What’s the Point of Spiritual Practice?

Presenter: 
Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 12/22/2013

Today I’m talking about what the point of spiritual practice is, and I’m going to start with a few descriptions of people’s interactions with spiritual practices. You can see if any of them sound like you.

From Rev. Kate Braestrup, Beginner’s Grace:
“I was of two minds about prayer - correction: I was of more than two minds. I had a whole crowd inside my skull, all jabbering away and no one listening. Do I have to kneel? Why can’t I pray just as well in the shower? Is there anyone else to pray to other than the anachronistic God of oily televangelists and creeps?...Praying on my knees is humiliating, especially when I’m kneeling on a carpet that was probably made by Nepalese teenagers, working their tiny fingers to the bone…what am I supposed to do with my hands? Really, I should get off the floor and make supper or something…”

From conversations I’ve had, with congregants:
“When I was growing up, I was told to pray to Jesus for what I wanted and what I needed. When I really needed my father to get well, I knelt on the floor every day and prayed to Jesus to make my father better. I was told that Jesus loved me and would answer my prayers. Well, my father died, and I never had anything to do with Jesus again. When I hear the word prayer, I think of people kneeling on a hard floor asking Jesus for things that are never going to happen.”

From Rev. Erik Walker Wikstrom, Simply Pray:

“You can’t find out what ‘wet’ feels like unless you get into the water. There’s simply no way to talk about it. There’s no explaining it. There’s no understanding it, even. There is only getting wet. Similarly, you can’t talk about a meal to someone and give them the taste of the food, or describe a symphony and expect them to experience the hearing of it…You can talk, describe, explain, and recite, of course, and doing these things will impart some measure of understanding. But in order for the other person to really know what you’re talking about – deeply, fully – she or he will have to experience it directly. So it is with the spiritual journey. No words can truly describe it; you must experience it for yourself.”

I’m in a bit of a conundrum here, having named my sermon “What’s the point of Spiritual Practice?” and then just having read an extensive quote that tells us all – quite accurately, I would say – that spiritual practice isn’t the sort of thing that one describes or tells about, but rather is best understood through experience.

My sermon title implies that I will stand here and mount a case for spiritual practice, explaining to you exactly why you should start one if you haven’t got one, or why you should continue to practice yours if you have got one. In such a sermon, I would carefully explain why such a practice is good for you, why it is different from what you’ve experienced and not found useful in the past, and I would tell you about all the benefits that might come from doing what I’m suggesting. That’s a normal way to do a sermon.

And yet, we’ve heard already, from Erik Walker Wikstrom, that this traditional sermon style isn’t going to have an impact on your spiritual practice, not the impact that he and I and other spiritual practitioners might hope it to have. It won’t give you the sense of what a good spiritual practice is like, or what it can do for you. I may as well stand up here for 20 minutes and describe the wetness of water, for all the good it will do. And this, Wikstrom points out, is the problem with much of religious teaching.

Religions aren’t in the business of encouraging you to just try it out and see what happens, generally speaking.

“Instead,” Wikstrom writes about religions, “after having been given a lot of concepts they are expected to understand – or at least memorize – people are often invited to fit their experiences into prefabricated cubby holes…This is what a spiritual experience feels like, now go and have one."

He goes on to say, “For a lot of us this doesn’t work too well. [A]t some point we get stuck in the concepts, unable to see beyond them, and so we find nothing.”

Given all this, it seems to me like this time might be better spent looking at some common but unhelpful ideas that people have about spiritual practice, and then maybe I can point you in the right direction towards giving your own spiritual practice a try. So that’s what we’re going to do today. We won’t describe the concepts behind spiritual practice so much but rather look at some approaches you might want to leave behind, and point a way to new directions that you might find more helpful.

First, let’s look at three common but unhelpful ideas about spiritual practice.

I want to get a singularly heartbreaking one out of the way first. The scenario is that someone, usually when they were a child, were told by their religion, which they trusted, that they could pray for what they wanted and a loving God would answer their prayer. When the prayer goes unanswered – and so many fervent prayers do go unanswered, at least on the surface of things – the child has to interpret that experience. One very logical response kids have, when prayers go unanswered, is that prayer, and the religion that encourages it, is bunk. And why wouldn’t they think that? They were told what would happen and it didn’t. The cubby hole was described, and the experience didn’t fit in any way. Why wouldn’t you leave the whole thing behind?

This scenario breaks my heart. I hate to think of prayer as being billed simultaneously as both more than and less than what it is. Misinterpreting and misrepresenting prayer is done all the time, especially when a religion is trying to make an idea simple, especially because they’re describing an idea for a child.

I’m going to take a stab at what I think those religions are trying to impart, with only some degree of success. This is going to serve as a translation of the notion that you can pray for your dad to get well and a loving God will make him well.

I would say: The world is a wondrous place, with mysteries beyond our understanding. At the root of this world, somehow, love resides – love for every living thing, and love for you. You can pray and become closer to this source of love, which can support you in all sorts of ways. If you have trouble, pray for help, and help will come – but maybe not in the way you were expecting.

That’s how I would teach it. But what is often heard, and often literally said in those religions? “Pray for what you want and if God loves you enough, it will come true.”

This can lead to believing that if God loves you he’ll save your dad, and if he didn’t, then he didn’t love you. Or he doesn’t exist. This tragic message steers so many people away from religion, from prayer.

I guess I’ll just come out on a limb, no matter what warning I get from Erik Wikstrom, and I will say that the purpose of prayer is not so much to ensure an outcome that you’ve decided is the right one, but rather to get yourself more in line with, closer to, the sacred center of the universe so that you might understand its workings better, or draw on it for insight, or draw on it for strength.

I don’t want to break Rev. Wikstrom’s rule and explain the wetness of water. I want to point at the vast water that is prayer, and tell you that I swear, jumping in there will be an experience you won’t forget.

Unfortunately – and believe me when I say how sorry I am about this – jumping in won’t save your father, not necessarily, and it won’t necessarily change your life into exactly what you demand that it be changed into. But jumping into spiritual practice can change your perspective and your understanding of intractable situations in ways you would never have been able to predict, and can sometimes change the situation itself, but often in an unexpected way.

Jumping into spiritual practice can change your perspective and your understanding of intractable situations in ways you would never have been able to predict, and can sometimes change the situation itself, but often in an unexpected way.

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Another common but unhelpful understanding of spiritual practice is that you have to be very calm, peaceful and centered in order to begin one. Another way to think about this misperception is to think that you have to be quite holy in order to pray. You could spend the rest of your life searching for the calm and peace, the holiness that you think is the necessary first step for a spiritual practice. And that would be too bad, because you would miss a huge opportunity.

I’ll let Kate Braestrup explain. Braestrup is the author of our first quote at the beginning of the sermon about the crowd inside her skull, which is often called monkey mind, the constant chatter that keeps her from prayer. She talks about her early experiences with spiritual practice as feeling like the opposite of what she thought she was supposed to feel like.

She writes,
“[My] running stream-of-consciousness commentary…is the opposite of the clear, calm, contemplative mindfulness a person is supposed to have when she is praying, right? I always thought so. And because my mind was never empty, never clear, jibber jabber jibber jabber, I couldn’t conjure even a moment’s meditative mood, which made me feel inadequate and therefore huffy. Untangling myself from the lotus position after trying to meditate, or hoisting myself from the pew after trying to pray, I would self-righteously declare that it was more important to do something useful for the Poor and Downtrodden than to sit around praying…”

And then Braestrup goes on to offer a little clue, a little answer as to why one might bother with a spiritual practice: “On the face of it,” she writes, “prayer seemed harmless enough to try, just for the heck of it. The major obstacle for me was ignorance; I didn’t really understand what prayer was. I had thought that conquering the monkey mind and bringing myself into a conscious attentiveness were prerequisites for prayer, but they are not: They are prayer’s result. If I was restless, dubious, and distracted whenever I’d try to pray, so what? Everyone is!”

I thought that conquering the monkey mind and bringing myself into a conscious attentiveness were prerequisites for prayer, but they are not: They are prayer’s result.

Helpful hint number two: Don’t forget that you actually need to do the practice in order to reap the benefits. There isn’t really a short cut here, not that I have seen. You can’t learn about the benefits, but not practice them, and have them arrive. You can’t agree with or believe in the benefits, but not practice them, and have them arrive. You need to practice to see the benefits. So don’t even bother seeking those benefits out first, before you begin the practice. That’s backwards. You don’t start holy, you don’t start centered, and then pray. You pray, and centeredness comes to you.

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The third common but unhelpful understanding of spiritual practice has to do with debilitating confusion over what we are praying to. I’ve mentioned before that many Unitarian Universalists believe that they need to get busy figuring out what exactly they are praying to, before they can engage in any sort of connection through prayer. We hear that in Kate Braestrup’s comments – I feel silly, what am I even doing, who’s listening to this, does it only count if I pray to that white-bearded-old-guy-in-the-cloud God.

Rev. Wikstrom has a perspective on this that I’ll share with you. He writes:

“The experience precedes the theology. Rather than trying to fit the experience into a predefined concept, we can define the concepts only in light of what we have learned in our lives. This may seem radical, yet it is the path that mystics and contemplatives have been suggesting from time immemorial.

If you long to connect with the Sacred, if you desire to live a life that is more in touch with the Holy, stop listening for something and start simply listening. If you have given up on an anthropomorphic deity – the old white guy with the long white beard, or any of his stand ins – yet can’t figure out what to put in its place, stop looking for something and start simply looking around you. Notice those places in your life where you have felt yourself in the presence of the Holy, remember those experiences in which you have heard your connectedness; seek in your own life – your own feelings, your own moments – those places where you have encountered, or are encountering, the Sacred. In other words, simply pray. Pray without any preconceived notion of what you’re doing, or why. Simply do it, and see what happens.”

Simply do it, and see what happens. Why? Why do this? Why throw yourself in the deep end to see what wetness feels like?

Well, the first reason to do it is to reap whatever benefits prayer offers, most of which I have not bothered to try to describe to you, per the rules. That’s something you’ll experience for yourself.

And the second reason for doing it, for spiritual practice, is so that you can come to a greater understanding of what is at the root of this world into which we are born. You can come to a theology. A belief system. A faith.

Wikstrom elaborates on this. “After you pray, then begin to think. Think about what your experiences tell you about the holy. Think about what those experiences tell you about the way the world works and the spirit moves. Build your theology on your experience, rather than the other way around. Define the divine for yourself through your own experiences rather than seeking experiences that match someone else’s definition.”

If you can manage to create a connection with the core of creation, and then keep up that connection in some way, then you will reap the benefits that mystics and contemplatives have spoken of since time immemorial. Isn’t this, at least in part, the reason you come to church, to feel more centered, more peaceful, more connected?

I’ll wrap up with a quote from yet another UU minister about his personal spiritual practice. His name is Rev. Roger Cowan, who wrote this:

In a desperate moment, I cried out for help, and I was answered. Some years later I am still a humanist—I believe that religion is about this world, about bringing justice and mercy and the power of love into life here and now. Yet I am a humanist who prays, who begins each morning with devotional readings and a time of silence and prayer. Why do I do this?

I need a quiet time. I need to express my gratitude. I need humility. I pray because—alone—I am not enough and also I am too much. I express gratitude for the gift of aliveness. I assert my oneness with you and all humankind and all creation.
When I pray, I acknowledge that God [whatever God may be], God is not me.

It is this practice, that tells you that you are not enough and you are too much, that you are enmeshed in a global gift of aliveness that comes from where we do not know, that practice changes everything about how you see the world and your place in it. I can’t tell you what wetness feels like. But I can tell you that it feels awesome. Go out there and dive in.

Amen.

Read these books!
Kate Braestrup, Beginner’s Grace: Bringing Prayer to Life. New York: Free Press, 2010.
Erik Walker Wikstrom, Simply Pray: A Modern Spiritual Practice to Deepen Your Life. Boston: Skinner House Books, 2005.