Of Gods and Men
“Once they were gone all we had left to do was live. And the first thing we did was, two hours later, we celebrated the Christmas Vigil and Mass. It’s what we had to do. It’s what we did. And we sang the Mass. We welcomed that child who was born for us, absolutely helpless and already so threatened. Afterwards, we found salvation in undertaking our daily tasks: the kitchen, the garden, the prayers, the bells. Day after day. We had to resist the violence.” - Brother Christian de Chergé from “Des hommes et des dieux“ (Of Gods and Men”)

I am not very good with structure. Perhaps it is a subtle resistance against the Confucian emphasis on order, but my preference for spontaneity started young and it did not bode well for my spiritual health as assessed by churches that prioritized spiritual disciplines. Shame, guilt, and alienation pervaded my efforts for the personal piety I was taught to pursue.

However, as I’ve learned more about the ways in which I experience the divine, my understanding of spiritual practice has shifted from a personal discipline-oriented to a community-oriented ethos. Rather than a performative function, I see spiritual practices as avenues of connection to my inner wisdom, other people, and a higher being. To me, this connective thread is sacred and a life-giving force amidst overwhelming disconnections in our society today.

I see spiritual practices as avenues of connection to my inner wisdom, other people, and a higher being.

This past summer, I realized a need for spiritual practices during my chaplaincy internship at a reentry organization in Harlem, New York. I bore witness to the evil forces of mass incarceration as formerly incarcerated individuals shared about economic suppression and the police state in their neighborhoods of origin, inhumane conditions in prisons, and intergenerational ties to incarceration. In my overwhelming feelings of helplessness to offer pastoral care to people who were suffering deeply, I needed a way to prepare my spirit for each day at my site.

This practice was the Examen, a daily, prayerful reflection process within the Jesuit tradition. Comprised of five steps that guide the practitioner toward contemplation and action, the Examen provided a space to slow down and recognize areas of need and areas of strengths, when incorporated into my daily routine. My attentiveness to God’s presence in my daily life allowed me to be more present for people seeking spiritual care.

I also wove the Examen into communal spaces at my site, using a restorative circle-inspired setting that mixed personal reflection and group sharing times for a more “inductive, collective, and inclusive” approach to spiritual care. This provided a space in which an individual’s truth-telling among peers and the group’s witnessing of the sharer’s story became acts of forging connections within atomizing and isolating systems.

Spiritual practices are much more than personal pietism. They lead to deeper connections not only with a higher being, but with oneself and with other people. 

Spiritual practices are much more than personal pietism. 

As we consider the multitudinous spiritual practices shared in this issue, may our imaginations seep into personal and communal rituals to give space and care for our individual and collective sufferings. 

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