Is our faith something we are or something we practice?
Last week, one of the first questions I was asked at the Chaplaincy Institute for the Arts and Interfaith Ministries while attending a training in the art of spiritual direction was: “What is your personal spiritual practice?”
Though I knew that sharing with this group of 15 (all from different faiths) would be different from the more traditional Christian gatherings that I am used to– places where I could often be asked, “What are you praying for?” or “When is the last time you went to church?” or “What are you reading lately?”– I was perplexed as the discussion began.
Thoughts like: “My spiritual practice? Isn’t just being a Christian AND being a pastor enough of a spiritual practice? I practice my faith all the time” ran through my head as I waited on my chance to speak.
But, there were several other pastors and rabbis in the room who did not claim their work as their practice so I couldn’t either.
When it was my turn, the best thing I could come up was to talk about writing, journal keeping in particular. I offered: “Writing and praying through writing is what keeps me grounded throughout the ebbs and flows of life. Without it, spiritually constipated. ” I laughed at myself. (Did I really just say the words spiritual and constipated in the same sentence?)
Yet, as I listened to the responses of my classmates who shared before and after me, I was awestruck by the beauty and ease of their answers. I was among some very faithful folk.
One person shared how she takes walks every morning in the woods near her house in silence, connecting to the trees, the flowers, the animals and her own soul most of all. She finds God in nature and can’t ever be too far from it, no matter where she travels.
One person talked about her work within her own native American tradition– being cleansed every morning and every evening with the practice of burning cedar– as a reminder of the newness of each day and how God restores, renews and sustains her life.
One person talked about the practice of reading theology regularly and how the study of ancient texts serves as a guide of getting to God more each day– the God who has been at work in the world long before he was born and will continue to be at work in the world long after him.
And a theme emerged no matter the specifics of the practice: discipline.
I have always been the type of person, especially since I became ordained clergy who has been hard on people who claim to be spiritual but not religious. I’ll work with a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu, etc. any day of the week, but when I’m in the company of a person who claims spirituality but not religion, judgment on my part emerges. Being just spiritual without connection to a religious faith community, isn’t this a cop out for commitment? Maybe.
As I continued throughout the week, my compassion muscles grew as I heard more about the faith practices of my spiritual but not so religious new friends. Through our conversations about our experiences of God, I saw in each of them a well of desire to connect with the holy and God’s plans for their lives. I saw how hard they have to work for acceptance and recognition by those in more traditional camps, like myself. I realized this was unfair because light of God was in them– in their kindness, in their thoughtfulness, in their discernment of the faith journey of others. I even saw the love of Jesus in them, even though many would not yet claim these words for themselves.
It is so easy for us, I believe as pastors and church leaders to think that our job is our spiritual practice and look down on those who are seeking God in nontraditional ways that may never land them in the pews of our church. But, my week at the Chaplaincy Institute reminded me again of my own calling to know God through the spiritual disciplines of prayer and meditation as well as worship. I have so much to learn and practice even still. And some of my best teachers may be those on nature walks, saying ancient chants or in theological libraries of traditions other than my own.