In May 1990 Professor Northrop Frye, who was, among many other things, an ordained minister in The United Church of Canada, gave a series of lectures to a gathering of Emmanuel College alumni, later published as The Double Vision: Language and Meaning in Religion. In the third lecture, Frye discussed the way humans learn through repetition, “There are two kinds of repetition: one is inorganic, a matter of merely doing the same thing over and over; the other is habit or practice repetition that leads to acquiring a skill, like practicing a sport or a musical instrument.” A paragraph later he writes: “It may seem strange to speak of living a religious life in terms of acquiring a skill by practice, but there is a parallel: the New Testament writers constantly use such phrases as “without ceasing” when exhorting us to continue the practice of prayer or charity” (pg. 52-53).
If Frye were to deliver the same lecture to a United Church audience today, he would not need to start that sentence with a caveat. In the nearly 30 years since Frye spoke those words there has been a significant shift in our understanding of what we once called Christian education and now call faith formation. I think that three significant influences have fostered this shift: our growing exposure to the long tradition of spiritual formation in the Roman Catholic church, the increasing popularity of yoga and other Eastern spiritual practices, and the “emerging church” movement which places a strong emphasis on orthopraxis (right action) rather than orthodoxy (right belief).
At about the same time that Frye delivered these lectures, I met a retired United Church minister who loved to say, “I am a practicing Christian, and I’m going to keep on practicing until I get it right!” He always got a laugh, but he was dead serious. He understood that being a Christian isn’t something we are, it is something we aspire to be. He understood that he would never “get it right,” but that the attempt was worth the effort nonetheless. As Frye puts it, “if we ask what it [the repetition that leads to acquiring a skill] develops into or progresses toward, we may provisionally say something like an enlargement of freedom: we practice the piano to set ourselves free to play it” (pg. 52).
Just so. We practice our faith to set ourselves free, and we use that freedom to practice our faith more intentionally, which enlarges our freedom, which gives us greater scope to practice, which enlarges our freedom, and so on. Our faithful practice becomes a virtuous spiral unwinding outward from our centre into the whole world, and from the edges of the world back into our spiritual center. By “world” I mean not just the physical planet we live upon, but the limitless imaginative and social worlds we simultaneously inhabit. The rewards of practice never end, and our freedom never stops growing.
Frye mentions two practices that have always been central to the Christian faith: prayer and charity; one a relationship with God, the other a relationship with our neighbours. Charity, in this context, can mean love, as in “love your neighbour as yourself.” Love is a tricky word, it means so many things. I like psychologist F. Scott Peck’s definition in his book, The Road Less Traveled, which goes something like this: love is expending yourself for the sake of another. In scripture, and in our daily lives, love is less what we feel and more what we do, which means that love can be practiced and turned into a habit, like any other action.
It doesn’t stop with love. Our Christian faith calls us to practice forgiveness, trust, hope, generosity, compassion, kindness, curiosity, openness, reconciliation, and more. Imagine how large and free your life would be if you were able to turn just some of these into regular habits! Imagine how our society might be transformed if we were all able to do that.
A tall order, but worth the effort. There are steps along the way, other practices that we can employ to grow our capacity to love, to forgive, to trust. Praying, worshiping, singing, meditating, reading scripture, walking labyrinths, the list is long and varied. There are spiritual practices to suit every personality and every schedule. These sorts of practices help us grow in faith by enlarging our understanding of that faith and deepening our participation in the community of those who are engaged in the same practices.
It should not “seem strange” to speak of living a religious life in terms of acquiring skills and building habits, instead, it should seem right and natural. And as for me, I’m proud to say that I’m a practicing Christian, and I’m going to keep on practicing until I get it right!
— Rev. David Sherwin is in ministry at Zion-Memorial United Church in Carleton Place near Ottawa, Ontario. He has a long-standing interest in Christian formation, especially in using the creative arts to foster spiritual growth in people inside and outside the church.