Part 7 in a multi-installment series for Lent
7. The Turn Toward Practice – At some point on the spiritual journey our faith shifts forms, from a set of beliefs to a spiritual practice that engages and grounds our whole self. What was this shift like for you? What regular practice now grounds your spiritual self?
My journey has been one of seeking a set of beliefs and a religious tradition that matches the spirituality of my practice. I’ve had spiritual practices since I was a child. I only recently noticed, however, that my faith life didn’t shift from a set of beliefs to spiritual practice but that my spiritual practice has spurred a search for beliefs that are cohesive and congruent.
Being a spiritual director, I think of spiritual practices as things done intentionally, regularly, deeply, with a sense of connection to something beyond one’s self that bring a sense of healing restoration or grounding presence to your life. They are, as I call them, “blue sky experiences.” I was not quite yet 10 years old when Anne of Green Gables taught me about the nature of spiritual practice and the difference between praying and saying your prayers.
“Why must people kneel down to pray?” If I really wanted to pray I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d go out into a great big field all alone or into the deep, deep, woods, and I’d look up into the sky–up–up–up–into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I’d just feel a prayer. Well, I’m ready. What am I to say?“
I grew up Catholic and although my house wasn’t a place like Green Gables where saying your prayers was important, I did learn all the Catholic prayers: Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be, Magnificat, the Nicene Creed, you get the idea. It was just saying words. Nothing ever happened while saying them. I’m grateful to this day that my mom insisted it was perfectly fine to use your own words when you pray. She said all these prayers were mostly for people who had trouble finding their own words. I wrote my first short story in first grade. She told me I had no trouble finding my own words. I was like Anne of Green Gables in that way.
I recognized the feeling Anne describes of pondering the infinite just looking up at the sky. I understood that. I didn’t understand “hallowed” and “magnifying the Lord” and “trespasses.” I’d had that blue sky feeling watching the waves at Ned’s Point Lighthouse (more on that here in a previous post in this series). I’d also had that looking up at the sky feeling doing what I was doing when Anne first said that to me – reading!
And yes, I LOVE this film version of the book and the changes in the characters so that it is more culturally inclusive.
Reading was my first spiritual practice. Saying I was a voracious reader growing up is so vast an understatement as to be comical. I was always reading. I didn’t make daily trips to the library, but I often went more than once a week. This was the 1970s, when a ten year old could walk the mile to the center of town by himself and sit in the red vinyl covered child sized chaise lounge in the children’s section of the Leominster Public Library and read an entire Saturday away. I was in that chaise lounge one rainy spring Saturday afternoon when I read A Wrinkle in Time straight through in one sitting. This famous 1962 novel by Madeleine L’Engle gave me a religious vision that I still hold, more or less, all these years later: It’s important to do good and actively fight evil. The only weapon you need to do this is love. Science and astronomy are part of the mystical journey, not antithetical to it. Religion is the story we use to explain ourselves to ourselves. The universe is wondrous beyond imagining. Even small beings from a small planet in small galaxy can take the hero’s journey and be agents of light, salvation, and healing.
This passage, in which three children are shown a segment of shadow covering their planet (the dark side of the force became a new name for this shadow a year later when I saw Star Wars) sums up much of the story’s power for me. Mrs. Which, one of their angelic cosmic adventure spirit guides who disguise themselves as raggedy old crones on earth responds to the question, “What is it?”
“You have said it. It is evil. It is the powers of darkness.”
Meg was frightened. “But what is going to happen?”
“We will continue to fight!”
“And we’re not alone you know, children,” came Mrs. Whatsit, the comforter. “All through the universe it’s being fought. I know it’s hard for you to understand about size, how there’s very little difference in the size of the tiniest microbe and the greatest galaxy. You think about that and maybe it won’t seem strange to you that some of our very best fighters have come right from your own planet, and it’s a little planet, dears, out on the edge of a little galaxy. You can be proud it’s done so well.”
“Who have our fighters been?” Calvin asked.
“Oh, you must know them dear,” Mrs. Whatsit said.
“And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”
“Jesus!” Charles Wallace said. Why of course, Jesus!”
“Of course!” Mrs. Whatsit said. “Go on Charles, love…
“Leonardo Da Vinci?” Calvin suggested “and Michelangelo?”
“And Shakespeare,” Charles Wallace called out, “and Bach and Pasteur and Madame Currie, and Einstein!”
Now Calvin’s voice rang out with confidence, “And Schweitzer and Gandhi and Buddha and Beethoven and Rembrandt and St. Francis”
By the time I first read A Wrinkle in Time, I’d had a short lifetime of Gospel stories and a few years of formal Catholic religious education behind me, but it wasn’t until Mrs. Which and Mrs. Whatsit explained it to Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace that I finally understood what it was all the religious grown-ups in my life had been trying to explain to me. Yes, there is darkness. But it can be overcome. The world, your life, is full of examples of light for you to live by. I still love reading and it still takes me to the big blue sky place.
My love of reading led to my love of writing. I began writing at a young age. In first grade my class was given an over-sized 8 page exam booklet. The top half of each page was blank and the bottom half had just learning to write ruled lines. Our assignment was to draw pictures on the top of half each page and write about the drawing on the bottom half. My classmates drew 8 distinct, unrelated pictures and wrote words describing them. I wrote a short story about a boy whose playground ball got punctured and deflated so he went to the store to buy a new one. I’ve been writing ever since. It’s always taken me to the blue sky place, but I didn’t notice it was a spiritual practice until I began to get paid to write as an Arts & Entertainment reporter/stringer while in college. I liked working! This wasn’t a job, it was fun. It got me out of myself. Looking back over the years, I notice that periods of my life when I wrote the most, made it a regular restorative practice, were times when life was generally going well. The less writing I was doing, the worse I was in general.
The next spiritual practice I acquired was music. My dad had turned us on to The Beatles at a young age. I realized I could find that place of looking up into the sky not only when reading, but also when listening to music. I especially loved music with lyrics that were clever, smart, and about important things. Even as a pre-teen I loved the story songs that were miniature morality plays and the songs about weightier topics such as the meaning of life, social justice, and peace. These songs became a Psalter to me. I would pray my favorites over and over until I discovered a new one.
My love for music led to my learning how to play the guitar. I’ve been playing since I was twelve. I was in a handful of garage bands. I even played out in public a few times. Yet, the guitar playing didn’t become a conscious spiritual practice until about ten years ago. Guitar playing has always taken me to a different place, a different awareness. I remember one of my first guitar books was a paperback that noted things like cold symptoms and headaches would vanish while you play, although they might return when you stop. I’ve always found this to be true. Guitar playing altered my awareness but didn’t take me to that blue sky place until I got serious about improving my playing as an adult. I really wasn’t much better a guitarist at 40 than I was at 14, but I am considerably better now at 52 than I was at 40.
I began meditating as a spiritual practice not long after my son was born as a strategy to combat the intense anxiety I felt being a parent. Meditation was a stress reduction technique at first, but as it became more regular, it also took me to that blue sky space. It taught me that the blue sky place sometimes has clouds. Cloudy sky place is not necessarily a place of darkness, but a place from which you observe darkness without giving in to it. Over time, my meditation practice evolved into a more formal Zen practice and learning a lot about Buddhism. I went on Zen retreats. I eventually joined a sangha that met in a church in Worcester and was a regular attendee for a while until I moved away to another state. I joined a sangha there as well. I no longer belong to a sangha, but I still meditate. I would call my meditation less Zen and more Centering Prayer now, but that might just be semantics.
While training to be a spiritual director I learned most of us have a preference for contemplative or active spiritual practice. We were required to take up a spiritual practice that was the opposite of our preferred form. My practices have generally been contemplative – reading, writing, meditating – so I took up walking. I walked to breathe and ponder while I move. I walked and hiked, but not as a spiritual practice. I now walk just to walk and be aware of my surroundings.
Shameless plug – If you are interested in deepening your practice or doing some serious spiritual reflection on your life, consider working with me as your spiritual director. You can learn more about that at my website.