We all know that regular physical exercise promotes health. When I’m faithful to my gym regimen, I feel better. I can keep up on long hikes with younger friends, not to mention with my dear spouse, whose idea of a vacation is more like boot camp than rest.
The benefits I receive from regular spiritual exercise are comparable. Working our “inner muscles” makes us better prepared to offer creative, loving responses. It equips us to sustain both personal relationships and our relationship with God, or however you name the “ground of your being.” It helps us cope when the going gets tough.
I expect you can identify moments in your life when your inner convictions have conflicted with outer demands. Perhaps there’s a situation at work in which the behaviour that is expected raises ethical questions for you. Or when weighing a decision, you find yourself in opposition to people you care about and can’t see a healing way forward.
In my former role as United Church moderator, I often had to prepare for media interviews in which I was expected to justify unpopular or controversial statements from our church. I was comfortable with the statements, but not always confident of my ability to explain them quickly and persuasively. Before facing a tough interviewer, I’d take a moment to centre myself, praying to be open to the love of God and the peace of Christ, so that whatever I said and did would be a reflection of that love and peace.
If the interview was by phone, I’d go further, lighting a candle as I began to pray and leaving it lit throughout the conversation. No matter how frosty the questions, the candle’s glow reminded me that I am not alone. Conscious of being accompanied by Christ, I was more likely to be compassionate, peaceful and unafraid.
For me, lighting and extinguishing a candle with prayer is a spiritual practice that can transform what I say and do. Like physical stretching, it opens me to greater health and wholeness, strengthening my relationship to the Holy and the human. Without it, I can slip into old patterns of competition and argument, rather than openness of heart and movement of Spirit.
Of course, spiritual exercise is far more diverse than prayers and candles. It includes what we do to be still and what we do to be active. It’s both prayer and pilgrimage, meditation and marches, argument and art, silence and speaking.
I’ve experienced a wide variety of spiritual disciplines. Many inspire me: hiking in the wilderness and walking inner-city labyrinths have sparked moments of insight and grace, for example. Some, like the visual arts, frankly leave me cold — but even there, a gifted teacher can help me use painting or sculpting as a spiritual practice.
I hope in this column we can learn both individually and collectively. Each month, we’ll explore a different practice and I’ll invite you to try it on for size. I very much want to know: how does it work for you? This month, I invite you to share the practices that you have found most transformative in your life.
Ultimately, engaging in a spiritual practice strengthens our relationship with God — a relationship that Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun and prolific author from Pennsylvania, describes in this way: “God is the very Energy that animates us . . . the Spirit that leads us and drives us on . . . the Voice within us calling us to Life . . . the Reality trying to come to fullness within us, both individually and together.”
Mardi Tindal is a facilitator and mentor with the Center for Courage & Renewal and a former United Church moderator.
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