My 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?
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