I've had a number of occasions just lately when I've been asked to talk to groups about what have been called "disciplines" for a lively faith, for staying alert to God's presence in our lives. Listening to myself, and to the questions I hear, I am aware that we need to remember WHY we seek to practice things like prayer, scripture reading, hospitality, sabbath-keeping, service, etc. It is NOT in order to "make ourselves better people". It is to respond to the grace and goodness of God that has already come into our lives. When we say that a way of prayer "isn't working" for us -- we may mean that it makes us feel bad about ourselves, or that it isn't giving us a pleasant and welcome experience of God -- or perhaps that it is distracting us from other good things that we believe deserve or demand our time attention.
So I want to remind myself and others that spiritual practices, creating what the monastics call a "rule" of life -- is NOT for the purpose of "self-improvement." It's rather for the purpose of making us available to the God who loves us in a world where it's pretty easy to get distracted. I'm trying out some categories to think about when I or anyone else begins to reflect on their yearning for spiritual practices that will make us more open to God. And here are some of them:
1. SOME way of regularly "showing up" with God -- Evelyn Underhill calls for "a definite time set apart" sometime during the day -- just on waking or just on sleeping -- some people spend a large chunk of time reading Scripture or a set prayer ritual; others remember to greet the day with a prayer and end the day with reflection on "Where I've seen You/ Where I've missed you." Too many people, however, resist the concept of "showing up" regularly because there seems to be a "right" way of doing it that they can't do: I'd frame it differently then: What practices in your life enable you to "show up" regularly and intentionally for God, in more or less the same time & place, regularly (my link on this blog on "practical suggestions for daily prayer" can help with this but is not an exhaustive list.
2. SOME way of "practicing the presence of God" as we walk through our lives: many people practice a kind of walking/talking prayer, where they think of God while moving, enter a conversation. I hear many speak of times in the car or other times of solitude when they're aware of the presence of God. Watching for beauty in life, being aware of how God speaks to us through daily encounters -- these are all practices that help us toward the goal that Paul counsels, to "pray without ceasing" -- to live in such a way that prayer is a "natural" part of ongoing life. I think many people find this easier than the first practice ("showing up") - I think both are important if we are seeking to be more and more available to a God who is always reaching out to us in love.
A third practice -- and there are lots of ways to approach this -- is to be aware of where we find joy, and nourish those areas of life, and be aware when they're not being nourished. "Making and Moving" go in this category: Making things, exercising our creativity; Moving our bodies so that we are aware of the gifts of life and health. Attention to what is strong and good in our humanness leads us to prayers of thanksgiving to the One who made us. If we are losing track of joy, why is that? What's getting in the way.
A fourth practice, related to this: The Fourth Commandment ("Remember the Sabbath") -- God works for 6 days and rests on the 7th day. The commandment to remember the sabbath is really a reminder that finding balance in our lives between work and rest is an essential part of a lively spiritual life. If we are too tired because we're working too hard (or if we find ourselves "wasting time" because we're just burned out on work that isn't going anywhere -- it may be a sign that it's time to look at the balance between work, rest, and prayer in our lives.
The purpose of all of this is not to make us better but to help us become who we most fully are, so that we can be of use to the God who is in the process of transforming the world, and desires our participation in that work, as the people we are. "The joy of God is the human being fully alive" wrote the Church Father Irenaus of Lyons. Prayer and spiritual discipline are meant to move us toward fulness of life.
The challenge that comes with adopting a regular spiritual practice is it always brings us up against our own inadequacies - we feel guilty or frustrated because we don't "feel like praying" one day, or our efforts to turn to God are disrupted by distraction or the millions of other demands we have in our lives. And we give up because it makes us feel bad. We want to have a "spiritual life" next to all the other things we do in our lives -- but in reality, a spiritual life is lived out in the midst of everything else, and developing an intentional practice helps us to track that.
I've been reading in Evelyn Underhill's retreats - and was stopped by the place where she points out that almost always in Scripture, when someone experiences a true encounter with the living God their first reaction is "depart from me, for I am a sinful man" (Peter in Luke 5) or "Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips" (Isaiah 6) -- Maybe we avoid opening ourselves to the possibility of encountering the Living God in our lives because we fear that sense of inadequacy. But Underhill says that the point is to acknowledge that inadequacy and move on - because the next stage in the story is always God MAKING the person called worthy of and adequate to whatever they are called to do. I think sometimes dwelling on our failures at prayer and saying "I just can't do that" is really an avoidance of the relationship that's being invited, where we say "I don't seem to be able to do this - but God will help me if this is what I'm supposed to do."
Spiritual practices remind us of our connection with a mystery much larger than ourselves and invite us to get out of ourselves and pay attention to those around us and to the way God is working in our lives and communities. They remind us of two items of Good news: 1) that we are not God, and 2) that God is with us, and loves us, despite our inadequacies. When we feel inadequate or ashamed, we can ask for mercy - just say "I can't do this alone." And that mercy will come. I think many of us miss out on this experience of grace because we are afraid of "failing" at a regular spiritual practice. But the desire to pray is the thing to nourish -- everything else will follow from that.
Those are my still-developing thoughts on why spiritual practices are a good thing and a gift.
- Kathleen Henderson Staudt
- I work as a teacher, poet and spiritual director at a number of institutions in the DC area. My teaching focuses in various ways on writing, poetry, Spirituality and Christian vocation and ministry - especially from the point of view of the laity. I also offer classes and retreats encouraging people to explore their inner lives, engage their creativity and reflect on their beliefs about God, vocation, and how we can discern and pursue new ways to transform our broken world. I enjoy speaking of faith in the secular academy as well as reminding those preparing for ministry in the Church that our primary purpose is to love and serve the world beyond the church's doors. I love helping people to grow in faith and to find their own voices, and I also love encouraging them to use their minds. I see no contradiction between these impulses, believing as I do that faith, reason and creativity work together.