The Spiritual Practices of a Lapsed Protestant
Quiet reflection and assorted rituals bring a sense of calm and well-being
It’s 6:30 a.m., and I have just left my "holy corner," where I sit alone every morning for an hour or two. The early morning is for me a sacred time, what the Celts call a “thin place,” where the gap between the sacred and the secular is very narrow.
Today I read my daily reflection from the online retreat I’m taking on Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegard, who today would be called an eco-mystic, lived in the 10th century in the Rhineland. In honor of her, I named my latest notebook "The Greening Journal."
I also spend my early morning time writing and reading inspirational literature. Currently I’m enjoying a juicy memoir, My Life With the Saints, by the Jesuit priest James Martin, SJ. I’m not Catholic, but I like the idea of spiritual “allies,” and I’m especially fond of Anthony, the patron saint of lost things, who I invoke when I can’t find something: “Dear St. Anthony, please come ‘round, something is lost and cannot be found,” a verse that reminds me that the sacred need not be solemn.
I love that my spiritual practices keep evolving, but I also love that many have remained constant over the years.
As for writing, I’ve been keeping a journal since I was nine. Nowadays I loosely follow the free-form, unedited “Morning Pages” method inspired by Julia Cameron’s classic The Artist’s Way, in which I write three pages of whatever pours out of me.
Every so often between reading and writing, I stand up, stretch and do a Sun Salutation, which I dedicate to my troubled nephew.
My early morning routine is just one of the practices I’ve developed that anchors me and gives my life meaning. At 68, I’ve been exposed to many faiths. Because of my father’s work as a diplomat, I grew up living in different parts of the world, attending whatever English-speaking Protestant church existed in the country where we were currently living. Some countries were not Christian at all; in Pakistan, for example, where I lived as a teenager in the '60s, I heard the haunting Muslim call to worship five times a day.
At different points of my life, I’ve joined the Unitarian Church, Unity Church and Zen Buddhism, remaining in each for many years. Perhaps because my exposure to Christianity felt somewhat fragmented, I never really took to it. Yet it will always be part of my roots, and because of this, certain aspects of it feel very intimate to me.
My Own Unique Brand of Spirituality
I’m not a member of any faith community today, but I draw from my childhood memories of different churches as well as other faith traditions to cultivate my own unique brand of spirituality.
Here are some of my other practices:
Acknowledging meals. At the beginning of a meal, I bow to acknowledge all those who were responsible for the food I’m about to consume. As a Buddhist chant says, “Innumerable labors brought us this meal.” At the end, bowing signifies the meal is over. As a person with a history of compulsive eating, I have trouble stopping, and for this reason it is a very powerful practice. I also leave a bite for my Higher Power to remind myself I don’t have to eat everything on the plate.
The 12 Steps. Leaving a bite is a practice I picked up from Overeaters Anonymous, a 12-step program that has been an important influence in my life. When I feel stuck, I turn to Step 6: “(We) were entirely ready to have God remove all our defects of character.” Recently, for example, I felt resentful at a family member, and no matter what I did, I couldn’t let go of my resentment. But while sitting in an OA meeting listening to fellow members, I suddenly did feel ready, and told the group I would (Step 7) “humbly ask God to remove my defects of character.”
Since then, the resentment has faded. It's mysterious, since I don’t believe in God, and certainly not a God who swoops in and changes people’s habits or personalities. But somehow repeating that step as a mantra helped me let go.
My God Box. A square metal container that once held toffees, illustrated with faded pictures of pears, sits on a chest in my office. I slip notes of paper into my God Box, asking for help when I feel anxious, to express gratitude and to send positive thoughts to people. Remembering that levity is helpful, I sometimes write my message in verse:
With lightness in my heart
(If not in my tummy)
I ask you to help me forego
From what may look yummy.
That I do this with calm,
Without fear and stress
So that I feel a balm
And deep sense of rest.
Since I don’t believe in a deity, why am I thanking God? Good question! I have no idea. But it doesn’t seem to matter, because after I slip my message into the box, I feel calm.
Going to retreats. There’s nothing I like better than a long talk with a close friend, but since I also value the restorative power of stillness, I occasionally participate in silent retreats. Last month, I attended a retreat on the theme of The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymous mystical book written in the 14th century.
Sitting in churches. When traveling, I like to sit silently in churches. In many countries, churches — unlike in the U.S. — remain open all day. Resting on a pew, steeped within the thick, musty walls of an old church, calms me and helps me feel connected to the ancients.
Candles and shrines. My husband and I light candles for those no longer with us. Staring at the flame, I remember I belong to a long chain of humans who have used fire for ceremonial purposes from time immemorial. Sometimes, on November 1, the Latino Day of the Dead, we create an altar with candles, ornaments and photos of our beloveds, a tradition we have observed and appreciated in Mexico, where we live four months a year.
Exploring nature. Because I find nature intrinsically sacred, I seek out parks, trees, wilderness, and water. When in the U.S., I live in Eureka, on California’s North Coast, 10 minutes from the ocean. About once a week, I meander through the purple heather-covered dunes to the beach. Because both my parents grew up visiting South Carolina beaches, I feel the ocean is in my genes, and love to walk barefoot on the sand. As the 17th-century English theologian Matthew Henry said, “It is not talking, but walking, that will bring us to heaven.”
Singing and chanting. Often while walking, I’ll sing my favorite hymns from childhood, spirituals like Amazing Grace and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and Christmas carols. Or I’ll chant the St. Francis Prayer in Spanish.
'Connect Me to Something Larger Than Myself'
I love that my spiritual practices keep evolving, but I also love that many of them have remained constant over the years.
Wherever I am, they instill in me a sense of reverence and gratitude, and connect me to something larger than myself.
That, to me, is what spirituality is all about.