Sometimes, I believe, the best books we can read to support our spiritual discipline are books that do not appear to be “spiritual” at all. Here’s a case in point. I recently stumbled across a new line of business books by a fellow named Jim Randel; the series is called “the skinny on” — they’re a bit high on the cutesy quotient, using stick figures (get the “skinny” pun?) and humor to build a narrative around the topic of each book. But they’re quick reads, and present a straightforward approach to concepts that anyone seeking to get ahead in their career will find valuable — how to manage your time… how to focus your will… how to set and achieve goals… how to communicate your ideas effectively. I picked up these books thinking they would be inspirational for me on a professional level, and they were certainly worth the time I invested in them. But what I didn’t expect was how relevant each of these topics were to the challenge of fostering a sustained spiritual practice.
On one level, this may seem counterintuitive. Business books are about setting and achieving goals, cultivating ambition, striving for the prize. Contemplation — well, that’s about obedience, and humility, and self-forgetfulness. How can these two entirely different sets of goals be woven together?
A good question, but not hard to answer. Consider the old feminist joke: “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards while wearing heels.” Contemplative Christianity operates with the clear recognition that God is in control, God calls the shots, God leads the dance. We, meanwhile, need to learn how to gracefully follow. Our sinfulness, our resistance to spiritual growth, is the mystical equivalent of being saddled with “high heels.” So we have to overcome our resistance, allow God to take the lead, and then put our own effort into being present and available for the joyous dance we are called to dance.
So that’s where the “skinny” books come in. When I’ve taught classes or conducted retreats, the single most common complaint I hear about a spiritual practice involves finding the time to make it happen. That’s where focusing on time management comes in. The corollary to this is the question of perseverance: how to foster the discipline to keep a spiritual practice going, once it’s been started. Here’s where willpower becomes important. Finally, having a clear sense of the “goal” (continual conversion into the love and joy and peace of Christ, etc.) and recognizing the steps necessary to reach that “goal” (participation in the sacramental life, lectio divina, contemplative prayer, spiritual direction, etc.) are all key elements to fostering a “successful” contemplative practice. Even the “art of persuasion” applies, since a contemplative must be “persuaded” of the value and importance of his or her practice.
I couldn’t help but put words like “goal” and “successful” in quotation marks, because the tension between worldly ambition and spiritual surrender remains. I don’t suppose that business books will ever replace inspirational or mystical writing for those of us seeking to cultivate a closer relationship with God — just as it seems a bit out of kilter to think about “success” or “setting and achieving goals” when it comes to meeting and courting one’s spouse. Still, the reality of finding time every day to pray, learning to overcome resistance, dealing with setbacks (such as temporary interruptions to the routine), and establishing a positive habit of practicing the presence of God… these down-to-earth objectives of a mature and adult spiritual life just might benefit from the insights of my “skinny” friends.