An Interview with Dr. Sara Schumacher

Sara Schumacher is the author of Reimagining the Spiritual Disciplines for a Digital Age, and a dean, tutor, and lecturer in theology and the arts at St. Mellitus College in London. On a recent episode of The Living Church Podcast, she discussed the spiritual disciplines with TLC’s Amber Noel. Here are excerpts of that conversation.

What is a spiritual discipline? What are the primary goals of a spiritual discipline?

The spiritual disciplines put us into the way of the Spirit. They are the practices, handed down through the tradition of the Church, found in Scripture, that Christians have participated in and practiced individually and corporately, to be conformed into the image and likeness of Christ.

How are the spiritual disciplines most apt to be frustrated in our age?

The first thing that comes to mind is attention — attention to God. The distraction of digital technology, and the fact that our attention is the commodity of digital technology, that app developers need it in order to make money, is a particular challenge. Our attention to God has always been under threat.

In your booklet, you focus on three spiritual disciplines: solitude, simplicity, and Sabbath. After a year of being in and out of lockdown, how is solitude different from loneliness or isolation?

Solitude is about creating space, and I think it’s also about creating time. What it means is that when you create that space, that space is then able to be filled with the presence of the Spirit as the other disciplines are practiced. And that’s where I’ve come to learn the difference between solitude and loneliness. For me, loneliness feels like an empty space. There’s this space around you, but it’s an emptiness.

I ended up four months on my own in lockdown because both of my flatmates ended up stuck in their respective countries of origin. And there were times of solitude, but by the grace of God I didn’t feel loneliness. There was a quality to my solitude, there was a fullness to my solitude, and it was like I wasn’t alone. This is why people can be lonely even when they’re surrounded by other people. The loneliness is there because there’s a diminished quality to the relationships even with those that are around. And there’s something in solitude, as that space is created, as we commune with God, in which we know we’re not alone.

So how does this specifically relate to digital technology, in the life of the Church as well as in the lives of individual Christians?

When we practice solitude as individuals — if in solitude we become attentive to God, attentive to ourselves — we then become attentive to others, which is where the individual then turns to the building up of the body of Christ. We are called to care for one another, to love our brothers and sisters. The corresponding outworking of practicing solitude as an individual leads us to loving and caring and responding attentively, carefully, and wisely to those God has put around us. But then that affects how we live in the world, because we also then become attentive to “Who is my neighbor?” Because I am letting my mind and heart be conformed into Christlikeness, it starts with an individual practice, but then ends in having ecclesial and missional implications.

Do we need to impose disciplines or fasts on ourselves, like a cleanse, when it comes to the use of digital technologies in worship these days? Like one service a month, where we don’t stream, for example? One service a month we might worship “the old fashioned way,” and for those who can’t come, we’ll feel that loss, we’ll pray for them, but we will practice a kind of solitude, camera-free?

I think that’s a really interesting idea. It made me think that the one place I’ve experienced a collective solitude, not so much from cameras but from our phones, is the cinema. There’s an advert at the beginning of the film that says something like, “Please switch off your phones, and enter into the wonderful world of the cinema.” And people obey. Clearly, we are capable of collective solitude. And when we come together to worship God, we are collectively coming into his presence. And surely that is worthy of switching our phones off and being fully attentive and present to him and to each other. But yet we don’t seem to have either the courage to do that, or, dare I say, the imagination, to believe that what we’re going to experience in that space is worthy of such action. I think a collective commitment is something really interesting to explore.

What does a life lived simply look like, in terms of spiritual discipline?

Simplicity is about learning to let go. It’s letting go so that we can grasp onto that which is most important. “Seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be added unto you.” I think that verse is marking what the life of simplicity is. It forces us to interrogate: “What am I paying attention to? What am I holding to? What has become an inordinate attachment or addiction? What has been put into the place where God should be?” Simplicity starts with the interrogation of ourselves and what has taken hold. It is that seeking first, from which actions follow.

Simplicity is probably one of these things that might look very different in practice for different types of people. For some people, depending on where they are, a simple life in relation to technology actually may include quite a lot of use of it. For other people, simplicity may be minimal use, depending on what tempts them to seek that which is not God’s kingdom. Solitude is that “container discipline” that creates space, that helps me do that discerning work of what has become an addiction, what is deforming me.

We need to be constantly reviewing and discerning our use of technology. It’s very easy to slip into a duplicitous life. You can curate your life online, and you can quite easily deceive yourself.

Let’s talk about Sabbath. Sabbath is intentionally taking the space which God commands, and which our bodies demand, stopping, accepting our limitations, to reorient toward God, love God, and enjoy creation and other people. What risks to Sabbath have you seen, in relation to digital technology, over the course of the pandemic? And what returns to Sabbath have you seen?

The main risk to Sabbath in the pandemic was particularly related to technology, which very quickly became our only — or main — way out of our physical spaces — to work, to connect with friends and family, to be entertained. If Sabbath is about resting, accepting limitations, handing over control, the pandemic made it harder to believe that there was goodness in that resting, that there was something there in that resting. For so many people so much was being lost. And technology was the one thing to hold on to from normal life that we had all of a sudden stripped away.