Practicing Spirit
Douglas Taylor

On a hot Monday in July several years ago, my family went out hunting for dinosaur fossils. This was an activity that Keenan, our middle child now 18, had requested for his birthday party. He had turned ten years old that year back in April, but there were delays. If we had been able, for example, to coordinate sooner with the paleontologist who took us on the tour, we might not have been so hot. We invited five families to join us and we explored two different sites. We drank a lot of water that hot July day.

This took place back when we lived in D.C. and as it turns out Washington D.C. sits atop a fossil band that runs parallel to the eastern coast. Our paleontologist guide told us that this is a critical point: If you are going to try to find dinosaur fossils you should look where you can reasonably expect to be able to find some. We did not find any fossilized dinosaur bones. We found sharks’ teeth, crystals, very old rocks, and petrified wood from the time of the dinosaurs. Our paleontologist guide told us that this is a second critical point: If you do not find anything it does not mean you lack special skills or have not tried hard enough, it just means you have not been lucky enough.

Our spiritual lives can be like searching for dinosaur fossils on a hot Monday in July. If you are going to try to find spiritual nourishment, you would do well to look where you can reasonably expect to find some. For example, read the Tao Te Ching, the Bible, and the Humanist Manifesto, go to church, pray, meditate, join a Small Group, increase your charitable giving, sing in the choir, volunteer to help people in need. These are tried and true places where one can reasonable expect to find spiritual nourishment. It is known that there is a rich vein of spirit runs parallel to these activities.

And if nothing special happens, or only happens for you once in a long time, that doesn’t mean you ‘don’t get it’ or are not spiritual enough. It simply means you have hit a dry time in your spiritual life. Remember that this can still be a wonderful time if you don’t worry and you don’t stop reading, attending, singing, praying, giving, and serving as you usually do. Trust also that the dry time will end and you will find that fossil or be struck by that deep personal and spiritual insight.

And here, amidst my delightful metaphor of the free and responsible search for dinosaur fossils I want to point out the metaphorical language that keeps popping up when we talk about spirituality. Much of the language we use for engaging in a spiritual practice speaks of a search, a quest, an attempt to find something. We long to find that spiritual insight, that fossil bone, or simply an inner calm and peace. When in our UU Principles we lift up the free and responsible search it is for truth and meaning – and it is the search for meaning that is the heart of a spiritual practice.

And what is meaning, after all, but the depth dimension we make of this life ourselves! “This hour is sacred because we make it so,” (a common Call to Worship I use by Jim Wickman). Meaning is a level of depth we find in our living; it is a quality of richness. How often do we slog through life or portions of our lives just going through the motions – no passion or careful thought expended; nothing of ourselves in the tasks? But our lives are like a rich fossil bed awaiting our effort and attention. With some practice, a wealth of spirit is just waiting to flow into our living.

In the introduction of the book Everyday Spiritual Practice, Editor Scott Alexander offers the guiding definition he used for deciding what to include in the book. He wrote that an everyday spiritual practice can be prayer or meditation, yoga or justice-making, recycling or quilting. “They are any activity or attitude in which you can regularly and intentionally engage, and which significantly deepens the quality of your relationship with the miracle of life both within and beyond you.” (p 5)

So, brushing your teeth or any number of personal hygiene rituals can be considered an “activity in which you regularly and intentionally engage.” But it is not a spiritual activity. Gardening can be just gardening, even though you do it every day in season. Sitting and staring off into space might be daydreaming rather than meditation even if you schedule it into your daily routine. These activities have the intentionality and the regularity but lack the depth implied in naming them as ‘spiritual’ practices. Alexander said it could be “any activity or attitude in which you can regularly and intentionally engage, and which significantly deepens the quality of your relationship with the miracle of life both within and beyond you.” Intentionality and regularity are important, but depth makes the difference.

And it seems to me one implication of this line of thinking is this: if you wish to begin a spiritual practice, you don’t need to choose a traditional form such as daily prayer or yoga or sitting Zen. You could as readily choose a practice you already have such as gardening or quilting and add the depth dimension to it. It may prove easier to add a depth dimension to a current practice than it would be to begin and sustain a new practice.

To be sure, the traditional practices we thinks of when we considers spiritual practices are excellent choices because, as my paleontologist guide offered, “If you are going to try to find dinosaur fossils you should look where you can reasonably expect to be able to find some.” But as Unitarian Universalist we are iconoclasts – doing religion the way it has always been done holds little interest for most people who gather here. Thus, Alexander’s point is well made: any activity in which you regularly and intentionally engage can serve when you add the depth dimension to it, when you use it to “significantly deepen the quality of your relationship” with life.

Listen to this story of cellist Pablo Casals that I found in the new Spirit in Practice curriculum from the UUA – the curriculum (as it happens) that Jeff Donahue will be leading next month (February.)

Pablo Casals, born in Vendrell, Spain to a Puerto Rican mother, is thought by many to be the greatest cellist who ever lived. His recordings of the Bach Cello Suites, made between 1936 and 1939, are considered unsurpassed to this day.
Casals’ prodigious musical talent became evident early. By the age of four he could play the violin, piano, and flute (having been taught by the church organist and choir director). When he first heard a cello at the age of 11, he decided to dedicate himself to that instrument, and he had already given a solo recital in Barcelona three years later at the age of 14. Five years later he was on the faculty of the renowned Municipal School of Music in Barcelona and was principal cellist of the Barcelona Opera House. He gained international acclaim in a career of such length that he performed in the United States for both President Theodore Roosevelt and President John F. Kennedy.
Yet even having attained such unquestionable mastery of his instrument, throughout his entire life Casals maintained a disciplined regimen of practicing for five or six hours every day. On the day he died, at the age of 96, he had already put in several hours practicing his scales. A few years earlier, when he was 93, a friend asked him why, after all he had achieved; he was still practicing as hard as ever. “Because,” Casals replied, “I think I’m making progress.”

So, practice! Casels found that the simple act of a daily routine was an essential part of the gift he had to offer the world. What would your life be like if you practiced something – anything – for five hours every day? I personally find this a daunting prospect. Even if we reduce the question to a mere 15 minutes each day.

I have, over the years, grumbled at myself that while I can manage to add a quality of depth to nearly any activity in my life, it is sustaining a regularity of practice that eludes me. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’ve tried everything, but I have tried a lot of different practices and nothing sticks. In my self-depreciating voice I would say I am completely lacking in discipline! Alexander says a spiritual practice should have intentionality and regularity as well as depth. I can reach the depth, but the regularity is so very hard for me.

But then I read one of the early chapters in that Everyday Spirituality book. I read the chapter (entitled “Eclectic Spirituality”) in which my colleague Barbara Wells writes about her preferred spiritual practice:

“I have come to realize that my spiritual practice can best be described as “eclectic.’ I have been fed through diverse and what may seem to be conflicting ways. I have gained spiritual knowledge in places as different as a college class-room and a New Age support group. I have journaled, prayed, meditated, danced, and sung to nurture my spirit. I have worshipped alone on a mountainside and in a ballroom filled with thousands. I have gone months without doing anything that looks remotely spiritual and have prayed every day for weeks at a time. That variety has been extraordinarily fulfilling and good for my soul.
“Eclectic spiritual practice [Wells continues] goes against the prevailing view that spiritual practice is like exercise: It must be a consistent, daily regimen, or your spirit will wither and die. Because this belief is so common, I have on occasion been called to task for not being ‘spiritual enough.’ But I believe there is no one-size-fits-all spirituality.” (p29)

And so perhaps there isn’t even a one-size-fits-me spirituality! And maybe, just maybe, that is not a cop-out on my part. Maybe this can be real because the point of a spiritual practice is not to do it the way the monks and mystics of old had always done it. The point is not to go through the motions of a spiritual practice. The point is to reach that depth on a regular basis, to develop the capacity to reach that quality of depth in living on a regular basis because it will make life better. Wells, in her “Eclectic Spirituality” essay adds this, “Spiritual practice is ultimately designed for something more: to make us better people and to bring our gifts into the world.” (Ibid, p32)

I like that wrinkle in the defined purpose of spiritual practices! To bring our gifts into the world! Certainly when I think of deeply spiritual people who spend their lives in traditional spiritual practice this definition can work: the gift they bring is of peace and compassion in their interactions with all people. That kind of peace spreads. It is good stuff! It is a gift they bring the world. But that is not the only gift a person can have. There is no one-size-fits-all gift we all have (except perhaps love – but I’ll leave that argument for another morning.)

What if your gift is for laughter or organizing things or seeing connections that others might miss? What if your gift is for song or listening or building things? There is a way to tap into your gift through regular, intentional practice. You can find and bring forth that best part of yourself.

And here I lift up a delightful paradox, at least a paradox in the words we use to describe what is going on. We speak of spiritual practice as being a search, a quest, an attempt to find something. And yet, notice in the Fulghum reading I offered this morning (from All I Really Need to Know I learned in Kindergarten, “Get Found, Kid” p54-56) how sometimes we speak not of finding but of being found. Notice how sometimes we will hide things about ourselves that are too intimate or tender to share, or would make us too vulnerable. Notice how sometimes what we are searching to find is only our own selves – and thus we are found.

When we hide a part of ourselves away in shame or fear, it may well be a deep part of ourselves that is linked to our gift. Some argue that it always is. Whatever you are after when you engage in a spiritual practice, be it God or your own gift, or the deep vulnerable core of yourself – I wish you good hunting. On hot Mondays in July or cold Sundays in January, may that spiritual insight or fossil bone turn up in your search!

In a world without end,
May it be so.