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Playing with God
Rev. Katie Stein Sather, February 6, 2005
Story: "Being with God in Prayer" by Mary Ann Moore, in Hide and Seek with God
I remember asking my grandmother once if she minded doing dishes. Now this was at a time in my life—I was maybe 11—when we had no dishwasher, and many more dishes than I wanted to do on any night. The chore of doing dishes was a nightly battle for my brother and sister and I. I am the eldest, and so I had more responsibility for them than they did. I guess I resented that. To me, doing dishes was a chore, one I detested. Grandma had been doing dishes for nigh on fifty years or more. She must be sick of them, I thought.
Imagine my surprise when she said she didn't mind doing dishes. It was just a part of life for her, and by that time, she'd raised three boys and seen them married and with children of their own. Her own dish duty would have been much diminished by this time. Who would mind washing up the dishes only two people dirtied?
Grandma would probably not have thought of anything as prosaic as dishes as a spiritual discipline. Such things were not part of her life. Yet, it may well have been a time of reflection for her, a time when she could sort out what was happening around her, and when she could figure out what was important, and what was not so important. Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to ask her anything about this, as she died when I was in high school.
The season of Lent begins on Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, so Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, is the day to eat up the eggs in pancakes. These forty days of Lent commemorate the time that Jesus spent in the wilderness before he went to Jerusalem for the final time. For some, Lent is traditionally a time to focus on two different types of spiritual disciplines: prayer, or engaging in something beyond yourself, and fasting, or abstinence. The theory is giving up something that would ordinarily give pleasure lifts up the pleasure of your relationship with God.
Today I wish to think about spiritual discipline as an on-going practice, not only as a seasonal one. I define spiritual discipline as a conscious means by which we examine, shape and care for our lives. We do this so we can achieve more wholeness, more satisfaction and depth in our lives. So our lives have meaning! Spiritual practice is a way of being alone with yourself, more consciously. If I were talking to Blueberry and the children, I'd say spiritual discipline is all about playing with God, or talking to God. Sometimes those words work for me; often they don't, but I struggle to find appropriate language. If God is not a concept you find useful, then such a discipline would still be about examining your life, caring for yourself.
Spiritual practices do not have to be forever. They may last the forty days of Lent, or however long it serves you in your spiritual journey. This jacket that I am wearing is one I made while I was writing my Masters thesis. I was writing about wilderness, and how it fed my spiritual self. I wanted to know why I was drawn, over and over, back to wilderness. Why did it ache when I couldn't get there? I was trying to articulate all this, and, in the evenings, I sewed. I left my office and went to the sewing machine, where I cut up material and put all the little bits into order.
As I reflect back, I realize I was overlapping two spiritual practices. One was the canoeing itself. I call it my ritual of the wild—the canoeing to a new campsite, setting up camp, fixing meals, then setting off again the next day. A habit of the days develops, a ritual. I impose order and structure, to the exact degree I deem necessary, on my canoe trip. The paddling itself, hour after hour of repetitive motion on a series of large lakes, is for me a moving meditation. I can lose myself in it, especially if I am paddling in the bow. Certainly, you can't turn off your brain and lose track of where you are, or forget to notice the clouds gathering, or neglect to see the large black furry critter on the lake shore. But for long periods of time, my body is moving in its own rhythm, accomplishing work, its natural goal in life. Canoeing in such a way is obviously not something I do all the time. It's very seasonal and sporadic.
The other activity, what I now call a spiritual discipline, was quilting this jacket. While writing about trees was hard work—writing is always work for me—sewing trees was easy. I had learned to sew at the age of nine, progressing from a simple apron, with pockets, to dresses and jackets, both simple and tailored, and even to trench coats. I've sewn bicycle panniers from heavy weight Cordura nylon and patched canvas tents. Sewing is so familiar to me, something as simple in concept as this jacket is child's play.
Play.... I could play with the colors and the tree designs, and add pockets to the originally pocket-less pattern. Sewing became my antidote to the cognitive task of cataloging the various answers to my questions, and expounding on the meaning of wilderness for people who do not live in the wilderness. I was creating trees, even as I was creating the words to describe the trees and my fascination for them.
With both the quilting and the canoeing, I was searching for a connection with that which is most whole in myself, that which is holy, according to traditional language. I didn't use that word, holy, at first, but found myself inarticulate without it, so I defaulted to that language. It was the only language I knew which could convey what I meant, with all the nuance and depth I wanted, even if what I needed to convey wasn't traditional. I want to connect with Nature, with god, perhaps. One of my co-researchers said, "we all have a god-shaped vacuum in us." That was such a strong and apt description that I've hung on to that phrase. Never mind that his concept of God would have been very different than mine.
Spiritual disciplines come in all sizes and shapes. Many people engage in reading and meditation on texts as part of a Lenten tradition. It's known as lectio divina, or sacred reading. The steps in this discipline include selecting of a text, traditionally from Scripture, reading of the text out loud, memorizing it, and then finally, meditating on it.
I confess I have not done this. It seems to me that even the first step of choosing a text to read would matter. What seems appropriate at first glance might surprise me after concentrating on it so completely. It is suggested that you read it aloud over and over again. Author Susan Ritchie (Everyday Spiritual Practice, Skinner House Books) believes that reading out loud, with your lips, makes it a bodily experience, a sensual one. Such sacred reading then, is ingestion of other-than-earthly food. Reading is referred to in spiritual literature of the middle ages as a form of ruminatio, or rumination. Like a cow chewing her cud, engaging in such reiteration of a text involves chewing on it again and again.
After such repeated consideration of a not-too-long text, memorizing it might not be much of a chore. I can't imagine not making connections between my own life and self and the text in the process of reading it so many times. How unlike memorizing something for school! Ritchie, a Unitarian Universalist minister, suggests that the meditation is a grappling with the text through one's understanding and will, rather than an emptying of your mind. One way of meditating is to recreate the text in your mind, running through any actions, complete with sights, sounds, and smells. Or, free associate with the text whatever comes up from your own life and intersects, even briefly. Or, try to feel the passage, exploring any emotions that may arise from it. Such focus on a particular reading would indeed yield more than even one careful reading.
My spiritual practice is not nearly so structured. I have realized that what fills my soul is being out in the wild, out of the city, among trees and sky. That's why I spend my summers at our cabin in Newfoundland, and why going hiking or canoeing as often as possible during the winter is important, even necessary, for me. It's why I have a yard with my home—I need to get my hands in the soil—and yes, I've been weeding already.
I need a real visceral connection to the land where I live. Such connections come slowly—I'm not yet at home here with the big trees. Time, and exposure, is needed. You may not have known it, but those of you who go hiking with me every month are helping me make these connections. Thank you. I appreciate your help.
Spiritual disciplines come in so very many guises. Doing the dishes mindfully, delighting in each gold-rimmed, white flowered plate that your mother bought for her wedding, can be as much a means of getting out of the busy-ness of our every day lives as a sitting meditation. You need to ask "What is it that works for you?" What activity in your life gives it meaning and purpose? Can it be done even more thoughtfully, reflectively, consciously?? Whether you give up something for Lent, or engage in a particular meditation for a month or so, a spiritual discipline may enrich your life more than you would expect. As I told Blueberry (the puppet) and the children, listening carefully helps, and so does waiting patiently. And, you may be surprised.
Rabbi Hillel, a Jewish contemporary of Jesus, once said, "Separate not thyself from the congregation and its concerns, nor postpone thought for thy spirit until the day of thy death. Say not, 'By and by, when I have leisure, I will care for my soul,' lest perchance thou never find leisure." Tending to the needs of the spirit is not a matter of leisure, but of spiritual discipline. If you don't take some time to grow a soul, then you will have no soul to grow.
We modern Unitarians need a spiritual discipline whether or not we use the term, or use the prescribed period of 40 days assigned to Lent by Christian tradition. All of us need a time in our lives for self-reflection, meditation, moral reassessment, spiritual atunement and personal renewal. All of us need to return to a wholeness and holiness of the spirit.
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