Spirituality for everyone

We tend to think spirituality is like creativity—you either have it or you don’t. In fact, spirituality and creativity can both be developed and nurtured. The only thing needed is attention.

We all have spiritual thoughts, even though we may not categorize them as such. These are the thoughts of wonder you might have looking at your newborn son. Or the feeling of oneness you might feel as you connect with a character from a movie. People who consider themselves “spiritual” recognize these moments and honor them, maybe just pausing a few seconds to feel grateful to God or the universe at large.

Spiritual people also go the next step and seek out transcendent experiences. When was the last time you took a hike, read a poem, tinkered in your garden or played with children just for fun? Everyone has a different way of experiencing spirituality—that sense we are part of something bigger—in their lives. Could you incorporate more of these activities in your life? What would it look like, for example, to spend more time outside? Perhaps you only have time for a 15-minute stroll around the block after dinner. Or maybe you could keep a book of your favorite poems next to your bed to dip into from time to time.

We need food to grow spirituality and we need to make it easy for ourselves to access this food. This takes some intentionality and the more you incorporate life-giving activities, the more you will seek them out. Think of the last time, for instance, you enjoyed nature. Being among trees and disconnected from technology often restores us. It motivates us to do more of the same. Often, however, we get consumed by the urgent tasks of day-to-day life. It takes determination and active memory of the good times we’ve had to carve out those spiritually-sustaining moments.

Spirituality versus religion

These days the fastest-growing category of religion is the “spiritual but not religious.” These are people who seek to nurture their souls in ways that don’t involve organized religion. They may find sustenance in some of the ways mentioned above or in their yoga class or art practice. Maybe you identify with this. You are turned off by some of the hypocrisy in organized religion or just plain bored with church services. But organized religion is still flourishing in some places and its traditions have much to teach. Even those who don’t follow religion per se could adapt some of their meaningful traditions and rituals of ancient faiths into everyday life.

Weekly rituals. Growing up, my friend Camille observed the weekly Shabbat with her family. They gathered together every Friday night around the dining room table, where her father lit candles and said a prayer to welcome the beginning of the Sabbath. The practice lent meaning and rhythm to the week and reminded the family of their shared values. Anyone who happened to be in their home on a Friday night (including many times me!) was welcome to participate.

Back in 2015 I visited my friend Brian at his home in Massachusetts. It was April but it had recently snowed and everything was blanketed in a layer of white. I was interested in visiting the famous Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau lived and wrote his treatise on communing with nature. So Brian, his wife Cindy and I took a short drive and spent a morning walking around the pond (see photo below). We all loved the experience. Brian loved it so much that after I left, he made walking the pond a weekly ritual. He always thanks me for initiating that ritual, which became such an important part of his week. Brian is not “religious,” but his practice was just as spiritual as if he stayed home and prayed with candles.

Daily rituals. For a time I experimented with “praying the hours,” an ancient form of prayer in which set prayers are said three times a day. I enjoyed the beauty of the language and the discipline of stopping my activity and turning to God. As with many rituals, I eventually lost motivation and turned to something else. But that was OK. From time to time we need to change our behaviors to keep things fresh and our spirit alive.

These days I am practicing centering prayer each morning. Centering prayer is like meditation. You focus on a few words or a phrase for about 20 minutes and keep returning to those words when your mind wanders. I am finding centering prayer a challenge but also relaxing. It is satisfying to “turn off” my mind and “center” myself for a short time each morning.

• Life rituals. My cousin has created a row of stone markers in his garden. He took this idea from the Old Testament. For each major life event, like the birth of a child or completion of his doctoral degree, my cousin placed a stone to commemorate the event. I have another friend whose parents marked each New Year’s Eve by encouraging their children to write their hopes for the year and share them with each other. My friend has carried this tradition on to her own family.

The Old is New

It may be surprising for the non-religious, but many old faiths are in a time of renaissance, as people today rediscover old practices. This is the case with the growth of contemplative Christianity, as Christians today plumb their history to enjoy the writings of mystics like St. John of the Cross or St. Teresa or engage in centering prayer or walk a labyrinth.

I’ve discovered in contemplative Christianity an approach to faith that honors my imagination and creativity. In fact I decided to become a spiritual director so I could shepherd others down a path of more contemplative, reflective living. A spiritual director is a person trained to listen to others’ stories, especially around their spiritual life. The director helps the person discover the holy happenings in their life, to see where God has been present for them, and discuss spiritual practices. Directors usually meet with “directees” once a month for an hour. Most spiritual directors are Christians, but there are also Jewish and Buddhist directors. Many spiritual directors meet with people who are “spiritual, but not religious” or perhaps on the edges of a religion.

Spiritual direction is just one of the old practices people are rediscovering. Another favorite practice of mine is imaginative prayer. St. Ignatius first proposed imaginative prayer in the 16th century. In this type of prayer you typically read a passage of the Bible (often stories about Jesus) with your full imagination. You place yourself in the story, imagining the sights, sounds and smells of the passage. You pay attention to images that strike you and ask lots of questions. Typically, you read a passage slowly and several times. This practice is often done in groups and it’s remarkable how the same passage can be read and imagined in different ways by different people. The techniques of imaginative prayer don’t need to be limited to reading the Bible. They could be used in reading poetry or meditating on a piece of art. If you are interested in experiencing imaginative prayer, let me know and I can direct you a group doing this,

For more information about spiritual direction, check out the Spiritual Directors International web site (https://www.sdiworld.org/) and to learn more about contemplative Christianity, check out Contemplative Outreach (https://www.contemplativeoutreach.org). In addition, there are many wonderful retreat houses across the country that offer workshops and retreats focusing on contemplative practices. Many of these retreat houses are Catholic but are open to all.

It’s never too late to start a spiritual practice. It may change your life.

Exploring the mind-body connection

Do you have a favorite time of day? Maybe it’s looking forward to that first sip of coffee in the morning. Maybe it’s listening to your favorite song or podcast on the way home from work.

I have a few favorite times. One time is at the end of my day, maybe around 11:30 pm. That’s when I’m usually in bed, journal or book in hand, my Schnauzer cuddled up next to me. It’s also when my younger son TJ joins me, ostensibly to cuddle with the dog for a few minutes, but also for a little mom time and a back rub.

Not so many years ago TJ was a little boy and I would tuck him in his bed among his stuffed animals after reading to him. As he approached adolescence I knew those days were numbered and I became wistful that he’d no longer want that nighttime ritual. A few years later I did stop reading to TJ and instead he and his older brother Miguel simply chatted with each other as they fell asleep. Then, Miguel left for college and TJ felt alone in his big room. That’s when he started coming to me to hang out for a while before bedtime.

Mostly, our conversations revolve around the dog. Where is Romeo’s favorite place to be scratched? Is he putting on some weight? What does he dream about? In between, I read a few pages of a book and TJ looks at Reddit on his laptop. Every so often I’ll glance over in amazement at TJ’s lanky six-foot frame stretched out next to me. How did my little boy grow into this big man? Eventually, if TJ stays a long time, my husband will come in and kick him out. But he’s reluctant to interrupt our time together.

I thought of all this recently as I learned in my spiritual direction program the importance of engaging mind and body in spiritual practices. The times of hanging out with TJ before bedtime, being close physically and mentally, are almost spiritual experiences. It feels like time stops for a while. I get a sense of the transcendent in everyday life.

At my spiritual direction group this week one of the facilitators started our meeting by reminding us that it was holy week, the most important week of the Christian year. She asked us to pray holding our palms open and facing up, as a physical symbol of letting go of those things that were weighing on us. I thought of the many worries on my mind and the things I wanted to resolve. Then I thought of Jesus’ life. He only lived 33 years and, from a human perspective, that seems short. Think of how many more miracles he could have performed or sermons he could have given had he lived longer! Yet he lived a perfect life. As I sat in prayer, with my hands open, I asked God to release my striving to complete and resolve so many things. Our meeting continued on for several more hours, but that moment, with my palms turned up, was the most transcendent.

Lent and Easter can be a good time to remember the mind-body-spirit connection. For Lent we often give up something physical, like a certain food, to focus on the holy. This year, instead of giving something up, I added something healthy. A friend challenged me to walk to church instead of driving. Since the walk is only about 10 minutes, this wasn’t difficult. I just had to remember to give myself an extra 10 minutes to get to church. The extra walking felt good. I didn’t exactly pray during the walks but I found myself in a state of gratitude as I admired the neighbors’ blooming daffodils and tulip trees. I always paused at a small creek where I could hear the spring rains running by, down to the bay. One morning I saw a family of deer cross the street. I arrived at church on Sundays in a more contented, relaxed state. This is one Lenten practice I’ll hope to keep.

Last night I participated in our Maundy Thursday service, which culminated in a powerful mind-body-spirit experience—washing each other’s feet. We did this to commemorate Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, when he washed their feet to show his love toward them. I’ll admit I was a bit hesitant to wash another person’s feet and get my feet washed in return. My partner and I let a family with two small children go ahead of us in line. Surprisingly, or maybe not, the young children were eager to participate. They each had a turn in the chair, dangling their legs above the water bowl and eagerly leaning forward to get their feet washed. When that was done, they cried out, “I want to wash your feet Mommy! Can I do it, please!” It reminded me that kids aren’t self-conscious about their bodies. They can enter into an experience in a way adults often can’t—or can only through some effort. I wanted to be a bit more like those kids.

Today is Good Friday and I will once again go to church. It will be a somber service. The sanctuary will be dark except for a few candles that will be gradually snuffed out. At the end of the service we will take turns holding a heavy hammer and pounding nails into a large wooden cross. The sound of pounding will ring in my head for hours afterwards. I will remember Jesus’ short and perfect life. I will experience his suffering and death in a tiny way through the sights and sounds of the service. I would rather skip over this part of the story but I realize darkness and pain are part of our reality. I will attend this service, if not out of desire, then out of obedience to the truth of the whole story. And fortunately today isn’t the end of the story.

What will I remember of this Easter season? I may remember that this was a time when I saw more clearly the integration of mind, body and spirit. I will be thankful that I have many teachers of this lesson—my son, my spiritual direction group, friends and friends’ children. I will commit to living not just in one dimension, but in all my wholeness, slanting toward joy.

“I have the immense joy of being a [human being], a member of a race in which God became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” – Thomas Merton

Bienvenidos a mi blog! (for English version see next post)

Hola a todos. Estoy entrando en el mundo salvaje de los blogs! Voy a publicarlos de vez en cuando y espero que disfrutéis mis pensamientos y descubrimientos. Para inaugurar este espacio, me gustaría publicar este haiku hermoso de comenzar de nuevo:

ganjitsu ya
harete suzume no
monogatari

Día de Año Nuevo-
las nubes se han ido y los gorriones
están diciendo a cada uno de otros cuentos.

-Ransetsu (1653-1708)

A veces en la vida experimentamos coincidencias hermosas y uno de ellos es que mi buen amigo Leslie Wingender también puso en marcha un blog hace unos días! Leslie, muchas bendiciones mientras llenas su “casa rosa”: http://apinkhouse.com/. Me di cuenta que no tengo un nombre para mi blog aún: Si alguien tiene una sugerencia, estoy abierta!

También, muchas gracias a dos blogs fascinantes que he disfrutado recientemente y me han inspirado para dar el salto. Son http://www.kevindhendricks.com/ y http://ahuskofmeaning.com/. Ambos son lugares increíbles llenos de comentarios hermosos de todo, desde la espiritualidad del arte a la política.

Si alguien está leyendo esto hoy, domingo, 17 de julio 2011, tenga un maravilloso día de reposo! Estamos en lo que la iglesia dice que es “Tiempo Ordinario”, o tempus por año (el tiempo durante todo el año), el tiempo que queda fuera de los días santos de alta como Cuaresma, Pascua, Adviento y Navidad. Sin embargo, Tiempo Ordinario no es menos importante. Una persona escribe que el día del Tiempo Ordinario, especialmente los domingos, “están dedicados al misterio de Cristo en todos sus aspectos.” El color oficial del Tiempo Ordinario es el verde.

virtual fountain

Welcome to my blog

Hi everyone. I am entering the wild and wooly world of blogging! I will post occasional entries and hope you enjoy my random thoughts and discoveries. To inaugurate this space, I’d like to post this beautiful haiku about starting anew:

ganjitsu ya
harete suzume no
monogatari

New Year’s Day–
the clouds are gone and the sparrows
are telling each other tales.

–Ransetsu (1653-1708)

Sometimes in life we experience beautiful coincidences and one of those is that my good friend Leslie Wingender also started a blog a few days ago! Leslie, many blessings as you fill your “pink house”: http://apinkhouse.com/. I realized I don’t have a name for my blog yet: If anyone has a suggestion, I’m open!

Also, many thanks to two fascinating blogs that I’ve enjoyed recently and have inspired me to make the leap. They are http://www.kevindhendricks.com/ and http://ahuskofmeaning.com/. Both are incredible sites full of beautiful and insightful comments about everything from spirituality to art to politics.

If anyone is reading this today, Sunday, July 17, 2011, have a wonderful Sabbath! We are in what the church says is “Ordinary Time,” or Tempus Per Annum (time throughout the year), that time that falls outside of the high holy days such as Lent, Easter, Advent and Christmas. But Ordinary Time is not any less important. One person writes that the days of Ordinary Time, especially the Sundays, “are devoted to the mystery of Christ in all its aspects.” The official color for Ordinary Time is green.