Spiritual practice and spiritual work

I’ve been looking over some old notes lately and one of the cryptic notes says: don’t confuse spiritual practice with spiritual work. The notes mostly leave me to recollect what was meant in the workshop, but I think this is a helpful distinction. Spiritual practice is important, but it is what the name suggests: practice. Spiritual practices are the exercises we use in our spiritual training, the method of our formation as spiritual people. Spiritual practice is as important to us as physical training is to an athlete.

If I double down on that, I might say, with Gandhi, that we must be the change we seek in the world. Who we are is of primary importance in any spiritual work we might undertake. In spiritual work we are not primarily trying to accomplish something, but rather to embody something. Ours is an incarnational spirituality. So attention to the practices that form us, that shape our identity and relationship in and with the world, the practices that unite us with God and form us in community – these are critical and rightfully hold an important place in the life of the church.

But what are these practices forming us for? They are forming us for our spiritual work. When I think of spiritual work I think of what I believe is called tikkun olam in Judaism – the mending of the world. In my time at Knox we talked about making connections: God connecting us to God’s self, to each other, to our own deep selves, and to all Creation. In community organizing, we talk about bridging the gap between the world as it is and the world as it should be. We’re talking about personal healing, relational healing, societal healing (economic and social and racial and…), and environmental healing.

Spiritual practices mold and shape us that our world-mending work might be undertaken as spiritual work. Our political work is not simply political – do what it takes to win. We might win a battle then, or an election, or an issue, but unless we are being the change, unless we are embodying the health we seek, we may in the end do nothing more than strengthen the toxic spirit of politics by using its methods. We are not Machiavellian, able in any way to separate ends and means.

If our social justice work or our church development work is done in such a way that we are working beyond our capacity – if we are always exhausted, stressed, demanding of ourselves and others – surely there is something wrong! We are not embodying the grace and love of God, but rather the judgment and violence and exploitation of our society. I do not mean to say that all our work is easy! On the contrary, I expect our spiritual work to call us to transformation, to self-emptying. We are called to find our lives in the giving of our lives, which is challenging and counter-cultural.

We are called to show the world, show the spiritual powers of this age, something different. It’ll take spiritual practice, because in order to show the world something different we will need to learn to be something different.

What does the life of the church look like, then, if our purpose is to be the mending that God seeks for the world?