My wife and I are approaching our 26th year of marriage. Throughout that time — lean times and abundance, law school, seminary and demanding jobs — we have sustained a regular Friday date night. With few exceptions, Friday night has been the one time we set everything else aside and spend time together. Marriage expert John Gottman says that kind of ritual is one key to a healthy relationship. It allows us to catch up, to remain aware of what is happening in one another’s lives and to build shared experiences. For people of faith, spiritual practices give us the same opportunity to connect with the divine.
When we think about spiritual practices, we often go straight to the classics: prayer, meditation, studying scripture, maybe a labyrinth if we’re feeling frisky. But, just as a marriage ritual can be something as simple as a kiss goodnight, a spiritual practice can be anything. Contemplative practitioner James Finley defines spiritual practice as “any act habitually entered into with your whole heart that awakens, deepens, and sustains within you a contemplative experience of the inherent holiness of the present moment.” That’s pretty broad. Watch a movie that stretches you. Take a walk. Engage in intentional conversation with someone you trust. Sit still for a moment. Find whatever works for you.
I will warn you, however, that “what works” can be a little hard to ascertain. For one, it’s not a formula where if you do this, then you will get this. This isn’t self-help. It isn’t transactional. Instead, spiritual practices prepare us for transformation.
Transformation is beyond our control. Things will happen to you and you must decide how you will go forward. It could be something traumatic, such as death or illness, loss of a job or relationship. It could also be more success than you expected and more than you are prepared to handle. In those moments, we can double down on what got us there, or we can allow ourselves to be transformed. But you may not be as free to choose as you would like if you haven’t done the work.
There is a Buddhist parable about a man on a journey that comes to a river. On this side, dangers abound, but the far shore is safe and serene. He builds a raft to cross the river. Of course, when he gets to the other shore, he discards the raft. It was useful for getting him there, but not for living in this new place.
Most of us probably think we’re pretty good at knowing when to discard the raft, but not so with our habitual patterns of behavior that help us make our way in the world. At some point, they stop working for us and may even be harmful. Even good things can be a problem. For example, being helpful is good, but there are those who become so addicted to the praise they get for their service that they don’t know how to feel or accept love without it. This kind of self-abnegation leads to resentment, but it is so hard to break away from it. We’ll drag that raft around forever.
Spiritual practices help us see the raft. They help us see what a burden it is. They help us see that this shore, this new place, is okay. We don’t need the raft anymore.
Life can be relentless. It is easy to get swept up in whatever gets us through. And it’s easy to get addicted to that. We need a date night with ourselves, a moment to set aside the world of constant cares and reconnect with who we really are. In that, without the haze of the muchness and many-ness of life, we get a little glimpse of God and who we might be in God’s embrace.