Spiritual Doing

spiritual practices shabbat candlesMy spirituality study group is reading a charming book written by an Episcopalian who grew up Jewish.  It’s Laura Winner’s Mudhouse Sabbath.  Winner observes, as many others have, that where Christianity is preoccupied with belief, Judaism boils down to action.  The particular actions that Winner contemplates with narrative flair in Mudhouse Sabbath are those Jewish spiritual practices that held meaning for her and she finds missing in her Christian practice.

Winner describes the luxuriousness of real rest on Shabbat and reflects on how to make her Sunday’s stand apart from ordinary time.  She describes the mindfulness eating requires while observing kashrut, and she suggests how eating locally and in season (thus reducing indirect fossil fuel consumption) might be one way Christians could introduce greater mindfulness and ethical responsibility to their eating habits.  She explores how to bring intentionality and thankfulness into ordinary actions, like a dinner, for example, by candle-lighting.  She also makes observations about spiritual disciplines—bodily actions that strengthen spirituality—practiced in both Jewish and Christian traditions, like prayer and fasting.  Poignantly, she describes the nuts and bolts of mourning practices that honor the dead, affirm the survivors, and above all exalt God’s goodness.

Although Winner’s message is addressed to Christians, doing small acts with mindfulness or imbuing them with clear intention is good counsel for anyone looking to get in closer touch with his spiritual reality, regardless of his spiritual tradition.

My favorite part of the book describes what Winner calls a curious turn of phrase in the Book of Exodus.  “Na’aseh v’nishma” means “we will do and we will hear (or understand).”  The word order is curious because how can anyone do a command before hearing it or understanding what it is.  This captures for me the essence of the Jewish sensibility and wisdom concerning action.  Rabbinic commentary explains that it is precisely through doing that we come into understanding.  How many of us have come into a new way of seeing only after having done something for a time?  Speaking for myself, I have come into a new way of seeing people held behind bars after spending some time volunteering in jail.  Although my first visit left lasting impressions, the deeper understanding came from repeated visits.  The brain is designed to respond to experience, and experience informs our perspective.

It seems to me that Winner’s message about spiritual practices sings in harmony with this blog’s last post about affirming actions that defuse shame.  Shame arises from false messages we believe about ourselves, so repeating messages that affirm the truth disconnects shame from its source.  Bodily actions done with mindfulness and intention can reinforce the affirmation.  To take an example from last week, the person who puts away one small object every day as an oblation to God and as a ritual that clears the clutter of her soul will, through doing, come into a new way of seeing herself.

To be clear, it’s not that the new way of seeing is a reward for enough doing.  It’s that doing is the mechanism by which we receive the grace of seeing.

Join the conversation.  What bodily actions or spiritual practices help you see your spiritual reality more clearly?

Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

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4 Types of Choices: Non-Choices

We don’t think about our habits.  We just do them.  Unconscious choices are the fourth type of choices that belong in our inner inventory.  Most of us have some habits that are healthy and some that are destructive.  I once heard destructive habits called nuisance sins.  They may not be the most obvious obstacles in our relationship with God, but our habits inform our character.  Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said, “Watch your thoughts. They become words. Watch your words. They become deeds. Watch your deeds. They become habits. Watch your habits. They become character.  Character is everything.”

Our thoughts inform not only our character but also our feelings.  Many of our poor choices are fuelled by feelings like hate, greed, envy and entitlement.  Feelings aren’t a choice, but thoughts are.  Exercising self-control in thinking is shown to have an impact on feelings.  Therefore, developing habits of resisting negative influences in our thinking will inform our feelings as well as our words, deeds and habits. 

Some habits are more than nuisance sins.  They can interfere with or even destroy everything of value in our lives.  Someone fighting addiction can testify to the fact that habits left unchecked will eventually rob us of choice. 

The opposite of a mindless habits is a mindful habit—doing everything, even small things, conscientiously with thankful hearts in the service of God.  19th century priest and author, Edward Meyrick Gouldburn (1818 -1897), best known for his tenure as Dean of Norwich, urged the following:

As far as human frailty will permit, each little trifling piece of duty which presents itself to us in daily life, if it be only a compliance with some form of social courtesy, should receive a consecration, by setting God – His will, word and Providence – before us in it, and by lifting up our hearts to Him in ejaculatory prayer, while we are engaged in it.  The idea must be thoroughly worked into the mind, and woven into the texture of our spiritual life, that the minutest duties which God prescribes to us in the order of His Providence – a casual visit, a letter of sympathy, an obligation of courtesy, are not by any means too humble to be made means of spiritual advancement, if only the thing be done “as to the Lord, and not to men.”

When I shine a flashlight into myself to take inventory of my choices, it helps me to make notes.  Sometimes putting words to thoughts gives them better definition and stimulates deeper thinking.  If you are reflecting over a long period of your lifetime, spend some time looking over how actions or attitudes in one stage of life connect to another.  Consider whether something unconscious in one life stage prompted a deliberate effort or reaction in a later life stage.  For example, perhaps a career or relationship setback prompted greater reliance on and intimacy with God.  Perhaps a reactive feeling such as low self-worth gave way to an unthinking habit like arrogance towards those less fortunate.  On the other hand, awareness of my earlier elitist attitudes may give rise to intentional efforts to discourage prejudiced jokes in my presence. 

If you can isolate one or two unconscious attitudes or habits that have caused you angst, then you have exposed what needs to be held up for God’s mercy and healing power.

Join the conversation.  Where has God been in the midst of your choices? 

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.