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.
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?