know this, of course. As the RYR said, “All these things have I kept from my youth.” In my case, we’ll call “youth” the mid-thirties, and by “kept” we’ll mean, “took a stab at.” But before my ten year time-out from theism, I had read Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, which says that the spiritual disciplines of prayer, confession, solitude, worship and so on are the means God uses to take us deeper. They aren’t a self-help program that we can manipulate to get where we want to go: “By themselves the Spiritual Disciplines can do nothing; they can only get us to the place where something can be done.” That “place” is where the Spirit’s work of transformation occurs.
I believe all of this, which is largely why I was attracted to the Franciscan Third Order, in which we pledge ourself to a rule of life comprising nine such disciplines. Since making that pledge ten years ago, I have proved that perfect or even respectably faithful practice of these disciplines is not necessary for transformation to occur. I’ve seen my life and my soul change. And yet, like the RYR, I find myself asking for more.
In Sacred Heart: Gateway to God, Wendy Wright tells us what “more” is like:
[T]he very nature of divinity is ecstatic. It pours itself out, overflowing all boundaries, propelled by its own fierce fullness…fullness that brims over, desire that explodes its own boundaries… [D]ivine life is ecstatic. It flows out of itself with irresistible impetuosity. It is liquid and tumultuous.
In prayer we enter into the heart of God, as God enters into our heart. The key to growth is that each experience of the “liquid, tumultuous” heart of God is not a one-off. Our experiences of prayer are cumulative, and with each one God keeps building the house in which we dwell together.
This is why the best advice to those of us who seek spiritual depth is still what spiritual directors have been saying for millennia: Keep at it; the depth will come.