Twenty-five years ago, or so, I sat in my youth pastor's office eavesdropping on a conversation he was having with another student. They were discussing a book by Richard Foster called Celebration of Discipline: The Path To Spiritual Growth. I remember being fascinated by the discussion--they were talking about giving up material possessions as a spiritual practice--they were talking about guitars. I was so interested in the discussion that I asked to borrow the book. I doubt seriously I made it past the opening line: "Superficiality is the curse of our age."
I know I didn't get far, and I never finished it. Years later I bought my own copy in seminary, intending to finally get through it. It has remained on my shelf, unread. I confess that my nose wrinkles every time I pick it up and read a line. The word "discipline" has an unpleasant ring to my ears--I have worked hard to understand God apart from power and dominance. I suspect God has worked hard to manifest gently in my life.
I have resisted spiritual practices and disciplines for a long time in my life. I have dabbled for short periods of time or for weekend retreats. When I entered seminary in 2006 I began to meet individually with a spiritual director and to explore the depths and edges of my faith. Some very unexpected things came out of that directed time, and one of them was a deep longing for structure in my life.
Structure requires trust, and trust is not my strong suit.
I keep looking at this book, and I think it's next on my reading list. It comes to mind because over the last few months I have taken on two spiritual disciplines. I suspect I'm not doing the "discipline" thing correctly, but I have a habit of going at things backward. I find it easier to learn history, for instance, by starting in the now and digging backwards. If you say to me, "It began with the Council of Nicene in the year 325 CE..." my brain shuts off, my ears close, and my eyes droop. But if you start with what matters now and work your way back, I will sit on the edge of my seat, waiting to hear the why of it all.
The first discipline I have been engaged in is a salsa class. I am not a dancer--I have taken very few dance classes in my life. I took a ballet class once as a child. We decided to dance Snow White and the Seven Dwarves for our parents, and I was assigned the part of the dwarf, Happy. This worked out fine in practice, until one day I skipped across the floor, slipped, and fell. The instructor traded me out with Bashful so that my only role was to poke my head out of the closet once and slam the door shut.
I took a ballroom dance class in junior high. I danced some aerobics in high school. But I always felt so awkward! And I always hated watching myself in the mirror.
In September, when I decided not to return to my PhD program, every day felt like looking in a dance mirror endlessly. So I decided if I was going to feel that way, I would learn to dance. I've gone most weeks to a one hour salsa class, and I've started to learn how to move in new ways. There's a looseness and a groundedness required to dance salsa that I don't have the hang of yet. You have to bend your knees, and my whole life I've had the lousy habit of locking my knees. You have to let your hips move, and my whole life I've been careful not to move my hips when I walk. You have to stop thinking about what you're doing and just do it, and my whole life my brain has been on overdrive thinking.
I went tonight for the first time in a month, and I was thinking it would be a disaster. When I walked in the door I could scarcely remember a basic salsa step. But then I closed my eyes, listened to the music, and just let my body move. I'm not off to the club or planning an exhibition--my instructor tonight said, "Katie, you're not supposed to look like a bunny rabbit when you dance." But it feels good to move. It feels good to not think at every moment. It feels good to learn my body in new ways.
This is a spiritual discipline--to let the Spirit move me. It takes courage to learn new ways at age 39. It takes a deliberate carelessness to stare at myself in the mirror for an hour each week, filtering through the self-critical thoughts that come about my body and how I move. It takes commitment to show up every week for the class, even when I don't feel like it. It has required trust in the instructor--sometimes we dance partnered, and allowing others to touch me and dance close has me conflicted.
The other practice I began recently is fasting. I am part of a support group that formed from twitter connections. We support one another in whatever healthy practices we can think of to foster our well-being. As we talked about food, one of our members said, "Remember, don't let yourself get hungry--that's when you binge eat." I realized suddenly that I didn't quite remember what it feels like to be hungry. I took to heart the snacker philosophy years ago, and much of my life revolves around food. Eating is almost a way of regrouping--I stop to snack and think about what's next. With two children, snacking is easy. In addition to whatever meals I plan for myself, the children are constantly eating half their meals--no, feeling hungry wasn't my problem.
So I decided to start fasting on Tuesdays after breakfast. Just water all day and then break the fast on Wednesday mornings. I briefly skimmed the chapter in Celebration of Discipline on fasting this evening as I was thinking about this post. Interestingly, my book mark was placed exactly in that chapter, so clearly this isn't the first time I've thought about fasting. Foster writes, "Fasting must forever center on God. It must be God-initiated and God-ordained...Every other purpose must be subservient to God." (Foster, 54) Subservience is not my strong point, I confess. I suspect I will struggle with this book.
And yet, this practice of fasting has led to some fascinating insights, and I have felt God's presence in the midst. If God is love, and love for my body is included in that, then God is unmistakably present in this practice. Tuesday lunch is not much of a problem, although I often spend time with people who are eating when I am not. By dinnertime, I am cranky. I am out of sorts. I find it difficult to focus--not because I am so terribly hungry, but because I usually think while I snack and do when I'm done.
This Tuesday I just went to bed at 9:00. And then I woke up at 6:00 this morning to make coffee and an omelet. My night owl self doesn't do early to bed and early to rise, but this felt right. There's something about this practice that reboots me, and it may be that part of my stress lately is that I have too many processes running at once.
Tiny steps, little practices, squeezed between my responsibilities as parent, pastor, housekeeper, bill payer, and chef. I used to find a great deal of spiritual nourishment from Sunday worship, but as a pastor, Sunday worship is a lot of work. Good work, blessed work, but not a sabbath. Pastoring is a place where I teach and learn as a teacher. In this dance class and in the habit of fasting, I return to my role as student. I am powerfully moved by that.
I've been thinking about a passage from Isaiah that has always troubled me. It's a vineyard metaphor that stands in for Israel and her relationship to the Lord. I have always cringed as I read this passage, because I like wild things. I have always thought haphazard patches of wildflowers are more beautiful than a cultivated garden--I recognize in wild creatures a kindred spirit (see my post, "Wildcat" from January). Indulge me and read this passage (Isaiah 5:1-7):
Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watch-tower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.
And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me
and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?
And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown
with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
but heard a cry!
I read this passage, and I resent it mightily. I have felt trampled and devoured already in this life--what justice is it to survive by growing wild only to be destroyed by the Lord for the trouble? And yet, it occurs to me, in my wildness, how have I trampled others?
Tonight I have come to the belief that there is a deep connection between my salsa dancing and fasting and the justice work I do. Through these bodily practices, I connect to Spirit prayerfully. I am avoiding, perhaps, the spiritual burnout that comes with growing too wild. I have entered a new way of listening to the sound of One Who Made Me. I do justice to my own body and spirit so that I might do the same for others. I die to myself and live once more.