1 June 2019

What spiritual practices bring you joy?

Tracey Edstein

Tracey Edstein

Tracey is a former editor of Aurora magazine

Like anything, the spiritual life can become stale or predictable, and cease to bring the joy that Jesus came to give (John 10:10).

Unless you’ve been living in a monastic community, I’m sure you would be at least minimally aware of the Marie Kondo approach to ‘decluttering’. In previewing a “Life Matters” (Radio National) segment on the phenomenon earlier this year, journalist Fran Kelly said, “My socks don’t give me joy.” She was referring to Kondo’s injunction that in reviewing your possessions, you must remove everything except that which is useful or gives you joy.

As her website proclaims, “Marie is a renowned tidying expert, helping people around the world to transform their cluttered homes into spaces of serenity and inspiration.”

The Kondo method – or mission – could be summarised as, “Keep only those things that speak to the heart, and discard items that no longer spark joy. Thank them for their service – then let them go.”

I think one of the aspects of ‘decluttering’ that appeals to many is instant gratification. So much of what we do requires patience and long-term vision. However, the things that really make a difference do take time, and benefit from consistent effort and a committed approach. Think exercise (must I?), paying off a mortgage, learning a new skill, even maintaining a friendship.

Almost a year ago, I stopped working full-time. The routines that had sustained my life had to be reconsidered. Since I had worked for the church, the line between my ‘work-life’ and my ‘life-life’ was blurred – happily so. My work included planning, participating in and reporting on liturgies and other diocesan events. This is no longer required and I participate on my own terms. 

In taking the opportunity presented to declutter my home, I have also been reflecting that the spiritual life can use some ‘decluttering’ from time to time. Practices that once sustained – or were simply not optional – may have served their purpose. Other opportunities may present themselves and I believe it’s good to be open to them. After all, you wouldn’t eat the same meals, walk/run the same route, wear the same clothes or listen to the same music without variation, week after week. Would you?

Many spiritual practices that are part of the Christian story are being rediscovered. Labyrinth walking, using a version of the labyrinth found inside Chartres Cathedral, France, is popular and labyrinths are appearing not only at retreat centres and churches but in public places such as Sydney’s Centennial Park.  There are even portable ‘rollaway’ labyrinths that can be used inside at retreats and gatherings where a ‘real’ labyrinth is impractical.

As TS Eliot wrote in “Little Gidding”:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Meditation has been part of many faith traditions for… well, forever. Often caricatured as involving awkward poses and chanting, in fact there are almost as many forms of meditation as there are meditators. Whether one practises meditation from a religious or broader perspective, it offers benefits in terms of wellbeing, taking time out from a busy schedule, promoting relaxation and effective sleep and mindfulness.   

Stephanie Dowrick, in Seeking the Sacred: Transforming our view of ourselves and one another (Allen & Unwin 2010), writes beautifully and insightfully.

“Meditation can be a tremendous resource in this … process of opening to an enhanced awareness of life’s depths and meaning. The ‘pause’ it requires and also the slight distance it gives between ‘us’ and our thoughts lets us experience how our usual hesitancies, defences and qualifiers can lose their grip. Perhaps more than either of those advantages, meditation also lets us see from the inside out that there is an ‘inside’! And that ‘mind’ as an experience is much greater than the sum total of our cognitive abilities.”  

 Mindfulness has been a ‘buzz word’ for some time and the practice – or at least talking about it – shows no sign of waning! Like so many spiritual practices, it fits well within the Christian tradition. How often does Jesus take himself away from his disciples, to a quiet place, to pray? It seems to me that mindfulness – a state in which one is calm, heedful and focused – is a prerequisite for prayer.

I have heard devotees of the Rosary say that while the prayers can be said mindlessly, in fact their familiarity induces a concentration and focus that enable deep prayer with the added dimension (often) of praying in community. I remember clearly that when my father died 12 years ago, the parish practice of the members of the St Vincent de Paul conference leading the Rosary the night before the funeral was very comforting.

The popularity of adult colouring books is due, presumably, to the ability of sustained colouring to induce mindfulness. It appeals to me. As a child, I was very good at staying between the lines!

Spiritual reading is a practice worthy of consideration. To me, spiritual reading occurs when what you read – fact or fiction, novel, poetry, short story or scripture (not only Christian scripture) – lifts, encourages, challenges, stirs you – and it may well offer respite from whatever else is happening in your world. That could be the biggest blessing!

Many mourned the death of American poet Mary Oliver earlier this year, including a dear friend, a Josephite Sister, perhaps the wisest woman I know. My friend’s many ministries, including English teaching; her love of story; including the Jesus story, and her openness to new ways of being church and being Christian as she navigates her 90s, owe much, I’m sure, to the insights she has gained from reading and reflecting.

By the time one reaches a certain age, one has often acquired a cohort of writers and thinkers who offer continued nourishment. For me, this cohort includes Ron Rolheiser omi, Caroline Jones, Joan Chittister osb, John O’Donohue and Stephanie Dowrick – and counting!

I have something of an obsession with books about writing – and I write a lot – and books about walking – and I walk a lot! My walking practice includes not carrying a phone and not wearing a watch. I know how long my regular routes take and I don’t want to be disturbed by calls or text messages.

Some of my best ideas land while walking! When you drive, you sometimes have that odd experience of thinking, for example, ‘I obviously drove over the bridge because here I am 10 kilometres south, but I have no memory of doing so.’ That can be disconcerting. However, I find it doesn’t happen while walking. There seems to be something about a regular route (or routes) at a regular pace that incites the required degree of attention to the path and enough mindfulness to reflect fruitfully.

“Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths,

where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.”

Jeremiah 6:16

My latest spiritual practice – although not all would see it that way – is swimming! I hate the heat of summers that now last forever but the shimmer of the water playing on white-tiles-that-always-look-blue is an instant tonic. The black line concentrates the mind wonderfully and I was pleasantly surprised to find that the local pool’s a judgement-free zone. I tell my friends I have no style and no speed but I love being immersed in the cool. I think air-conditioning and backyard pools have reduced the appeal of the town’s pool. Like women in the church, it’s a vastly under-utilised resource!

I’ve barely scratched the surface of the vast array of spiritual practices available and have deliberately focused on those that are not immediately apparent. Cycling and singing, painting, pottery and poetry, dancing and drama offer more possibilities.

What brings you joy?

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