Spiritual Practices

I grew up in the Catholic Church, with all the gold gilding, wafting incense, and calisthenic  prayer performances.  My family said grace so automatically before meals that I was surprised when I realized the string of syllables I had memorized was actually words.  The Catholic church has a truly amazing set of spiritual practices whether it be the rosary,  daily mass, or reflecting on the lives of the saints.

When I left the Catholic Church for the Presbyterian Church I found new spiritual practices.  Bible studies and reading, musical worship, and various devotional books made up my new set of devotional practices.  I was a good presbyterian and these rituals became a part of my daily life.  They set the tone for my days and gave me a sense of connection with God and the greater church.

But I am no longer Catholic nor Presbyterian.  As a non-Christian these practices no longer make sense to partake in, at least in the incarnation I used to understand them.  Losing these sense behind these practices was one of the difficulties of losing my faith generally.  I prayed for a long time after I stopped believing in God.  Habits are hard to break.

Actually stopping the practice of the various spiritual disciplines meant that I had lost my faith for real.  I was able to pretend for a while that I was simply in tough spot but that I believed I would come out the other end of this dark night of the soul by holding on to these practices, especially those of prayer and church attendance.  Stopping meant that I had really given up.  That there was little hope of any recovery of faith.  It was painful.

It was also disorienting.  Certain practices had neatly organized my life for a long time.  Praying was how I got to sleep.  Church gave some order to my weekends.  When I felt bad or confused I could turn to the Bible or a devotional book for a quick fix of optimism (it is strange that as Christians the Bible seems very optimistic when to non-Christians it seems like a fairly negative text).  Without spiritual practices my life seems more adrift, less meaningful.

I want to renew or replace the practices that held meaning for me when I was a Christian but it is hard.  There exist certain “secular” or new age-y types of spiritual practices but many of them seem kind of hokey to me.  I suppose I lost more than just my faith in God, but my faith in any sort of outside source of spiritual power or succor.  I also believe that much of how I picked up practices was through the community, not necessarily of my own discipline, so its hard now, without a community, to start up something new.

Nevertheless, I need something, Christian or not I still have a soul that needs tending.  What kind of spiritual practices can I find in my regular life?  I have a couple of things that I rely on.


So where’s the spiritual practice?  It’s very visceral, both eating and preparing food. Cooking is about pleasure, nourishment, and sustenance.  Enjoying the very things you need to live is a way to be in the present and to fully enjoy being human.  Food is so beautiful!  Little white beans, bright juicy tomatoes warm from the sun, crinkly pale green celery, fragrant sunny lemons, and aggressively piquant pepper – and that’s just one salad.  Cooking is definitely a practice, the more you cook the better you get at it.  Preparing food: chopping, measuring, stirring, is all very meditative.  Cooking, as opposed to just eating, connects you to what exactly you eat, which is, of course, what you are.

Bread Baking

This might seem the same as cooking but I am going to defend it.  Baking is magic.  Cooking is 1+1=2, baking is 1+1=10.  I am not a good baker, I have reduced a dozen cookies to a single flat pancake and baked cobblers full of inedibly crunchy irish oats, but when a ball of dough puffs up so much it blows the lid off its bowl its worth all the mishaps.  Bread is the staff of life!  Creating it, seeing it grow and develop, and baking it into tasty loaves is very fulfilling.  It is a practice in the impermanence of good things, beautiful supple dough becomes tall nicely crumbed loaves become breakfasts and dinners.  You start again fresh.  Unless you are making a sourdough, sort of the Buddhist vision of bread, the same vital source of leavening finding outlet in many different loaves!


Being able to put difficult ideas into coherent sentences takes practice.  It requires serious discipline and insight.  It requires insight and presence in the here and now.  I am hoping this blog, and the conversations that may develop, will be a good practice.  I can be, umm, strongly opinionated, and I hope that through writing and dialog I can learn to see more of the grey areas and nuance that in my vigor to defend my own position I can overlook.  Writing publicly require you to both hone your own views into a coherent position but also write with gentleness and an eye to how a stranger, or friend, might see your words.

So those are some of my ideas about non-religious spiritual practices.  Have any other ideas?

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5 Responses to Spiritual Practices

  1. Dan says:

    i certainly hear you on the longing for ‘spiritual practices’ of some type! as you know, i’ve bounced around, looking for a place where i can find structure and meaning, and have been disappointed to find that neither the practices really fit, nor does the theology. this isn’t just my pursuit of perfection (although, i am an idealist perfectionist): i think that it’s b/c i’m looking for that structure that gives my heart place, and rest. instead, i have to make it happen domestically, w/the tools at my disposal. i think that, unsurprisingly, the practices that you have found are intellectual, domestic, and very ‘incarnational’, if i am permitted an obviously ‘christian’ term. they reflect the core aspects of your personality. 🙂 i love that! i have always thought that if i understand what you DO, blogger (i’m one of your oldest friends…so i’m confused…do i use your name, or is this an anonymous blog? let me know), then i understand who you ARE. this may be what many people are like, but i have always felt as if this was somehow even MORE true about you. your actions reflect your beliefs, and give the essence of ‘you’ structure and meaning. as a result, the fact that you place such importance on cooking good food, and on being a welcoming and gracious friend and host, speaks volumes about what you deem to be important.

    in that vein, then, i think that these are all very good and appropriate practices for you. just like my idiosyncratic practice of praying a mix of anglican rosary/orthodox prayer rope, if cooking/baking/writing/etc. is done w/o reflection, contemplation, and a strong sense of discipline, they can lose their meaning and just become ‘daily life’. anything done w/consistency, intention, and discipline, can become a meaningful ‘spiritual practice’. as you asked, however, i’d add a few that are already native to your life and personality: conversation, reading, and devoting yourself to fostering a sense of ‘place’ and ‘community’ where you are living, and with your neighbours and co-workers. just a thought…

    • Just so you know, I am avoiding using a great deal of identifying info but I’m using my first name and that I live in the Finger Lakes. I’m leaving off my last name, but pretty much anything else is fine.

      I think there is a distinction to be made between intellectual practices and spiritual practices and I mostly think reading falls into the former. Reading used to be a spiritual practice, but mostly because the books I had were definitely not intellectual. In fact they often required a certain suspension of brainpower (I had to read “The Case for Christ” for JP, offensively bad)! Certainly not all books on spiritual matters are like that, but that was much of my experience. So I consider most reading intellectual. Except Wendell Berry.

      Incarnational is definitely a fine word to use. I think it is a very apt word in fact! I suppose since I believe this life is what we have, and that that might be all we have, respecting and nourishing this life could be called “incarnational”.

  2. Thanks for stopping by. I agree wholeheartedly about baking! I’m not sure if you know about the Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day trick! A sort of…spiritual quickie. xx


  3. Megan says:

    I think anything that gives your soul solace, or comfort is a spiritual practice. Sometimes the comfort you need is distraction and reading can be that. Entertaining or intellectual reading can still be things your soul needs. Also I think for you reading and ensuing conversations about what you are reading is something you as a person very much need. Where would you be if you could never again speak about the books you read as a Johnnie? Where would you be without the intellectual stimulations you crave. Not for everyone, but I think for you intellectual exploration does feed your soul. I think you would miserable without it. You might not agree with me but I don’t think reading can be sidelined off as not being a spiritual practice so precisely.

    Baking, cooking, and writing can’t be enormously spiritual and I’m glad you are finding ways to feed your soul.

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