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Clearing the Path: A Review of On the Spiritual Disciplines

After production for All the Wrecked Light wrapped up in the spring, I took an excurses of sorts from writing projects of my own to take on graduate studies in Biblical languages. I’ve spent enough time in Koine Greek already that moving through the New Testament feels familiar, though I still certainly have a distance to go. But Hebrew is an entirely different matter.

For those of you who have studied Hebrew, you know as well as I’m learning that Hebrew doesn’t move the way English (or Greek or Latin or any of the western Romance languages) moves. And I don’t just mean reading from right to left.

I mean navigating the Masoretic vowel overlay beneath the original consonants. I mean how immaculately condensed the language is – how a single word can operate as a full sentence, complete with modifiers, with suffixes and prefixes stacking parts of speech like an Ancient Near Eastern sub sandwich. I mean how idiomatic adjectives and possessive constructs sound to the English ear—not to mention how the spoken syllables themselves sound in my English throat.

For the first time in my educational journey, I feel as though I’m carving out completely new pathways through my brain. It feels like the newest, strangest, most “from-scratch” thing I’ve ever done. Since preschool, I’ve been navigating the world through a Western sense, and Latin and Greek served to broaden already paved and lamplit streets. Often what seemed foreign at first brush is the same old concept under a different name – like Kroger taking the name King Soopers when you drive west.

But the last few months have left me working my way through a jungle, chopping down vines and clearing millennia-thick undergrowth with the hope that there are sidewalks down there somewhere. And you know what? I know there must be because entire cultures have walked them before. Hebrew has been and still is a native tongue. And thousands of other English speakers have walked those paths too. So how do I clear down to the pavement?

Like any jungle explorer, I need a machete. (I’ve always wanted to write a sentence like that.) I need the right tools. And so it is that this semester has become just as much an exercise in finding the tools as it has been in learning Hebrew itself. I’ve been learning anew – and better than ever before – how to study, to come to know a difficult concept, to memorize and translate and analyze and reflect. I’m learning the points at which I reach my cognitive load, and how to not waste time trying to push past it. I’m learning when caffeine helps my brain run hyper-efficiently – locomotive style – and when it just causes me to blow smoke. I’m learning that I memorize paradigms best in the early morning and vocabulary best at night. I’m color-coding everything, summarizing every lesson onto a single page, and taking breaks to run and lift weights and eat protein when I need it. I’m learning to work smarter. And you know what? Slowly but surely, I’m learning Hebrew along the way.

The idea that this whole Hebrew business is the newest, strangest, most from-scratch thing I’ve ever done is not quite true. There’s one other thing I can think of that rivals the foreignness of Hebrew, and that is faith.

What are our tools, then? How do we practice those things, day in and day out, that lead us machete-style down the path of faith? Hannah Hubin

Faith isn’t a natural thing for, well, I daresay any of us broken folk. This whole believing-in-what-I-can’t-see thing runs against the grain of how I go about life. But, like learning Hebrew, I know it’s possible. That’s not in the sense of self-help, performance psychology, but in the sense of Moses’s words, a mere four chapters before his death: “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.” What a great and precious promise.

What are our tools, then? How do we practice those things, day in and day out, that lead us machete-style down the path of faith?

My philosophy professor from my undergraduate days, Brandon Spun, recently wrote what has become one of the best treasures of this past year for me: a little companion guide, with short, categorized topics on wide-margined pages: On the Spiritual Disciplines: An Introduction to Christian Practice. And that is exactly what it is.

The book is a combination of explanation and application. Spun opens with a discussion on the spiritual life and the human life, one and the same. He explains all spiritual disciplines as a form of prayer and all prayer as “the raising up of our minds to sonship.” He goes on to put flesh on these conceptual bones, with suggestions for ways of meditating on Scripture, collections of prayer and liturgies useful for different times and dispositions, and discussions on everything from the liturgical calendar and the examen to sleep, fasting, and acts of service.

The book is part anthology of Scripture and tradition, part commentary, and part instruction manual—all written in a humble, helpful tone. All throughout, Spun transcends the stickier denominational divisions and sticks close to orthodox Christianity and Scripture. As I read, I found myself matching the tools with the tasks, finding which practices suit me best in this season and which I will keep at hand for obstacles further down the road. And, perhaps most importantly, I found myself excited to be so equipped by the Lord’s kindness. Just as promised, Christ did not leave us without a Helper.

The book wasn’t written as a dissertation, a daily devotional, or a lengthy theological tome carefully crafted for running in a best seller’s list, although I think it deserves it. In truth, Spun wrote it as a help to his children, and he’s given us the privilege of reading along.

Whatever other jungles you’re facing as you look into 2023, clearing a little further down the path of faith is going to be one of them. I encourage you to go forward with tools—good ones, sharp ones, used in the proper places and moments. And when you reach an impasse, remember that there are folks around, like Spun, who can help us remember the tools we’ve forgotten we have.

[Note: Brandon Spun’s On the Spiritual Disciplines: An Introduction to Christian Practice is available here.]


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