Mike Yankoski on The Sacred Year & Spiritual Practices

Spiritual Practices

Michael Yankoski is a writer, aspiring theologian, and urban homesteader who dreams of becoming a competent woodworker, musician, and sailor. He received his MA in theological studies at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, is a (novitiate) Oblate of St. Benedict, and has authored four books, including his latest The Sacred Year: Mapping the Soulscape of Spiritual Practice — How Contemplating Apples, Living in a Cave, and Befriending a Dying Woman Revived My Life. Michael grew up in Colorado, feels at home on the Pacific Coast, and currently resides in Indiana, where he and his wife are pursuing PhDs at the University of Notre Dame. Web: www.MichaelYankoski.com Facebook: fb.com/myankoski Twitter: @michaelyankoski

KW: What have you found to be the greatest challenges to those who desire rest, stillness, and intimacy with God?

MY: Ours is a culture careening at an unsustainable, utterly out-of-control pace. There is so much inertia, so much movement in the direction of ceaseless work, unbounded consumerism, and overwhelming frenzy that even when we try to cultivate rest, stillness, and intimacy with God, our best attempts are often be overrun by the sheer momentum of it all. This is a reality—it seems to me, anyway—that is endemic in the Western world, and which shows very few signs of changing any time soon.

Within this context, one of the most dangerous beliefs that I have myself encountered when it comes to rest, stillness and intimacy with God, is what I’ll call the “someday syndrome.” I know I’m suffering from this syndrome in my own life when I start hearing myself using phrases like “I’ll rest someday,” or “next summer I’ll cultivate stillness,” or “perhaps someday I’ll grow in intimacy with God.”

By the “someday syndrome” I mean the belief that there will be more time—sometime other than now—to cultivate these essential habits in our lives.

At the heart of this pernicious “someday syndrome” is the belief that we can only cultivate rest, stillness and intimacy with God once we have finished our work. Or, once we have achieved enough. And, of course, the danger inherent to this syndrome arises from the fact that we live in a culture where a dominant perspective is that work should never be finished, that none of us will ever have achieved enough.

It is all too easy to put off cultivating rest, stillness, and intimacy with God, but the simple fact is that if we delay pursuing these practices until our work is finally finished, we will find ourselves always caught in frenetic habits and patterns of frenzy.

Rest, stillness and intimacy with God are not things we do once the work is finished, but rather in the midst of all the competing demands and strain and obligations that life in our time and culture places on us.

KW: What symptoms most commonly identify those who’ve reached a point of inner corrosion – or, a state of spiritual anemia?

MY: C.S. Lewis has a brilliant reflection that I’ll bring in here as a way of trying to get at this question:

“Surely what a man does when he is taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of a man he is? Surely what pops out before the man has time to put on a disguise is the truth? If there are rats in a cellar you are most likely to see them if you go in very suddenly. But the suddenness does not create the rats: it only prevents them from hiding. In the same way the suddenness of the provocation does not make me an ill-tempered man; it only shows me what an ill-tempered man I am. The rats are always there in the cellar, but if you go in shouting and noisily they will have taken cover before you switch on the light.”[1]

I mention this quote from C.S. Lewis because I think “rats of the soul” are a pretty good indicator when we’ve reached a point of inner corrosion, or a state of “spiritual anemia.” We see the rats coming out at interesting points—when a neighbor stops by needing some help and we perceive them to be “interrupting” us, when we cuss out a co-worker or a fellow freeway-dweller, when we wake up in the middle of the night with the aching sense that we’re heading in the wrong direction—these are all the sort of “rats of the soul” that are indications that something is likely is amiss.

The simple fact is that we live in a culture of “image management,” where there are “reputation consultants” who help not just the movie stars but everyday citizens try to ensure they’re always viewed in the best light possible. Our culture has become more about masquerade management than actually cultivating a life of virtue, than actually being (or becoming) someone whose life actually exhibits the kinds of qualities we’d like to be perceived as having.

And occasionally the façade cracks. The masquerade breaks. The rats get out. Whenever this happens it’s an invitation, I think, an invitation to begin attending to the inner corrosion, to seek health and healing and shalom so that we are no longer spiritually anemic, but rather so that we might be moved—by God’s grace—toward the flourishing purpose for which we’ve been created.

KW: How have the spiritual practices unexpectedly shaped you?

MY: Spiritual practices are unlike any other kind of “practice” we as humans typically engage. In a normal “practice”—say, practicing piano or a sport or something like that—we move ourselves by our practice along a sort of continuum or spectrum from being a novice toward having mastery of that thing we’re practicing. There’s a basic logic to it: we do these certain things—scales, drills, etc.—and these actions make us into something else. We “sculpt” ourselves, in a sense.

Spiritual Practices aren’t like that. They aren’t “techniques.” Rather, it seems that Spiritual Practices very quickly take us out of the realm of our own ability and into a place where we are dependent upon the One who is more than we are, where God is the agent and we are the subject of “sculpting” originating somewhere else.

I certainly found this to be true in the spiritual practice of fasting, or of listening prayer, or of pilgrimage, just to name a few. In all of these, I very quickly found myself in “liminal places,” ie: places where my own strength and abilities were clearly not enough to sustain the practice, and I was being buoyed or held by something other than my own capacities as a human.

Put simply: we don’t DO Spiritual Practices, but rather Spiritual Practices DO us.

So, (and if I might answer the question by editing it a bit), rather than noting “how” Spiritual Practices have unexpectedly shaped me, let me simply say that I was most astonished during my Sacred Year that Spiritual Practices shaped me, and not as a result of my own efforts, but very clearly as a result of being brought by the practices far beyond what my own meager “abilities” could accomplish.

KW: To a person wanting to incorporate spiritual practices into life again or for the first time, are there certain practices that you might suggest he or she begin before others?

MY: We live in a world where we are conditioned to be multi-taskers. We are constantly working on multiple things, having phone calls while writing emails while driving while jotting down shopping lists while trying to get the kids to stop screaming. On a neurological level, people like Nicholas Carr (see: “Is Google Making Us Stupid” and The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains) have begun exploring what this ceaseless multi-tasking is doing to our ability to go deep into anything at all.

In this cultural context, one of the most important spiritual practices that I would encourage people toward is that of attentiveness. Of noticing. (the theological word for this—by the way—is contemplation). Try practicing not being distracted. Turn off your phone. Turn off your internet access. Be attentive to where you are, to what is going on inside of your head and your heart. If being internally attentive is difficult at first, perhaps cultivate the practice of being externally attentive: Find out how many black spots there are on the back of the ladybug in your yard, or how many leaves are on the branch of a tree. Take an hour to eat an apple. Walk to church instead of driving. Listen well to the person with whom you’re speaking, instead of allowing your eyes to wander the room, trolling for momentary distractions.

We also live in a world that is filled with noise, and thus I recommend a sort of potent antidote: silence. Silence can begin in small ways, like taking 5 minutes to turn off your Mp3 player, turn off your cell phone, and sit silently on a bench in a park, or take a slow walk through an old-growth forest or even your own neighborhood.

Something I find particularly helpful amidst the practice of silence is noticing and being attentive to what it feels like to try and slow down, what it feels like to try and welcome silence, whether it comes easily or with great difficulty. Noticing whether I feel refreshed or frustrated, acts as a sort of “thermometer” for how my interior life is going at any particular time.

This practice of cultivating spaces and times of stillness and silence in my life is very much connected to hearing “the still small voice of God” (see 1 Kings 19:12). Whenever I read this passage I’m struck by how hard Elijah had to work to hear the voice of the LORD: he had to flee, endure the wilderness, go to a particular place, endure enormous distractions (a storm, an earthquake, a fire, perhaps his own expectations about how God would speak, etc.) in order to finally, finally hear what God was actually saying.

To find silence—the place in which we just might hear something in our truest self—we must persist, we must endure, we must cultivate silence.

KW: How do you articulate the relationship between our practicing the disciplines and our growth into spiritual maturity and likeness to Christ?

MY: I mentioned a bit of this above in an earlier question, but it seems to me that Spiritual Practices are a way of habituating and patterning our lives in such a way that we are regularly invited to depend not on our own abilities, but rather to come into the presence of God and be shaped and formed by the Spirit who is at work to bring us “into conformity with the image of the Son” (see Romans 8:29).

And yet, the fascinating invitation in the New Testament seems to be that we are invited to “co-labor” (ie: 2 Corinthians 6:1, where Paul uses the word syn+ergoi in the Greek, which is where we get our English word “synergy” from) with God, that is, to partner “synergistically” with God in the work that God is doing.

We see Paul exhorting Christians to this kind of “synergistic participation” with God’s work in other places as well, such as in Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi where he exhorts Christians to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling because God is at work in you” (see Philippians 2:12-13).

Two helpful distinction are often drawn upon by theologians at this point: the distinction between “justification” and “sanctification” (“justification” is the process by which we are brought into right relationship with God, and “sanctification” is the process by which we become more fully who we were created to be) and also the distinction between something being “sufficient” for something else to happen versus something being “necessary” for something else to happen (something that is “sufficient” is able to bring about the other thing on its own, whereas something that is “necessary” is needed for the other thing to come about, but is incapable of bringing it about on its own. For example, picture a sailboat: the sailboat’s sails are necessary for the boat to move, but not sufficient if there is no wind).

Bringing these two distinctions together, it seems that the Scriptures and the bulk of Christian Theology affirm that while human activity is insufficient to accomplish either justification or sanctification (that is, that humans will never be able to make themselves right with God, or to make themselves into what they were created to be) human activity is—in normal circumstances, anyway—a necessary part of the process of sanctification (that is: God does not force us against our will to become the people we have been created to be).

We are not simply forced by God to become who we were created to be against our will. Rather, God invites us, empowers us to live “life in all its fullness” (John 10:10) that we were created for.

KW: What is your greatest desire for those who choose to read The Sacred Year? 

MY: I think I have two specific desires for those who read The Sacred Year. I begin the book with one of my favorite quotes, from Elizabeth Barrett Browning: “Earth’s crammed with heaven / And every common bush afire with God; / But only he who sees, takes off his shoes.”

That would be my first desire: that people who read The Sacred Year would begin to “take off their shoes,” that is, “to practice the presence of God” as Brother Lawrence taught us to do, to begin to notice more of the innumerable ways in which God is at work to draw us more deeply into his love, all the ways God is inviting us to become more of who we were created to be, and to participate synergistically with what God is at work to do in our world.

And secondly, I would say that I hope that people who read The Sacred Year are encouraged not just to believe Christianity (while that is certainly important), but to live in a particular way because of their belief. That’s what I was trying to get at above about the relationship between orthodoxy and orthopraxy: we are invited and empowered to live in a particular way because of our faith in Christ, to be a particular kind of people because of the hope that we profess. I would say that my second hope is an enduring hope that those who read The Sacred Year will find themselves encouraged to pursue more fully, more adamantly, more joyfully what Eugene Peterson calls this “long obedience in the same direction” that is the Christian Life.

[1] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 192. Google Books Link: http://bit.ly/1qG19L6



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