Spiritual practice is easily caricatured with those who do it for a living: yoga instructors, clergy, monastics, and smiling baldheaded saffron robed characters found in many cultures representing numerous traditions. In Christianity most normative “practices” are rooted in monasticism and began as the work of cloistered monks and nun. They prayed the eight daily offices because they could; their lifestyle was built around them, and literally their sense of time.
The distance between monasticism and our modern lifestyles is vast. A 21st century urban lifestyle will not be able to nurture or sustain monastic spiritual practices (our culture has become urbanized through media and so have most lifestyles whether or not they are suburban or rural). It is time we recognize this disconnect and weave a new Christian spiritual practice for those living in our world.
Finding a sacred space in which to hold moments of quiet so we can center is still an obvious feature of spiritual practice. But we can practice holding space in quiet corners of public places like museums or pocket parks, and we can practice centering with nonsensical word mantras as well as with eloquent prayers. Swimming laps, running, walking a treadmill or labyrinth work well for those who have a particularly kinetic personality and find it difficult to be stationary. In other words, the stereotypical motionless posture and petition-heavy prayers we might associate with such an activity need not be our prototype.
Public service and advocacy in any one of myriad opportunities to exercise compassion and neighbor-love is another central feature of contemporary spiritual practice. Call it what you like, but finding something that requires us to cross socio-economic, ethnic, or racial boundaries in order to build relationships of mutuality beyond the segregated existence many of us live, is the crucial component. Fundraising for the PTA or symphony orchestra does not qualify. In fact, because most churches are congregations of the like-minded and culturally homogenous, volunteering for a church activity usually doesn’t qualify as boundary busting either.
Community must be a facet of any spiritual practice as well, otherwise we become free-floating radicals more apt to stew in our own juices than grow and flourish. Becoming part of a community gathered around a mission greater than ourselves is the exercise of the tension between “I” and “We.” Keeping this tension rather than escaping it is vitally important to our nurture and growth.
We can build a spiritual practice out of an abundance of activities and disciplines – study, journaling, painting, meditation, activism, worship, exercise, prayer, contemplation – and probably should keep a diversity of elements so that we are challenged as well as reinforced in our strengths. But the thread weaving them together is intentionality, which is the “practice” part of spiritual practice. As in every capacity we seek to build and develop, practice only happens with intention and lots of it. Inspiration is not a trustworthy partner but intentionality is. It takes a plan and it requires an effort – just like in the monastic practice of old.