No one has summarized the “theories” of the Christian life any more succinctly than Richard Foster, in his textbook quality Streams of Living Water. He charts out six traditions, and I will look at each and how covenant path marking (aka, legalism) finds its way into each.
My prefatory remark for all of this: each of these traditions is valuable (I believe in each one) and each of them is good for us, and in saying that each can develop covenant path markers does not mean that they are to be de-valued. Nothing is further from the truth. What needs to be said, though, is this: the purpose of each is to lead us into union with God, communion with others, for the good of the world, and when that is not happening, the traditions are being misused or abused. Ultimately, this is an issue of “where our heart is” and our heart cannot be easily discerned or easily assigned. We need Spirit-led discernment to know.
The first is what he calls the Contemplative tradition, pointing to both classical and biblical examples. He uses Antony of Egypt and the Apostle John and Frank Laubach. His format is then to define the tradition (love, peace, delight, emptiness, fire, wisdom, transformation), discuss the strengths (fan the first flame, more then cerebral, prayer as primary, solitariness) and then the potential perils (separation, consuming asceticism, devalue intellectual, neglect of community). And then he suggests some practical steps for practicing the contemplative tradition: experiment, pray Scripture, practice leisurely silence).
So, how does this tradition end up with some covenant path marking?
Simply put, when any of the actions connected to the practice of contemplation are equated with or used to measure either one’s own or others’ spirituality, then it becomes covenant path marking. When I say, “She is not so spiritual because she never practices solitude” or that “I am particularly spiritual today because I have spent an hour in prayerful reading of Scripture” or “My Bible study is especially serious because we do lectio divina” then the actions are being misused. The antidote is not to stop them, but to do them aright: and to do them aright means to engage God directly, to love God, and to seek God.
Specifically, when solitude, contemplation, prayerful reading of Scripture, lectio divina, when any of these practices is used to measure spirituality for ourselves or for others, then it has become a system of covenant path marking.
Generally, we need to ask what happens as a consequence of these actions: am I becoming more loving and more holy and more compassionate or am I becoming more self-conscious or more self-congratulatory or more other-judgmental?
The purpose of contemplation is to get lost in the Wonder Who is God and to get lost in Others for the good of the world. Not just to be more “measurably spiritual.”