Brian McClaren, Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2008).
Brian McClaren introduces the Ancient Practices Series with his book Finding Our Way Again. The book is written in three parts. Part one looks at the hope of rediscovering spirituality as a way of life rather than a religious system. Part two looks at three categories of practices – contemplative, communal and missional – that must be kept in balance in order to keep spirituality a way of life. Part three looks at three ancient practices – katharsis, fotosis and theosis – that must become part of life if there is to be any ancient way. At the end of each chapter the author provides a handful of questions and exercise for reflection and journaling to aid the reader in recovering the ancient way of being he writes of. The book also has a study guide that can be used for groups that wish to make the journey together.
In part one McClaren offers four reasons to purse the ancient way of spiritual practices, though the fourth he reserves for the conclusion of the book: (1) they develop character; (2) they enliven us and make us more human, as God designed; (3) they help us experience God; (4) they offer a way for the world’s three largest religions to coexist and not destroy the world within which they exist. It is possible, claims the author, that the common practices of these three faiths – pilgrimage, fasting, sacred meals, common prayer, giving, sabbath, and holy days – can provide such an opportunity for peace. These practices provide us (Christians, Jews, and Muslims) a way to follower our leaders. After all, each of these faiths began not as a religion but as a way of life. Learning from one another is essential and is what McClaren calls “open-source spirituality.” (Chapters 1-8)
Deciding to do something and training to do it are two different things. Without training one will never do anything. This is why communities that have developed practices are essential for growth in such practices. The practices McClaren speaks of are of three natures: contemplative, communal and missional. Contemplative practices (such as solitude, sabbath, silence, spiritual direction, etc.) “are means by which we become prepared for grace to surprise us.” (95) Communal practices are those practices that exist between contemplation and mission – where the community lives life. Practices of listening, engaging, and being present (as should be practiced on any given Sunday morning). Missional practices are the reason the church exists. The church gathers for the purpose of equipping its members “for a life of love and good deeds when the community scatters.” (113) The problem is that we often find ourselves in a deadly cycle where passion gives way to rigid traditionalism which then leads those who desire more to reforming or renewing action which gives way to traditionalism … and so on. (Chapters 9-14)
The final part of the book provides a beautiful description of katharsis, fotosis and theosis. Katharsis, as McClaren describes through the story of one being transported to a monastic community in the Middle Ages, is the process by which pride, lust and greed are removed from one’s soul. Like cleaning an abandoned house, katharsis makes the soul able to receive the light of God. On a practical level, this is what others have called self-examination. Fotosis, phase two, is when the light of God shines in and warms the soul. Through study, prayer, fellowship and the like, the light of God – the life of God – fills the soul and shine forth to others. However, once one sees that the light is good the light eventually becomes inadequate. Eventually, one desires to enter into the sun itself. This is theosis. As a hot iron is placed into the embers of the fire and becomes aglow like the embers radiating heat outward. The people of God are called to enter His presence and radiate the warmth outward so that others may become warm toward God. This way must not become another list of religious to dos. It must remain a way of life. (Chapters 15-20)
I appreciate McClaren’s insights into the transforming landscape of the church, the world and spirituality. His personal stories help make this way he speaks of sound possible and within my reach. Of special interest to me was his discussion of the contemplative, communal and missional practices. It is easy to see throughout the history of the church whenever any one of these practices are neglected the life drains away. His explanation of the purpose of pursuing spiritual practices is also refreshing. Thinking of developing character, becoming more fully human (i.e. restored in the image of God), and being awake to more fully experience God get closer to the heart of spiritual practices than any definition I have ever heard of.
As for his fourth purpose, an attempt to achieve a level of ecumenical peace among Judaism, Christianity and Islam, I am unconvinced. I fear that McClaren mentions Islam and its connection to Judaism just enough to offend (or confuse) most Christian readers and not enough so as to avoid offending (or confusing) most Muslims. The idea that these three faiths can reach peace through common practices betrays the very heart of the practices. None of these faiths would argue that it is the practice alone that shapes and forms. The practice is merely a tool. It is the God – Yahweh or Allah – that shapes the character, awakens the soul, and brings humanity into experiential existence with the divine. There is hope for Christianity and Judaism because they at least have the same God.
All in all, this is a good introduction to the ancient practices of our faith and I would recommend it to any interested reader.
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