For the Week of September 4, 2016: Finding Solace in a Spiritual Practice

And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear.  What we need is here.

From:  “The Wild Geese,” by Wendell Berry

Throughout my childhood and undergraduate years, I was active in the Methodist church, involved in the youth groups and later, in the Methodist Student Movement, which was very involved in civil rights and social justice.  Some of my most enduring friendships were formed during that period, but for the better part of my adult life,  I’ve been a lapsed church-goer, craving a deeper spiritual practice than I experienced in the Sunday morning services.   For years, I dabbled with other religious traditions, tried practicing meditation, but nothing seemed to fill my need for the spiritual life I once knew.

Ironically, I’ve led workshops with the bereaved and the terminally ill, and in all of them, one’s faith and spirituality are central.  Still, I searched for something more in my life, even beginning a chaplaincy program several years ago, only to withdraw after a few weeks because, as I told the other participants, I didn’t feel I was “religious” enough to be a chaplain.

And yet, questions of spirituality and faith have always been important and central to my life.  It was only after a spiritual retreat I co-led a couple of years ago, I realized I had had overlooked the spiritual practice I’ve had for years:  a daily routine of writing—freely and deeply—something which began in my teens as I pondered life’s meaning and a later became a refuge, and a virtual sanctuary in my daily adult life.  Writing, as some writers have said, is like a kind of prayer, something I’d always felt about my daily writing practice, but I hadn’t acknowledged how it had, over a period of many years, become my spiritual practice.

Nearly twenty years ago,  I was struggling with a near perfect storm of losses—my father was dead from lung cancer, my mother had begun her descent into the darkness of Alzheimer’s disease, and our family’s dynamics resulted in my becoming estranged from my siblings.   At the same time, I was in the midst of a soul wrenching experience of having to downsize a dying nonprofit organization,  when an unexpected diagnosis of early stage breast cancer–while not life threatening–finally thrust me into a period of complete numbness.  Writing, as it had always been, was my refuge, the only way I could express the grief and heartache I felt,  The only way I could make sense of everything that was happening.  Writing not helped me cope, it became a fundamental part of my spiritual life.

I have since maintained daily writing practice, a ritual of quiet meditation that begins in the pre-dawn hours of each day, well before the outside world pulls me into its noisy demands.  I settle in my chair and open the pages of leather bound journal I’ve written in for years.  A new page awaits, blank and inviting, and I recall Rita Dove’s words in, “Dawn Revisited:”  the whole sky is yours/ to write on, blown open/ to a blank page…

The whole sky is yours to write on… and I write, every morning, without expectation, beginning with one small observation–something I notice in the moment—fog lifting from the canyon floor, the red breasted hummingbird who appears each morning at the garden fountain, a hawk’s wings spread wide as he glides over the canyon below; the graceful movement of eucalyptus trees in the morning breeze, the smell of freshly brewed coffee—whatever captures my attention.

Sometimes, a short poem emerges on the page, and other times, it’s a feeling or memory, a door open into a longer narrative.  It matters less what I write than simply that I write, embracing the solitude, intertwining the external world with my internal one, exploring whatever words or sentences appear on the page.

“At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world~ now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive. You empty yourself and wait, listening.                                         Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk.

Writing is my daily meditation and prayer.  It opens me, ensures I am “paying attention” to what is before me or inside me. It informs my intentions for each day and ultimately, the work I do.  Writing isn’t for everyone, and that hardly matters, because anything that opens you to quiet contemplation and the deeper parts of your lives can be a spiritual practice, for example, art, music, meditation, yoga, hiking, dance…  As Thomas Merton said, “Art enables us to find ourselves and and lose ourselves at the same time.”

Life’s hardships thrust us into what can only be defined as a deeply spiritual journey, although we may not recognize it as such.  We may kick and scream, rail against the injustices of those events, but like it or not, we’re forced to re-examine our lives in ways we have not done before.  We learn to pay attention, really pay attention, to what truly matters to us.   In times of hardship, life-threatening illness, or other suffering, it’s often our spiritual lives that keep us from losing hope, that keep us whole.  As New York Times editor, Dana Jennings, wrote in his blog “One Man’s Cancer,” our spiritual lives sustain us through life’s most challenging chapters:

I am not a fool. I am a patient with Stage T3B cancer and a Gleason score of 9. I need the skills and the insights of the nurses and doctors who care for me. But they don’t treat the whole man. Medicine cares about physical outcomes, not the soul. I also need — even crave — the spiritual antibodies of prayer, song and sacred study.  (New York Times, June 2009)

I also need—even crave–the spiritual antibodies of prayer, song and sacred study…  Among cancer patients, studies show that faith and spirituality are important factors in the quality of life. I witness this in my writing groups.  Faith or spirituality are  often expressed in the poetry and stories written and shared with each other.  As one member said “The community I am building with my fellow writers …is… a form of spirituality.”  Sharing the stories of one’s experience of cancer is one way our spiritual lives deepen and solidify.

Through the exchange of stories, we help heal each other’s spirits…Isn’t this what a spiritual life is about?          -–Patrice Vecchione, Writing and the Spiritual Life                                                                                                                 

However you define your spiritual practice, it can comfort you in times of struggle, but it also gives you the opportunity to deepen your understanding and compassion for yourself and others.  You learn to pay attention to what, in your lives, truly matters, what is essential and important.  You learn to remember gratitude and appreciation for the ordinary gifts life offers you each day.

Varda, who died of metastatic breast cancer nearly fifteen years ago, wrote with me the last two years of her life.  I’ve never forgotten her writing, often humorously, sometimes poignant, but always honest, voicing what others were sometimes afraid to express.  Varda was thrust into a journey that may have brought her to her knees, but she continued to write deeply about her life, her faith and her cancer during the many remaining months of her life.  Her stories were her “spiritual antibodies”—not her cure, but part of her courage to face and help others face her death with grace, love, and even shared laughter.  It was the evidence of the depth of her spiritual life. Near the final weeks of her life, she wrote a poem expressing her spiritual journey:

God and I always had a special relationship,

sealed in ancient Hebrew prayers

and stained glass windows.

The Shofar blown on Yom Kippur.

The Book of Life open for ten days a year,

and then my fate sealed.

 

But our relationship has changed.

In asking me to surrender to this illness,

God has asked me to let go—to trust—float free.

And I have found this to be a most precious time.

 

My cancer has challenged my faith,

and I have found an incredible well I did not know I had.

I have found true surrender,

enormous peace.

(From:  “Faith,” by Varda Nowack Goldstein, in:  A Healing Journey:  Writing Together Through Breast Cancer, by Sharon Bray, 2004).)

Writing Suggestions:

  • What nourishes your spiritual life?
  • What spiritual practices or rituals have helped sustain you in times of illness, hardship or struggle?
  • Where have you found your solace, your strength, your source for “spiritual antibodies?”

About Sharon A. Bray, EdD

Best known for her innovative work with cancer patients and survivors, Sharon is a writer, educator and author of two books on the benefits of expressive writing during cancer as well as personal essays, a children's book, magazine articles and the occasional poetry. She designed and initiated expressive writing programs at several major cancer centers, including Breast Cancer Connections, Stanford Cancer Center, Scripps Green Cancer Center and Moores UCSD Cancer Center. She continues to lead expressive writing groups for men and women living in the San Diego area and teach creative writing workshops and classes privately for UCLA extension Writers' Program. She previously taught professional development courses in therapeutic writing at Santa Clara University and the Pacific School of Religion, was a faculty member of the CURE Magazine Forums and at the Omega Institute in 2014. Sharon earned her doctorate from the University of Toronto and studied creative and transformative writing at Humber School for Writers, University of Washington, and Goddard College.
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