In a recent interview with The New York Times, writer Anna Holmes recalled a “withering note from a professor” who had given her a C- for the sin of writing in the first-person. “The I tends to crowd out everything else,” he scolded.
As writers, we learn early to beware the intruding I, which can easily fall into a mechanical repetition: I went. I saw. I liked. Worse, I trips easily into self-indulgence. In writing, as in life, it’s good that we’re warned against the heavy-footed “I.”
In The Making of an Ordinary Saint: My Journey from Frustration to Joy with the Spiritual Disciplines (Baker Books), Nathan Foster handles his “I” with a good deal of grace. On the brink of an existential crisis, Foster (a social worker) forswears buying a red convertible, deciding instead to “go saint.” What he envisions as a yearlong experiment with the 12 spiritual disciplines introduced by his father, Richard Foster, in the classic 1978 book Celebration of Discipline, turns into four. In the process, his efforts at spiritual practice travel the distance from “frustration to joy.”
In the opening chapter, “Submission,” Foster introduces us to “drafting,” and it becomes an apt metaphor for the book. “Drafting,” he writes, “is when two or more cyclists ride inches behind each other, creating a sort of wind tunnel.” On a grueling 224-mile ride—when “Mother Nature brooded from every direction, wobbling my flimsy cycle back and forth”—Foster abandons his hesitations about riding so closely in a group and submits himself to the “boredom of the paceline.” Although he didn’t “expect to find a way to actively practice a spiritual discipline in the windy, scorched Ohio farmland,” spiritual practices keep finding Foster in unexpected places.
With the exception of having a famous father, Foster is as “ordinary” as the book’s title suggests, and readers draft behind him in recognizable winds: the challenges of marriage and parenting, career ambitions (and jealousies), self-doubt, accumulated regrets. There’s no patronizing sense that Foster’s got a thing (or 400) to teach us. Instead, functioning as a wilderness guide into the “presence and longing” required for spiritual maturity, Foster writes with humor and humility, earnestness and consistent courage. The sheer beauty of this kind of “ordinary” spiritual life is the unexpected progress it makes. “Like watching a little seed, [we] don’t necessarily notice any sprouting, and then one day the forest is alive.”
For all the engaging introspection of Foster’s I, however, he neglects the church’s role in spiritual growth and health. Early in the book, he notes, “I have next to no expectation of church facilitating a space for me to connect with God.” Later, he admits that “through this project, the exact practice of each discipline was surprisingly turning out to be something highly individualized.” With some exceptions, Foster formulates his spiritual journey as a solo ride.
I wanted Foster to nudge me, with more faith and hope, into an imaginative vision of “drafting” in the communion of the saints. He aptly argues that spiritual practices form virtues in us, training us to do what is right. As well, he recognizes our “habit of sabotaging good” in our lives, illustrating the importance of the disciplines for ordering our desires. We must be taught to love the lovely.
I grant how the church is hard to love, how we could prefer to do without her company. But if spiritual practices form us, they don’t form us in a relational vacuum. They also inform our broader view of human flourishing, teaching us how to love and serve one another.
We need the church to become spiritually mature. Or, at the very least, we must learn to need it.
Jen Pollock Michel is the author of Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition and the Life of Faith (InterVarsity Press).
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