After twenty-six weeks of this intentional exploration of sacred practices, I decided to do something a bit different this week and take a bird’s eye view of my experiences this half-year.
The idea for this project came to me quite unexpectedly one Sunday morning while I was lying in bed. A book I was reading mentioned a form of meditation I hadn’t seen before. I turned to the back of my journal and wrote it down as something to try at a later date. Before I knew it, I was writing out a list of sacred practices I wanted to try, a list which before fifteen minutes were up had ballooned to over sixty items. As it happened, I was in the planning stages for starting this blog at the time and was looking for a recurring segment to supplement whatever happened to be rolling around in my head, and this seemed like a wonderful opportunity to feed two birds with one bread.
What is it?
Every week, I take up a different sacred practice and reflect on my experiences here.
My Year to Date
It really has been a fun year so far. This project has provided a wonderful opportunity to reflect more intentionally about practices that have long been a part of my life, to try out practices which are new to me, and stretch myself with some practices that I knew would be a challenge for me. The practices I’ve discussed so far have been relatively evenly divided among sacred reading practices, prayer and meditation, practices of self-awareness, and practices of intentional living.
The balance has been intentional, and I think helpful: There are practices that can draw us into ourselves, and those that draw us out. There are practices that encourage us to engage with our subjective experiences, and those that marginalize them. I think each of us is drawn to one particular type of practice and if we aren’t careful can become nearsighted or restrictive about what spirituality can involve. To cite a classic example, those drawn to intentional living and service can often downplay the importance of prayer and meditation, and vice versa. But, of course, both are important and they feed on each other in important and beautiful ways. And so I think it’s beneficial to explore many different kinds of sacred practice to fill out the areas we may be inclined to ignore.
While I found most of the practices to be immediately beneficial, two stick out to me as having been particularly difficult: Morning Pages and the Rosary. Both of these weeks involved confusion for me: for Morning Pages, the instructions were to write three pages, but I struggled with how to define three pages — even ignoring the size of the page, three pages, single-spaced, double-sided is significantly more writing than three pages, double-spaced, single-sided. Because I have an office job, my time is limited in the mornings, and I found myself stressed by the expectation of writing three full pages in such a short time. And yet, I know there could be something there for me in this practice were I to alter the parameters in a way that worked better for me. For its part, praying the Rosary was frustrating because I spent most of the week trying to understand what it was trying to do. Were I to take up this practice again, as I hope to do some time, my goal would be to set aside the questions that had distracted me in the winter and focus on simply engaging with the practice instead of trying to understand it — and hope that understanding would come in time.
These two frustrating experiences both highlight the inherent artificiality of the project. One doesn’t just take up sacred practices for a week. That’s far too little time to live with them and offer any kind of genuine assessment. I know journaling is a powerful tool not because I did it for a week, but because I’ve done it for over a decade, and consistently for about four years. And so, this is an issue that’s inherent to the conceit of the project. (I think that’s okay. The goal of the project and these posts is certainly not to offer a final judgment on the sacred practices, but simply to introduce them and explore them a bit.) A similar known issue with the project is that many sacred practices simply mean more in community. Community and tradition — which is simply community through time — can give life to words and actions in a way that solitary explorations often can’t.
Overall, though, while recognizing the obvious limitations of what this project can do, I’ve found it to be personally beneficial and fascinating.
By way of reflection, I’d like to think a bit more about what a sacred practice is. A friend of mine who had grown up in a tradition that had specifically seven (and only seven) sacred practices — Bible Study, Prayer, Fasting, Almsgiving, Worship, Visitation, and Evangelism — once expressed his bewilderment at contemporary spirituality: “It seems everything can be a spiritual practice these days,” he said one day. I’ve thought a lot about this comment over the past couple years, and I think both elements involved in the statement are true.
On the one hand, there is something to be said for living within a tradition, a community that offers a set of tried-and-true expressions of the spiritual life it has known to be fruitful. Being offered a play book can save a lot of time, energy, and confusion and there is a reason why the founders of monastic orders — each of whom prescribed a different set of rules for living — are among Christianity’s most revered saints. So much of life is habit, and being swept up into a community ordered around shared holy habits is an ancient Path that has proved its worth in countless cultures over the centuries.
And yet, if held on too tightly, those rules and systems can also be limiting. There are three aspects of this I’d like to touch on here:
First, even within one’s own broad religious tradition, there are many different trails one can follow, each illuminating its own unique piece of the broader path. I think being too focused on our own trail can end up limiting our experience of God if we aren’t careful.
Second, holding on to one particular path too tightly can also cause us to reify our sacred practices so that we focus on the practices themselves rather than what they are trying to accomplish in our lives. For example, the goal of a meditation practice has nothing to do with how we engage our thoughts while we’re meditating, but is entirely about how we engage our thoughts while we’re not meditating. If we focus too much on the practice itself, we miss the point.
And, third, narrowly focusing on one familiar path can blind us to the reality that, indeed, everything and anything can be sacred depending on the intention and attention with which it is done. As I wrote in my reflection on icons:
“As I went through the week with the theology of icons in my mind, it really did transform my vision. In a special way, each person I saw became not just another person, but a creature fashioned in the image of God, with the potential to bear the divine light. I saw goodness, truth, and beauty in their stories … And so this practice opened space in my perception this week in a beautiful way to see the God-bearing potential of every person, moment, and encounter.”
Similarly, in my reflection on using fiction as a sacred text, I wrote:
“I think we underestimate the potential for the sacred in our lives. One ancient prayer … refers to the Holy Spirit as “everywhere present and filling all things.”… When it comes to grace — when it comes to wisdom, to faith, hope and love, to goodness, truth, and beauty and all of the Energies of God — we don’t live in an atmosphere of scarcity. We can find something of God anywhere we look, even where we least expect it.”
Ultimately, the more of life I experience, the more I am convinced that all of creation and every moment is a burning bush, a vessel for knowledge of and communion with God if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear. But, as they say, therein lies the rub. Having eyes to see and ears to hear is harder than it sounds.
And this is where the two halves of my friend’s comment meet together. The practices sanctioned by our traditions are ways of tuning our senses to the frequencies of the divine life. It was precisely the specificity of praying with icons that helped me to see the iconographic nature of the people around me. This is ideally how sacred practices should work: they aren’t ends in themselves but paths that lead us to a richer, fuller, more openhearted life outside of our prayer corners or off of our cushions.
But just as anything can be a sacred practice with the right intention and attention, so too can anything — no matter how outwardly pious — be ego-driven, neurotic, or even pathological if it becomes an end in itself. Abstaining from food can be a beautiful exercise in discipline that frees us from our unhealthy attachments, but it can be an eating disorder. Scripture reading can be an exercise in puffed-up pride instead of a way of listening to God. Financial gifts can be more about power than an expression of thanksgiving and generosity. And so on. The key with everything is to keep our eyes on our reason for doing what we’re doing.
Ultimately, if our eyes aren’t on God — on the divine life that empowers us and calls us — then nothing we do, no matter how pious, is sacred.