Seven pitfalls to avoid
In his guide to Celebration, Foster lists seven common pitfalls to studying these disciplines. They're worth noting:
1)The temptation to turn the Disciplines into law - "you must do this or you will fail [or not be good enough for God's love, or whatever]."
2)The failure to understand the social motivation for the Disciplines. Foster says that these "are not a set of pious exercises for the devout, but a trumpet call to obedient living in a sin-wracked world."
3)The tendency to view the Disciplines as virtuous in themselves. This is one of those Pharisee-like views - that somehow studying (and practicing) these disciplines somehow "earn us brownie points with God." These practices simply help us place ourselves before God.
4)The tendency to focus on the Disciplines, rather than on Christ.
5)The temptation to elevate one discipline over another; that meditation is more important than fasting, fasting is more "pure" than solitude, etc. This also extends to the idea that if I get the practice of one discipline "down pat," I've done all I needed to do.
6)The tendency to believe that these 12 disciplines are the exhaustive list of all spiritual disciplines. There are many ways in which people throughout the ages have found to enhance their devotional lives; Foster suggests these practices simply as a general overview of the "top 12" of spiritual disciplines over the last two millenia of Christian practice.
7)The last one is the one Foster wants to warn us against the most: the tendency to spend time studying these spiritual disciplines, and not practicing them. This is very similar to what Nicky Gumbel (of the Alpha program) talks about owning a hot new foreign-made sports car. I can read the owner's manual all I like (even learn German or Japanese to appreciate the nuances in the original language!). I can highlight all the great bits about high-performance tuning and driving skills and such. But until I actually get in the car, turn the key and put it in gear, I've not done what the owner's manual was preparing me to do - to get in the car and drive.
Of course, it's dangerous to get out and drive. There are techniques I need to master. Perhaps I'll stall the car the first 10 times I try to let the clutch out. Perhaps I'll grind a gear or two. But it doesn't matter - because we are called to try, not to succeed on the first attempt. There is an element of fear here, as well, so Foster's words are helpful here:
To discuss the Disciplines in the abstract, to argue and debate their nature or validity - these activities we can carry out in comparative safety. But to step out into experience threatens us at the core of our being. And yet there is no other way. Prayerfully, slowly, perhaps with many fears and questions, we need to move into this adventurous life of the Spirit.To which I can only say, "Amen."