Performance Improvement: Theological Reflections, Part 3
Ascetical theology: PI in spiritual practice
In the Christian tradition, there has been significant discussion of the doctrine of sanctification. Reflecting on our biblical heritage, we appreciate that sanctification is a gift of grace and a work of the Holy Spirit. At the same time, within our understanding of sanctification there is an important consideration of growth in grace. Thus, in baptism in the Episcopal Church parents are asked “Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?” Whether this growth is solely the work of the Spirit or involves some participation on the part of the believer, was itself an issue for discussion and disagreement from the Reformation forward. However, the position that we participate in sanctification, working with the Spirit working in us to conform ourselves to Christ, is well attested in the Christian faith.
From the question of entry into the Christian life, we proceed to that of growth and progress in it; or in the traditional language, from justification to sanctification. Again, however, we are not to think of a sharp separation, but rather only of distinguishable aspects of a unitary process. Also, we are still to think in terms of a work that is initiated and carried through by God working in human lives, and yet a work which needs man’s response, cooperation, and highest effort if it is to go forward.
Our participation we commonly call our spirituality, “the process of learning by which the disciple becomes more proficient in the Christian life and advances along the way of sanctification”.
While this understanding is primarily associated with the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican traditions, it is also seen in Protestantism,. Luther maintained that sanctification, like justification, was solely by God’s grace. At the same time, he also understood that it brought about changes in behavior, changes that both engendered and reflected growth in grace.
He also sanctifies the Christians in the body and induces in them willingly to obey parents and rulers, to conduct themselves peacefully and humbly, to be not wrathful, vindictive, or malicious, but patient, friendly, obliging, brotherly and loving not unchaste, not adulterous or lewd, but chaste and pure with wife, child, and servants, or without wife and child. That is the work of the Holy Spirit, who sanctifies and also awakens the body to such a new life until it is perfected in the life beyond.
This sense of growth is particularly evident in the ascetical traditions. While the consequences of spiritual discipline are clearly the results of God’s grace, there is an effort in the spiritual life to conform oneself to God’s will, and for the Christian, to Christ. An important experience in this pursuit of God is traditionally described as “the way of purgation”, an effort to purify and reform oneself. As Evelyn Underhill describes it,
It is the drastic turning of the self from the unreal to the real life: a setting of her house in order, an orientation of the mind to Truth. Its business is the getting rid, first of self-love; and secondly of all those foolish interests in which the surface-consciousness is steeped.
This is an active and not a passive process. It requires both detachment and mortification. These are technical terms. Detachment is the capacity to step away from previous conceptions and misperception for an accurate perspective on oneself and one’s experience. For the Christian mystic, it is to focus first and primarily on Christ, and to see oneself and one’s experience in that light. “Poverty [of spirit, detachment], then, prepares man’s spirit for that union with God to which it aspires. She strips off the clothing which he so often mistakes or himself, tranvaluates all his values, and shows him things as they are”.
Mortification follows upon detachment as action follows upon assessment. Mortiifcation “is to be understood [as] the positive aspect of purification: the remaking in relation to reality of the permanent elements of character."
That is to say, the mystic life has got to express itself in action: and for this new paths must be cut and new habits formed – all, in spite of the new self’s enthusiasm, ‘against the grain’ – resulting in a complete sublimation of the personality. The energy which wells up incessantly in every living being must abandon the old road of least resistance and discharge itself in a new and more difficult way.
This change is difficult, and even frightening. “Nevertheless, in spite of its etymological associations, the object of mortification is not death but life: the production of health and strength….” Thus, the purgative way, as a part of the spiritual life, is a process of seeing oneself realistically in light of the image of God, and, for the Christian, the model of Christ; and making the appropriate changes in one’s life that bring one more and more into congruity and conformation to the model.
This radical language is similar to the performance improvement method of reengineering. Unlike the more incremental approach of CQI, reengineering calls for a review of an institution that allows for all systems to be evaluated in light of the organization’s goals. As a result of that evaluation, existing systems may be eliminated entirely. Instead of being modified for improvement, systems are completely redesigned and replaced. However, the purpose remains the same; more effective efforts toward institutional norms and goals.
One arena in which this is lived out personally and sacramentally is the sacrament of Penance or Confession. The experience of the sacrament for the penitent reiterates this process of analysis leading to change. The penitent begins by stating the sins for which he or she seeks forgiveness, and accuracy of this presentation is important. The priest functions at this point in consultation, helping the penitent explore the events presented, seeking again a broader and more thorough perspective. While the priest is then empowered to pronounce God’s act of absolution, there is an expectation of spiritual counsel from the priest and amendment of life from the penitent. That is, the expectation that the penitent will behave differently is central to the understanding of the sacrament. The Roman Catholic tradition of regular and frequent confession increases in some ways the parallels between the sacrament and the process of CQI.
 The Book of Common Prayer According to the use of The Episcopal Church (New York: Oxford University Press), 302.
 John Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology (New York: Charles Scribners and Sons, 1977), 344.
 Ibid., 497-98
 Martin Luther, Luther’s Works: Church and Ministry III (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 146.
 Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism (New York: E.P. Dutton and Col, 1961), 204.
 Ibid., 208.
 Ibid., 216.
 Ibid., 217.
Next: PI/QI and CPE