SPIRITUAL ESSENTIALS: COMMUNITY AND PRACTICE
As a spiritual director, I help others to be guided by their own inner voices rather than pushing them in any particular direction. However, I believe that there are two things that everyone must have in order to develop spiritually: a community and some kind of regular practice.
Community doesn’t need to mean an institutional community. Some people are able to develop very rich spiritual lives by meeting regularly with just a few people. A community can consist of a few trusted spiritual friends. However, we need to be meeting and speaking regularly with others who share at least some of our beliefs. Sometimes we don’t even know what we believe until we have an opportunity to speak aloud. As we struggle to figure out our beliefs and how to live them, we need feedback from others to help us stay on track and to challenge us in constructive ways. It’s easy to become misguided or to imagine that we are developing a great deal spiritually when not much is really happening. Talking about our beliefs and our moral dilemmas with others helps us to hear ourselves clearly, to work out our ideas more thoroughly, and to feel supported at difficult times. Jesus promised us that when two or three are gathered together in his name, he is there, and people of all faiths are able to experience God in powerful ways in community.
Some of us will be comfortable in institutional communities and will grow and flourish there. Finding a way to belong to a ready-made community is usually a lot less work than starting from scratch. We may feel oppressed and judged by institutional communities and imagine that they are demanding that we conform to an impossible or inappropriate standard. Yet sometimes when we work hard to find a way to be fully ourselves in these communities, a shift will take place and we feel the community nurturing us. We may discover that we are called to become leaders in the places where we are most uncomfortable in order to help others to find comfort. Our leadership role may help us to carve out the space in which we ourselves are suddenly more comfortable. We may discover that although we are filled with longing to be at the center of things, we are actually most comfortable on the margins and that we must learn to make our home there. Community can take many forms, and some of us may need to be creative and determined in order to find and build the communities that meet our needs.
If you are not currently in a community where you feel comfortable, ask yourself if there is a church, temple, meditation center, or recovery group that has been calling to you. Perhaps you are already a member of a community but are uncomfortable there or standing on the sidelines and need to take a step to become more deeply involved in a way that is right for you. Is there a person or persons in your life who might be able to help you to answer the questions you have about your spirituality? If you already have a trusted friend of this kind, do you need to make an appointment to meet more regularly? Who can help you to listen to God’s voice and how can you make these people a more regular part of your life? How can you move from the occasional, unexpected encounter with the holy into a community where you increasingly feel connected with God and with those around you?
How can we develop a practice that will help us to feel connected to God on a regular basis and help us to grow spiritually? For each of us the answer will be different. Some of us will find that the worship, prayer, and meditation offered by churches, temples and meditation centers perfectly fits our needs. Others may need to work harder to find the practice that suits us and helps us to grow in God.
What helps us to feel close to God? Activities such as being in nature, listening to music, looking at art, creating art, dancing, swimming, singing, or sitting quietly may help us to feel the presence of the sacred. Can we make more time for these activities in our lives? If we make more space in our lives for listening to God, we often begin to have a much stronger sense of what we should be doing next in order to draw closer to God. Today many people ignore the need for a sabbath. Rest is not just a gift that we give ourselves but a requirement if we are to make room in our lives for God to communicate with us. Are we making enough sabbath time in our lives? Do we need to create more time when the cell phone is turned off and we are resting and turned towards God? If every moment of our day is scheduled and full of bustle and noise, will we ever be able to hear when God speaks to us? Our spiritual lives are like little green plants sending up shoots through the soil. We need to clear away the weeds in order to make room for them to grow.
Any activity in which we feel more connected to the sacred and more likely to hear our own inner voices speaking to us can be a valuable practice if we find a way to make it a regular and intentional part of our lives. Spiritual practice doesn’t require a huge time commitment. A lot of people find that spending just five minutes a day in meditation, centering prayer, addressing verbal prayer towards God, or even just sitting in silence begins to transform their lives and helps them become more open and loving.
As with community, finding a ready made practice is often easier than starting from scratch. A worship service, a meditation class, yoga, tai chi or qigong, an art class, any kind of regular activity that creates a sense of quiet listening, that helps develop the intuitive sense and allows messages to float up to us from deep within can become a part of our spiritual practice. Our practice might even be simply a special way of engaging in our normal activities with a slow, mindful approach. (See Mindful Living)
For some of us, our personal practice may come out of what we find missing in our regular worship. If we are sorry that our church or temple service does not seem to leave us any time for our own silent prayer, perhaps we need to supplement our worship with a meditation practice at home. If we feel that there is something disembodied and overly ethereal about our worship, perhaps a tai chi or yoga practice can help us to embody our spiritual ideas in the world. If our faith tradition is stripped of images and we thirst for color and richness and spiritual imagery, perhaps we could be meditating on icons and religious artwork at home.
Sometimes what we need most may seem too pleasurable to be a spiritual practice. Activities that lead us deeper spiritually are not necessarily opposed to our own desires. God sometimes uses our own desires and needs to draw us closer. If we are oppressed by images of a judgmental God, if we are tight and controlling and unable to feel loved by God, we may need to let ourselves play and dream more in order to discover who we are as spiritual beings. When we awaken our creative and intuitive powers it is sometimes easier for us to hear what God is saying than when we are tight and restricted.