Are You Over-Invested in Your Spiritual Practices? St. Benedict’s Comments

body_hardworkWhen you want to excel at something you work hard at whatever needs done.  Athletes exercise and practice for hours every day.  They study their sport, implement strategies to improve their performance, and practice, practice, practice.  Some of you may recall Malcolm Gladwell’s reference to the work of Anders Ericsson who spawned the 10,000 hour rule.  This rule states if you practice something for 10,000 hours you’ll be an expert (or as Gladwell calls you an “Outlier”).  While not absolutely true, the key to success is practicing something for 10,000 hours while making adjustments another skilled individual identifies and coaches you through.  You need to perfect what you’re doing, not just do it wrong for an extended period of time.  If you continue to play the wrong notes in a song for 10,000 hours the song will never sound any better.  Yet, when a more proficient musician coaches you through your mistakes and you adjust your performance your continued practice provides you with the opportunity to become exceptionally proficient.  So to really excel at something you need to practice and invest yourself in the task at hand while being open to suggestions and changes offered by those more proficient.

While one can garnish many benefits from this type of effort, there’s an ugly side to this level of commitment.  Over-investment, meaning the huge amount of time, money, education, etc. we put into a task can keep us from listening to other experts.  It can keep us from trying more effective approaches for achieving what we want.  Psychologists have identified when we invest a great deal of time and effort into something we’re less likely to stop what we’re doing in order to do something totally or even moderately different, even if it will help us achieve better results.  We get so attached to our effort we become blind to better options.  Over-investment also causes us to be preoccupied with results leading to anxiety, worry, and an actual decline in performance.  Instead of focusing on mastering the task at hand we become preoccupied with the end result.  This focus on results causes us to ignore the means of getting there.  My wife is a personal fitness trainer and often remarks people frequently ignore their form and focus too much on weight loss, performance, etc.  What she means is instead of focusing on doing the exercise right and perfecting the body movements they’re more interested in how much weight they lost or how much they can lift.  By ignoring the method to achieve the end result they never reach the optimal level of perfection possible.

Our spiritual life can have similar consequences when we become overly invested in practices and disciplines.  What we see in the bodily world can be inferred in the spiritual life.  Because Christianity is a sacramental (incarnational) religion we come to know the transcendent through the temporal.  I’ve often worked with people in spiritual direction who become over invested in their spiritual practices leading them to focus on results instead of perfecting methods.  Additionally, I’ve seen people become so committed to one type of spiritual exercise or discipline when it’s suggested they try something different they claim doing so would be impossible.  Instead of hearing what the Holy Spirit is suggesting they remain overly invested in the particular practice they “know” because they’ve read a great deal about it, spent money on retreats where the practice was perfected, and have performed this discipline for many many months.  Is this a healthy view of the spiritual life?  Not at all!

St. Benedict (The founder of Western Christian Monasticism) lists a number of different types of monks in his Holy Rule. I think these four types of monks reflect what happens when we become either overly invested or uninvested in spiritual practices.  In chapter 1 of the rule we encounter the Cenobites, Anchorites, Sarabaites, and the Gyrovagues, different types of monks he encountered when traveling through Italy.  The first two practice the spiritual life well however, the second two demonstrate poor spiritual discipline.  Let’s review the second two in order to understand how being improperly invested in the spiritual life is a problem.

The Sarabaites are described by Benedict in the following way:

“Not tested as gold in the furnace by any rule or by the lessons of experience, they are as soft as lead.  In their works they still keep faith with the world, so that their tonsure marks them as liars before God.  They live in twos or threes, or even singly, without a shepherd, in their own sheepfolds and not in the Lord’s.  Their law is the desire for self-gratification: Whatever enters their mind or appeals to them, that they call holy; whatever they dislike they regard as unlawful.”

Sarabaites are like individuals who won’t invest in any particular spiritual discipline for any specific period of time.  While over-investment is a bad idea, having no spiritual root is a bad idea as well.  I’ve worked with some Christians who simply decide whatever spiritual practices they want to pursue are good and therefore regardless of my counsel they’re going to move forward with them.  They will not acknowledge the authority of Holy Scripture and therefore pick and choose spiritual practices as they like even if they contradict what the Christian faith has found to be holy, true, and good.  I find this group interesting because they’re overly invested in being uninvested or overly invested in how they “feel” about things.  Benedict’s description of these monks speaks volumes about their methodology of spiritual development.  Benedict says, “Whatever enters their mind or appeals to them, that they call holy; “whatever they dislike they regard as unlawful.”  If we don’t ground ourselves in the authority of Holy Scripture and choose to follow our own mind we end up in a bad place.  If we practice that particular spiritual discipline for “10,000 hours” we will certainly only grow in our own sin instead of becoming more like Christ which is the end result of the spiritual life.  The spiritual life needs an authoritative voice in it to challenge us (or coach us as noted before) and the most sure voice is that of Sacred Scripture.

So if the Sarabaite is a master of being overly invested in being uninvested, the Gyrovagues must be an even worse sort of monk.  In fact Benedict remarks after a short description of their failures, “Of the miserable conduct of such men it is better to be silent than to speak.”  What did they do to make them worse than that Sarabaites?  Benedict says this:

“They spend their whole lives tramping from province to province, staying as guests in different monasteries for three or four days at a time.  Always on the move, with no stability, they indulge their  own wills and succumb to the allurements of gluttony…”

So, along with being overly invested in being uninvested, these monks use their identity as “holy men” to take advantage of others and indulge in their desire to feed their bodily passions.

I share all this to remind those interested in the spiritual life that we must be careful of two things.  First, in our zeal to grow spiritually we cannot become overly invested in the practices we perform.  We must be ready to hear the promptings of the Holy Spirit and follow his direction.  The spiritual life is not one in which we should focus on the end result but the grace emerging  from the practice of spiritual exercises.  Focus on the experience of the spiritual practice and the grace it provides, not about how holy we’re becoming.  Secondly, don’t become a soloist  when it comes to the spiritual life.  While some people are equipped to be more hermetic (Benedict discusses them in his rule but states “Those having learned by the help of many brethren how to fight against the devil, go out well armed” reminding us the Anchorites did not just decide they were going to be hermits, they were spiritually formed in a community.), most of us need to be accountable to others.  Remember what I said at the beginning of this post, if you practice the wrong thing for 10,000 hours you just become an expert at what’s wrong.  By being accountable to other solid Christians who are accountable to the Holy Scriptures we can refine one another’s spiritual disciplines and help each other discern where the Holy Spirit is leading us.

In the end the spiritual life is a life of grace.  While we talk a great deal about focused spiritual disciplines and practices the truth is the spiritual life is one in which the practitioner responds to the promptings of the Holy Spirit while being a member of a faith community.  It’s not about what you do and how long you do it, it’s about how you respond to a relationship with Jesus Christ and with one another.  If you focus too much on the end results and become overly invested in the practice you miss the grace filled moment when God breaks through the temporal world to give you a glimpse of eternity.  Invest in the God relationship which compels you to love others and you will come to know holiness in a profound way.


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