by Marjorie George
My mother used to make me walk across the room with a book on my head so I would stand up straight. Back and forth, back and forth, trying to keep the book from falling as I glided across the floor. Mom wasn’t mean; I had a slight curvature of the spine, and she thought this would help straighten it out. For I don’t know how long, I slouched when I walked, except when that damn book was on my head.
And do you know what happened? Eventually I walked upright even without the book. Months and months of practice had become internalized. The awkward had become ordinary.
If he knew my little story, Brian McLaren would say that’s how spiritual practices work. “A way of life is formed by practices,” he says in Naked Spirituality. “Both our ancient religious traditions and our contemporary theories of education and human development agree on that.” Spiritual practices, says McLaren, are about bringing “a sacred normalcy to the rhythms of life” – making prayer ordinary in our daily schedule; making generosity normal, normative, and habitual; practicing simplicity instead of consumption; countering violence with peacemaking (McLaren, Finding our Way Again, pg 4).
Unlike baseball practice and swim-team practice, the point of spiritual practice is not to get better at the practice. The point of spiritual practice is to incorporate the holy into our ordinary lives. We do not “do” centering prayer with the goal of becoming an expert at centering prayer. We engage in centering prayer to bring us closer to God. I didn’t get better at reading by walking with a book on my head; I eventually trained my body to stand up straight.
Learning that was a revelation to me. I thought the doing of spiritual practices required an ascetic discipline for the purpose of garnering an unblemished soul – a state I could attain to if I worked at it hard enough. At other times, I took the approach of simply waiting for the ecstasy to show up. After all, I thought, if I have to work at it, what’s holy about it? If I have to call it down, what’s inspired?
I also thought that the whole category of spiritual practices always had a certain degree of stringency to it – fixed-hour prayer, named and regular fast days, uninterrupted and prolonged meditation. And these are some of the practices, but into that category we can also put Christian hospitality, the practice of gratitude, handwork such as quilting, and reading. Spiritual practices, says McLaren, are simply about attending to the well-being of our souls, doing for them what exercise does for the body and study does for the mind. Spiritual practices are ways of becoming awake and staying awake to God.
They need to be simple, doable, and durable ways in which we encounter the mystery of God. The first practice McLaren undertakes in Naked Spirituality is a practice of awakening to the presence of God through the word “here.” Here am I, God, and here are you, with me. May the real I and the real you become present to one another right here and right now.
There is a plethora of ways to begin the habit of spiritual practices, although most practitioners suggest beginning with a guide of some sort. That can be a person, a book, or an online presence. McLaren’s two books on the subject — Finding our Way Again and Naked Spirituality. — are excellent and solidly Christian. We have more resources on spiritual practices on our Mid-week on the Web entry, directly after this article.
Or you can begin by practicing the suggestion of Micah to intentionally “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” (6:8). If you need help with that, try putting a book on your head. The Bible would work just fine.
Marjorie George is editor of Reflections magazine and ReflectionsOnline. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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