HAVING A SPIRITUAL PRACTICE:
IT MAY NOT BE WHAT YOU THINK
A somewhat different version of this entry was first published in The Gallup Independent on June 24, 2023. Reprinted with permission.
I count among my friends atheists, practicing and non-practicing Jews, people of Islamic heritage, Christians––both progressive and evangelical––agnostics, people who identify as spiritual but not religious, people who practice Indigenous spiritual traditions, Buddhists, pagans, and animists. No doubt more. One of my atheist friends is one of the most spiritual people I know. She told me when she is out hiking, she often sits in one spot for three to four hours. She is inhabiting the landscape as she witnesses it. I don't know if she would describe it this way, but when I (for a much shorter time) sit in one place in the natural world, I feel I am becoming one with the rocks, the trees, the grasses, the animals. She might say she is connecting with something larger than herself. I would say that in those moments, I am in contact with the Presence through all that is sacred.
When I was around seven, my dad took his oldest sister, my younger brother, and me fishing in the San Juan River. It was a spot we could get to only by a two-track dirt road. We left for home after catching several catfish. Suddenly my aunt's heavy, black 1940s sedan jerked to a stop. Its underbelly was caught on a large rock. The car's wheels spun fruitlessly, and Dad was worried that the oil pan could've been damaged in a way that would mean severe harm to the engine. The sun was setting, chilling the air. While my dad worked to free up the car, I said to my brother Rick, "Let's go behind that salt bush and pray." A few minutes later my dad shouted as the car rolled forward, oil pan intact.
That wasn't an isolated incident in my childlike way of thinking. I had been taught that we could go to God any time we or someone else needed help. But prayer was not only for emergencies; it was a daily practice. We prayed six times a day as a family—before and after every meal. I learned a bedtime prayer as soon as I could speak. When I turned seven, my parents gave me my own Bible and told me I was old enough to make my own prayers before sleeping. Prayer was definitely about relationship, and I often felt a deep connection with the Holy One when I prayed. Dad also invited me to offer an after-meal prayer once in a while, especially after supper when we read from the children's Bible storybook. We read from the Bible or a devotional after every meal and before bed.
We didn't call it spiritual practice, but that's what it was. One thing that defines spiritual practice is that it is done regularly, most often daily, sometimes several times a day. The Muslim spiritual practice that is most familiar, even to non-Muslims, is prayer that takes place five times a day. Taking a daily walk in nature and being present to everything around us can be a spiritual practice. Step Eleven in Twelve Step Programs is about developing our conscious contact with God as we understand God, through daily prayer and meditation.
A Diné friend once told me that his grandmother had taught him, "If you find a place where you feel the presence of God, go to that place often." "Often" is what I've just been talking about—that daily action, a habit. But the other part of spiritual practice is what my friend's grandmother was talking about––a place or a time where we go to feel the Holy One's presence, to make a conscious connection with the Divine, an aware connection, a connection that is entered into with heart and mind.
Sometimes, we may be gifted with spiritual experiences that bubble up without our asking. The deep connection we feel with the Whole at those times washes over us with amazing grace; often we are caught by surprise. Those times of sudden connection are sweet and precious. But the idea of spiritual practice is that we don't have to wait for that unexpected grace. Daily practice allows us to experience regular, sustained connection with Spirit, a connection we know how to find because we practice it regularly.
Life in the twenty-first century is so much busier than it was for our grandparents and even our parents. It can seem impossible to find a regular time for reflection, time to draw close to Creator. A friend of mine was attending graduate school and raising her young son who had multiple, severe disabilities. At a regular health check-up, her doctor asked her what she was doing for exercise. She said she'd like to exercise, but she simply couldn't find the time. The doctor said, "Even if you just walk around the block, that's something. And something is better than nothing." Even if your life is too busy for twenty minutes or a half hour (or three or four) of stillness, maybe you can find five minutes to say thank you before you get up in the morning or before you go to bed at night. Spiritual practice is like physical exercise: It offers many benefits, and something is better than nothing.