When I was first considering my call to ministry, I visited with a hospital chaplain to learn more about the reality of her work. I remember confessing my fear of being around death and trauma on a daily basis.
“How do you deal with all the painful things you see in the hospital?” I asked her.
To my surprise, she told me that guts and grief were not the hardest part of her ministry. Paperwork was her biggest challenge, she said. (I can relate.) All these years later, though her name eludes me, I still treasure the advice this chaplain gave about how she kept life’s pain from dulling her spirit.
Always do two things, she said:
Choose uplifting music in the car, instead of news radio.
Park on the tip-top of the parking garage.
Skipping the news seemed understandable. Who among us wouldn’t benefit from a media sabbatical? But I wasn’t sure about her second ritual.
“Why park at the top?” I asked, guessing maybe she wanted to get more steps on the stairs.
“So that I start and end my work day with a view of the city,” she said, “to remind me that there is so much more out there than what’s going on in the hospital.”
Those two intentional habits — an upbeat soundtrack and a wider worldview —are what we clergy often call “spiritual practices.” Whether or not you have a religion, everyone needs a spiritual practice. We need ways to connect with what is highest and deepest to us — to exhale through work stress or difficult parenting moments, to find joy while acknowledging pain. Spiritual practices can help us de-escalate conflict, strengthen our spirits to fight injustice and simply get through the struggles of modern life.
My fellow YMCA chaplain, Nancy Abbott of the YMCA of Greater San Antonio, said she treasures morning prayers and time in nature as her spiritual practices. Those are popular ones, along with yoga, journaling and meditation. Successful spiritual practices also might be less obvious, like distance running, karaok, or a weekly board game night. What matters is that your practice nourish and sustain you, drawing you close to the divine or your truest self.
Sometimes we find our spiritual practice through trial and error.
I once visited the Shambhala Center in Chicago for a meditation training, hoping meditation would become my spiritual practice. I sat down cross-legged, like I’d seen in the movies, and told the meditation instructor, “I’m just going to close my eyes now, OK?”
“Actually, this is an eyes-open meditation,” she said. “We want you to be able to use these techniques in real life. You can’t close your eyes to avoid road rage when you’re in traffic.”
Good point. I remember that workshop whenever I’m stuck on Interstate 35 at 5 p.m., trying to get home from my job as a director for the TownLake YMCA. (I think what I really wanted that day at the Shambhala Center was a nap.)
Do you have a spiritual practice that sustains you? Don’t feel bad if you don’t. The truth is, even ministers struggle with this at times. When I entered seminary, I associated spiritual practice with the obvious options of prayer or meditation, neither of which were as much a part of my daily life as I believed they “should” be.
When I served as a chaplaincy intern at a hospital in Oakland, California, I was both delighted and daunted to find my rental house came with a backyard meditation shed. Finally! I thought. I will get around to meditating like I should!
Of course, I never set foot in the shed all summer, except to take a photo for Instagram.
As I was lamenting yet another meditation failure to my hospital supervisor, she stopped me. “You are a working mom. It’s OK if you’re not spending time in that shed. You can make washing dishes meditative. You have Zumba. Those are your spiritual practices. You don’t have to force it.”
Don’t force it. What a gift to hear those words.
These days I can take or leave the dishes, but there is no doubt Zumba is my spiritual practice. A YMCA friend invited me to a class more than seven years ago, and it has given me life ever since. On any given day, my fellow “TownLake Zumbies” and I are shaking our hips through grief, depression, joy, fear, illness, aging and so much more. People come up to me after class in tears over a loss or beaming about a new job. That’s what a good spiritual practice will do — open your heart and accompany you through the rich diversity of daily life.
Do you have a spiritual practice? If you can’t name one yet, try adding some intentionality and reflection to a habit or hobby you already enjoy. Don’t force it. Do keep seeking until you find the practice that brings you peace and joy.
The Rev. Erin J. Walter serves as the community engagement director for the TownLake YMCA and the affiliated community minister for Wildflower Church in South Austin. Doing Good Together is compiled by Interfaith Action of Central Texas, interfaithtexas.org.