5 Things I Learned From Spiritual Greats

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5 Things I Learned From Spiritual Greats

            I have studied faith and discipleship from many people in my life. I have been lucky to study under some profound spiritual greats. I have been lucky enough to read and research extensively some of the great works of spirituality. I have also been lucky to converse with hundreds of pastors, spiritual leaders, and highly devout people throughout the world.

            Over the years, I have kept notes, research material, and even things people said scribbled on napkins. Recently I took time to peruse a lot of my material, thinking back upon the conversations, and noting the personal lives of those I have encountered.


Five things have really stood out and I want to share them with you now.

  1. 1
    Prayer and Scripture are key to Christian growth.
  2. 2
    The secret to great faith is contemplation.
  3. 3
    Rhythm is crucial.
  4. 4
    Retreats propel you onward.
  5. 5

1. Prayer and Scripture are key to Christian growth.

Prayer and reading scripture are staples of Christian growth. It seems that without a practice of praying and reading God’s word, people do not progress far in their Christian walk. The spiritual greats had robust prayer and bible study practices.

The prayer part is simple: Pray. Pray in whatever fashion you keep. Some Christian greats used prayer beads. Others pray the rosary. Some have a more relational conversation with God. Others used their faith group’s Book of Prayer. Regardless, they prayed. And prayed deeply and a lot.

The Scripture part is a bit more complex since there are so many approaches and understandings of what scripture or Bible study means. One great I know, dwelt on a single verse for weeks. Others use studies to help guide them. Some read only the Bible. But, at some level they all had an intentional method of reading and studying scripture.

2. The secret to great faith is contemplation.

The people who I consider holy people all spent time in contemplation. They dwelt upon God a lot.

Contemplation can be as simple as an extreme awareness of God in the world, in the lives of others, and/or in the ordinary activity of living. Contemplation can also be intentional time spent pondering on God.

Think of the little old lady you know who sits in her garden and meditates on the things of God. Thomas Merton used to get upset when someone would interrupt this kind of time for him. It was one of his favorite tasks. 

If you want to get close to God, really close, you have to spend a lot of time dwelling upon God.

3. Rhythm is crucial.

Most of the spiritual greats I know had a rhythm of life – a pattern of their day that they lived by as closely as possible. They had carved out time in their daily schedules set aside for a practice of their faith.
  -This hour is set aside for prayer.
  -This hour for Bible study.
  -This thirty minutes for contemplation.
  -The first thing I do is pray.
  -The last thing I do is pray.

They did not leave the development of their relationship with God to chance. Their spiritual disciplines were as much of their daily schedule as their work or family commitments. They placed the same amount of importance on spending time with God as they did in spending time with others.

Can you imagine telling someone, “Oh sorry, I can’t go there or do that because I already have a commitment to God.” That is exactly what many of the spiritual greats do. 

4. Retreats propel you onward.

Many of the spiritual greats participate in spiritual retreats. These retreats can take on different shapes and sizes. Some are programmed week-long events. Others are just a few days – a weekend perhaps. I have even seen a simple one-day-with-God event. Naturally, which one a person chooses will have a lot to do with schedules, family commitments, funding, and availability.

There are some people who develop their own retreats for their own benefit. In other words, they will set aside a few days, a week perhaps (I have seen a man do 6 months), where they devote that time to developing their faith and building their relationship with God. Some have a planned focus each day. Some have a book they want to read. Some simply go to be with God. But it is time they have set aside for the sole purpose to grow. 

5. Fasting. 

This last one is always interesting to present and see how it is received. Fasting sometimes frightens people because they are not familiar with what fasting is and why it is done. I am not going to explain that in this article. What I will say is that many of the spiritual greats had a routine practice of fasting. Fasting seems to help a person focus on God. It enables a person to acknowledge God in ways that having a full stomach does not allow.

Some fast weekly. Others fast monthly. Some only fast once a year. But they have a practice of fasting and believed it was an important part of building their relationship with God.

So, there you go: 5 things I have learned from spiritual greats.

What have you learned in your life about growing in faith? What works for you? Who have you learned it from? Who was that person and why did they impact your life so much?


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