A house built for Florida makes my feet cold on the morning our city breaks its low-temperature record. It’s not that it hasn’t been colder than 21 degrees Fahrenheit here before, but it’s not been that cold on the 8th of December. I don’t remember having this much trouble warming up, not when I spent hours playing in snow as a kid in the northeast and not in the ‘burbs of Chicago when I would walk the 13 blocks back to the college dorm in minus-zero wind chills after finishing the night shift. But then in both of those cases, my life involved a whole lot more physical activity, and I came home to rooms outfitted with storm windows and steam heat from oil burning boilers. Generally speaking, homes were winterized. But this is Florida, and I live in a house built in 1939. If there’s such a thing in the insulation industry as a negative “R” value, I think this house has one. It just wasn’t designed for winter.
Once I get cold, it takes a lot of heat to warm me back up. Preparing for winter is an exercise, a discipline in foresight, and I wonder this morning: is there such a thing as winterizing the soul? Is there a spiritual discipline for preparing our spiritual house so to speak? Since reading about acedia, I have grown increasingly interested in what the church has referred to as the spiritual disciplines (in part because historic Catholicism makes a connection between the sin of acedia and lax ascetic practice). Traditionally, the spiritual disciplines included prayer, fasting, confession, the Eucharist, study, sacrifice, service, silence and chastity to name a few, ascetic practices often associated with 15th and 16th century monasticism. The point of all this was to prepare for an encounter with Jesus and his coming kingdom and to work out one’s salvation. Protestant reformers, in an effort to establish that the Christian is saved not by works but by faith, stripped Christianity of most of this inherited asceticism. What remained for them was a shortened list of disciplines such as fasting and prayer. Biblical sources, in particular the letters of the Apostle Paul, connect spiritual discipline to the metaphor of an athlete training for a race. While Paul’s letters convey that salvation is not to be found in yoking the believer to religious rules, they also seem to affirm some sort of spiritual discipline. Regardless of whether or not your list of spiritual disciplines is long or short, each Christian tradition has at least some form of discipline associated with preparing the soul and becoming more Christlike as Christ indwells his followers.
Spiritual discipline is a tricky topic for me. Every time I’ve attempted a formal effort in spiritual discipline, I fall into a legalistic trap. I can’t seem to impose a structure of discipline on my spiritual life that escapes my beginning to feel that I am doing things right or that there’s a right and a wrong way to go about being a Christian. If I can actually accomplish, for example, the discipline of waking early and spending time in prayer, I start thinking that I’m doing the Christian life the “right way.” It doesn’t take long before I’m unwittingly espousing a moral or legalistic path to living wisely or being good, and that path ends where protestant reformers didn’t want asceticism to take them: a salvation that is worked rather than received.
In spite of the trickiness, I am convinced that spiritual discipline is a necessary part of winterizing the soul, of preparing our hearts for the indwelling of God. The athlete that wins is generally the one who also trains diligently. The house that keeps its inhabitants warm is the one that was prepared well in advance to do just that. So what do I do with spiritual discipline? How do I train or prepare for winter in a way that doesn’t play to my tendency to be legalistic?
This cold winter day in December, we are immersed in Advent, the re-enacting of our Christian story, one that picks up with Mary, the young girl who would bear the Christ child. When Mary received the Christ into her womb, how prepared was she? Scripture doesn’t speak to her spiritual disciplines per se, but it certainly depicts Mary, the bearer of God, as humble and submissive. When told she was to conceive and give birth to the Savior of the world, her reaction was, “I am your maidservant. May it be to me as you have said.” In spite of the shame she would face as an unwed, pregnant mother, her posture was one of meekness and surrender to God. If she had spiritual disciplines, they did not render her proud or legalistic. Instead she was somehow prepared for the indwelling God.
Observing Mary as depicted in the gospel accounts nudges me to a different perspective on spiritual discipline. Rather than an external structure I place on my day, perhaps spiritual discipline is an internal posture I daily need to practice. In other words, instead of creating a structure in which I wake up early and meditate on scripture and pray, what my soul deeply needs is this practice of starting the day with a humble posture, a leaning into Christ that requires the repeated sacrifice of my own agenda for his instead. Does that look different on the outside? Probably not. Either way I’m waking up and praying, but on the inside it should look a whole lot different. Instead of adding an achievement to my morning, the Spirit of God calls me to humble my face before his holiness. In the former case, my pride isn’t addressed. In the latter, it’s put on the altar repeatedly, and it’s the repetition that makes it a discipline. Maybe the only difference is that this form of discipline doesn’t feature me working for God. It’s more like me getting out of the way so that God accomplishes a work in and through me. The work is in the emptying of my self so that I can be filled with the Spirit of Christ, like Mary.
Winter may be the backdrop of our daily story, but it’s not The Story. The Story is that the Savior of the world shone into the darkness of our winter and brought us the gift of Himself. He entered our house and took up residence there, a house that wasn’t perfect but was ready. At the end of the day I have to admit that my spiritual house, like my literal one, was made for a different climate than it’s in right now.
My literal house was built for the subtropics. The structure is cleverly raised off the ground to allow for air to circulate under it. The attic has a unique venting system in which the siding is constructed with two-inch gaps between planks so that air can move through easily. When Florida goes AWOL (as it does from time to time) and arctic air settles in for a spell, my feet get cold from the draftiness of a house built for warmer temperatures. While I can try with all my might to insulate my house, install storm windows and turn up the heat; in the end, it’s not enough. My house was designed to be cooled not warmed. All my doings, my exercises and my efforts don’t change who I am. They’re flimsy attempts at saving myself. Spiritual discipline doesn’t save me or make me a better person. It’s when I submit myself to my Creator, when I humble myself before him that his work begins to change me. And in the morning, when I can bow my head in submission to him, I’m asking not to change but to be changed. That’s when the sun peaks out from behind winter’s grey veil and begins to warm my soul. Winter melts in the glow of Christ’s presence, and I too am a bearer of God.