How shall we describe this centre, this inner spiritual territory where encounters are almost too sacred for words? Beyond the theological definitions, we are left with not much more than a collection of metaphors.
David of the Psalms was thinking in metaphors when he imagined his inner spirit to be like a pasture where God, the shepherd, led him as a lamb. In his metaphor, there were calm waters, green pastures, and tables loaded with food to be eaten in safety. This was a place, David said where the soul was restored.
The 18th-century Christian poet William Cowper used the metaphor of a quiet pool:
For me the appropriate metaphor for the inner spiritual centre is a garden, a place of potential peace and tranquility. This garden is a place where the Spirit of God comes to make self-disclosure to share wisdom, to give affirmation or rebuke, to provide encouragement, and to give direction and guidance. When this garden is in proper order, it is a quiet place, and there is an absence of busyness, of defiling noise, of confusion.
The inner garden is a delicate place, and if not properly maintained it will be quickly overrun by intrusive under-growth. God does not often walk in disordered gardens. And that is why inner gardens that are ignored are said to be empty.
Bringing order to the spiritual dimension of our private worlds is spiritual gardening. It is the careful cultivation of spiritual ground. The gardener turns up soil, pulls out unwanted growth, plans the use of the ground, plants seeds, waters and nourishes, and enjoys the harvests that result. All of this is what many have called spiritual discipline.
I love the words of Brother Lawrence, a reflective Christian of many centuries ago who used the metaphor of a chapel:
It is not needful always to be in church to be with God. We make a chapel
of our heart, to which we can from time to time withdraw to have gentle, humble, loving
communion with Him. Everyone is able to have these familiar conversations with God. Some
more, some less - he knows our capabilities. Let us make a start. Perhaps he only waits for us to
make one whole-hearted resolve. Courage! We have but a short time to live.
Let us begin soon, Brother Lawrence coaxes us; time is short! The discipline of the spirit must begin now.
When the inner garden is under cultivation and God's Spirit is present, harvests are regular events. The fruits? Things like courage, hope, love, endurance, joy, and lots of peace. Unusual capacities for self-control, the ability to discern evil and to ferret out truth are also reaped. As the writer of the Proverbs put it:
Richard Foster quotes a favourite author of mine, Thomas Kelly:
We feel honestly the pull of many obligations and try to fulfill them all. And
we are unhappy, uneasy, strained, oppressed, and fearful we shall be shallow... We have hints that
there is a way of life vastly richer and deeper than all this hurried existence, a life of unhurried
serenity and peace and power. If only we could slip over into the Centre!... We have seen and
known some people who have found this deep Centre of living, where the fretful calls of life are
integrated, where No as well as Yes can be said with confidence.
Kelly says it well; if only we could slip over into that Centre!
Down through the centuries the Christian mystics were the ones who took spiritual discipline most seriously. They studied it, and occasionally carried the disciplines to unhealthy and dangerous extremes. But they believed that there had to be regular experiences of withdrawal from routines and relationships to seek God in an inner garden. They were quick to tell us that church services and religious celebrations were far from adequate. A man or a woman had to develop a chapel, still waters, or a garden in the private world, they said. There was no alternative.
Jesus certainly pursued the discipline of His spirit. We know that David did. And so did Moses, the apostles, and Paul, who wrote of his own routines:
I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating
the air; but I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I
myself should be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:26-27)
Have we cheapened this spiritual discipline, this cultivation of the inner garden? Today Christians talk about the importance of "quiet time", a daily devotional often reduced to a system or method that is swift and streamlined. We boil it down to seven minutes or thirty minutes, depending on how much time we have available. We use Bible study guides, devotional guides, devotional booklets, and carefully organised prayer lists. All of which is nice - better, I suppose, than nothing - but not nearly as effective as what the mystics had in mind.
What will it take to force us into disciplined cultivation of the inner garden of our private worlds? Will it require an experience of severe suffering? That is what history seems to say over and over again: those under pressure seek God, because there is nothing else. Those smothered in "blessings" tend to drift with the current. And that is why I question the word blessing sometimes. Surely something is not a blessing if it seduces us away from inward spiritual cultivation.
Can the importance of the inward centre ever be appreciated until we have come close to death, defeat, or humiliation? But the command and the precedents come to us over and over again, in the Scriptures and through the history of the great saints. He who orders his inner spiritual world will make a place for God to visit and speak. And when that voice is heard, it will be unlike anything else ever spoken.
Brother Lawrence says, "Let us start". Thomas Kelly admonishes: "Slip over into that centre." Christ calls, "Come learn of me." How does this discipline of the spirit happen?
[Taken from "Ordering your private world" by Gordon MacDonald.]
Enter into a time with God where together you will be able to work out a spiritual discipline within your life.