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Three Forms of Spirituality in the Reform Tradition

by Fabian Clavairoly

translated by Sara MacVane


Rabbi Israël de Rijine told his students: When my teacher, Bal Chem Tov, had a difficult question to answer, or when he couldn’t find a solution to some painful situation facing the Jewish people, he would go off to a particular place in the forest and build a fire, always in the same way, and then say a prayer. This helped him a great deal, and every time, there was a miracle, and the Jews were saved.


A generation later, his student, Maguid de Mézéritch also faced some serious problems. He remembered what his teacher had done, and he also went off to the forest. He no longer knew how to build the fire, but he said: “Lord, I don’t know any more how to build the fire, but I do know the prayer;” And then the miracle took place.


Then, after still another generation, Rabbi Moshe Lev de Sassov went into the forest. He didn’t know how to build a fire and he no longer knew the prayer, but he said: “I do know the spot, and that should be enough.” And the miracle took place.


Then it was Rabbi Israel de Rijine’s turn to be faced with a big problem. He sat down in his arm chair, took his head between his hands and said: “As for me, Lord, I don’t know where this forest is, I don’t know how to build a fire, I don’t know the prayer, nor what it was about. All that I do know is how to tell this story, and that should be enough …”


And the Lord heard his prayer and the miracle took place.


This story in Victor Malka’s book Petites étincelles de sagesse juives (‘Little Sparks of Jewish Wisdom’ Alban Michel, 2007) is about Jews. However many Protestants can also identify with it, because it illustrates different relationships to spirituality which also became part of our own tradition as it developed. Today we can say that Protestants have an individual relationship with God, but we may also claim that Protestant spirituality can remain intact even where there is no formal spiritual framework. The churches of the Reform tend to emphasize the theology and the social and cultural aspects of the Reform, to the often to the neglect its spiritual context.


Undoubtedly today, in part from an uneasiness with excess spirituality, the faith of the Reform tends to be discrete, modest. So the question of spirituality is very relevant, as some people ask what place spirituality has or might have in their lives; what examples or models do they have, which experiences and practices belong legitimately to their tradition.


The term spirituality is often used today to cover several rather different realities and it proves usefully imprecise to those who are themselves rather imprecise. However, we might notice that there are certain similarities in the questions about spirituality which are asked of the church by those who are interested in the church, even though they are not members, and the questions asked by parishioners. These similarities are present in three types of questions:


A question about time:

As our contemporary ways of life seem to speed up, as professional pressures increase and information overwhelms us, our perception of time swiftly passing by causes us pain. When can we stop or pause for a moment? Spirituality offers us the possibility of listening – first to ourselves and then to the Other.

A question about money:

Since spirituality comes free of charge, it inhabits a very rare space where the market economy doesn’t hold true. In our time, when everything has a price, spiritualty offers us a place where everyone is welcome, whatever his or her status.


A question about our relationship to others:

At that point where our life in the community and our interior life meet, we often live solitude as a failure, but our spirituality allows us to think about the relationship between ourselves and others. It offers us a moment in which dialogue may occur: dialogue with ourselves, with others, and with God.


Through these three faces of the prism, we may ask whether the church is able to respond to precise contemporary expectations. How will it manage?


Unfortunately, since today we are in the situation of someone in search of spirituality wants to pray, but finds it very difficult to do that for sociological or even for theological reasons. (after Jacques Ellul, L’impossible prière, Le Centurion, Paris, 1971).


I want to offer three forms of spirituality in the Reform tradition which can respond to these expectations or needs.


  1. A spirituality of the Word

In the Protestant tradition, preaching is very important. Interpretation of the Bible is an important part of the service. Even today people expect good preaching and it certainly cannot be neglected. Also the training of pastors and of the lay people who work for the church is very important, and it isn’t limited to what they do on Sundays. Their commitment includes work in the local community and also their work with young people, who are free-spirited and often critical of Biblical texts.


  1. A spirituality of music

Since the very beginning of the Reform and the consequent renewal of religious practices, music and song have played a very important role, because of their pedagogical value. The belief that faith begins with what we hear gives special value to the Word, which comes to us in song and in preaching. Both contribute to praise, to teaching, and to our knowledge of the Bible. Song is part of the everyday life of the faithful, especially through well-known melodies. We should keep this tradition of music alive, music which people understand and like.


  1. A worldly and incarnational spirituality

Greek culture valued contemplation and considered work a misfortune. But in contrast to this, the Bible considers

Work to be of value. We were created, according to Calvin, “to do something”, to continue God’s creative work and make a society which promotes the good of everyone. Work in the family and in our jobs is a godly vocation. In his letter to the Christians in Rome, Paul speaks about a “living sacrifice”, and Calvin uses this passage to say that in the Reform service, the sacrifice is accomplished in the whole of existence itself, which serves as the “host” in Holy Communion. For Calvin, the true Mass was ordinary life, the daily life a Christian, offered to God.


The need of a spiritual life is a challenge to the church today. At the same time, the Word, music, and the ways in which we make sense of our daily lives help us to answer those people who long for a spiritual life. To all those people who do not know where the forest is, nor how to build a fire, nor the prayer nor its meaning, we can nonetheless tell a story, and that should be enough.







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À propos Gilles

a été pasteur à Amsterdam et en Région parisienne. Il s’est toujours intéressé à la présence de l’Évangile aux marges de l’Église. Il anime depuis 17 ans le site Internet Protestants dans la ville.

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