Examining Spiritual Practices Through a Wesleyan-Methodist Lens Part 1

Back in January I raised the point that United Methodists are faced with what I termed "an inconvenient truth."  Our Book of Discipline outlines the primary sources for our work as the church.  Some of us, namely ordained clergy, are in covenant together regarding our work of ministry.  When we begin to discuss what is taught in our UM Churches, these sources are intended to be our guides for faithful covenant and practice.  

This blog and those that follow in the coming weeks come from research work as I pursue Certification in Spiritual Formation in the United Methodist Church.  Of particular interest for me has been how we, as United Methodists, are handling and examining the wealth of spiritual practices which have been and are being introduced into our churches.  Some of the questions I have mulled over included, Are we being diligent about what we teach and what we allow to be taught?  Are there practices from other denominations which fit within our tradition?  Are there some that do not?  Is there a process we might use to be more discerning?  In the coming blog posts (taken from a recent paper.  The bibliography will be posted at the end of the posts), I try to answer these questions by examining St. Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises through a Wesleyan-Methodist lens.

In our current day the religious landscape, especially as it relates to the Christian Church in a general way, is shifting. One such shift is noted in John Mabry’s recent article on “Generational Ministry” in Presence Magazine. In the generation known as Millenials (birth years 1981-2001), “…72 percent identify as ‘spiritual but not religious' (Mabry 2012, 21).” For this generation, God has become more an “absentee landlord” than Lord of the universe. This is not the only aspect of change. The growing interest in spiritual practices and the influence of the Christian mystics on our church life is of significant interest.

To be Methodist in this time of shift ought to give us pause for if we are one who relates himself or herself to the theological thought, practice of holiness, and social service taught by John Wesley, we have a responsibility to examine and reflect upon what comes into our lives and into the church. However, we do not do this work in a vacuum or on our own accord. It is by our theological guidelines where we find our sources and criteria to study and judge and apply to our lives those truths which are acceptable to what is often referred to as the Quadrilateral: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.

It should be of considerable interest for a Methodist Christian, clergy or laity, to examine practices which are proposed to be introduced into the life of our people. Our Book of Discipline deems it necessary to do so. We are to consider John Wesley’s Standard Sermons and Explanatory Notes on the New Testament. Where the Rev. John Wesley spoke to an issue in these works, they hold a particular authority. Even if they are found in the larger collection of his works, Wesley’s words have much to offer.

On the topic of mysticism, Wesley, in fact has much to say though his thoughts and opinions do vary. As such, Wesley’s writings are also not comprehensive in nature. There are mystics about whom Wesley had strong opinions, but of others, he speaks not at all. Such is the case with The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Written between the years of 1522 and 1524, the Exercises layout a plan of meditations, prayers, mental exercises and spiritual practices to be carried out over the course of about 30 days time. It should also be noted these exercises, like the means of grace in Methodism, are not undertaken in a vacuum. The Spiritual Exercises are intended to be followed under the guidance of a spiritual director. W. Paul Jones, former United Methodist clergy, now trappist monk, draws the comparison between Catholicism and Methodism stating the, “…characteristic of an order, every member was supposed to be under spiritual direction (Jones 2002, 79).”

While there are some writings on John Wesley and his experience and examination of mysticism, this work has not been exhausted. In his paper, “John Wesley’s Assessment of Christian Mysticism,” Dr. Kenneth J. Collins offers four questions of help to examine spiritual practices in light of Wesley’s own opinions regarding the mystics:

1. Is it Christologically based?

2. Does it detract from Jesus as mediator?

3. Is the practice rooted in the atonement?

4. Is it rooted in the means of grace? (ex: prayer, communion, Bible reading).

It seems to me, these represent a fair test of any spiritual practices which might be part of a Wesleyan-Methodist experience of grace. While there are practices of Ignatius which would be considered inappropriate and unacceptable today (such as chastising the flesh with hair shirts, chains and scouraging (The Spiritual Exercises 1964, 62)), there is much here to help the Christian seeking to pattern their life after Jesus Christ.

In Ignatius’ work, we find parallel practices outlined by John Wesley in the Methodist Movement. We need to identify those parallels and take time to understand this commonality. With the growing population of less churched and more spiritual, the practices reaching new generations (and old ones for that matter) can be used to help others on their spiritual journey. Methodists have long held the center in being a bridge between traditions in the Christianity.

The more one spends time with Ignatius’ works and looking at his life, it is not so surprising Richard Foster would place both Ignatius and John Wesley in the stream of the Holiness Traditions (Foster 1998, 60). Both were instrumental in leading movements, Ignatius in the Roman Catholic counter-Reformation (16th Century) and Wesley leading the Holiness/Methodist Movement (18th century). They also shared a significant connection to the writing of Thomas a Kempis, namely, The Imitation of Christ. While not always classified as a mystical work, Imitation was instrumental in shaping Wesley’s understanding of Christian perfection (Tuttle 1989, 62). For Ignatius, Imitation was one of the three books from which he drew much inspiration. He referred to it as the devotional book he liked the most and was first given him during his stay in Manresa from March 1522 to February 1523 (The Spiritual Exercises 1964,13 and 15).

While he does not speak to it directly, John Wesley was very much attracted to the life and work of Ignatius. We know Wesley read about the life of Ignatius on August 16, 1742. In addition, Wesley was accused on more than one occasion of being a “son of Loyola” (Tuttle 1989, 31). Paul W. Jones, notes how Ignatius was one of the monastics Wesley drew upon for inspiration (2002, 77). In his spiritual journey, Wesley made breaks with many of the mystics and spoke harshly at times of their shortcomings. However, in regards to Ignatius and the Exercises, we find no such comments. While this does not mean Ignatius’ works fall under those practices which might be approved for use by Methodist Christians, it does, I think, allow us the opportunity to move forward in examining Ignatius’ work in light of Collins’ questions regarding mystic theology and practice for Methodists.

Stay tuned for my next post regarding Examining Spiritual Practices Through a Wesleyan-Methodist Lens.


Roxanne Reeves said...

Hi Jedi Pastor Ken, I'm not surprised I'm the first to comment on "Methodist mysticism." Just here to keep you company. :)

Have you read the classic by Evelyn Underhill. It's in audio via Librivox.com.


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