Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Practices, Ordinary -- and Not!

Of course, not everyone can simply pack up and go on pilgrimage. It takes time, money, good feet -- and, of course, gear! That combination comes rarely, if at all. Medieval Christians recognized that a trip to the Holy Land simply wasn't going to fit the calendar or the pocketbook of everyone who wanted to go. Labyrinths evolved as more local alternatives. People walked them instead, hoping physical exertion would prompt spiritual awakening. Anyone walking the great labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in France on a sunny afternoon, though, might forget all about Jerusalem! By careful design, light from the stained glass Rose Window spills onto the labyrinth below -- it's like walking inside a divine kaleidoscope! Chartres was closer than Jerusalem; still, not everyone made it to Chartres.

For most people, then and now, more ordinary practices sustain spirituality: journaling, prayer, worship, devotion to local saints who come to you and don't require much travel. These quotidian practices contrast with more liminal practices like pilgrimage or retreat. Quotidian practices, those everyday disciplines, challenge people to find insight in the ordinary. A friend tells the story of a nun who's read scripture everyday for most of her eighty years. He asked how she could stand it. She paused for a moment, and then said: "I simply read the text until it surprises me." The daily discipline of sitting with scripture held all the grace she needed.

In contrast, liminal practices, those rare or once-in-a-lifetime experiences, prompt insight by dislocation. Liminal practices remove people from their ordinary surroundings, placing them literally at the margins of comfort, even safety. On Kilimanjaro, it didn't matter how many advanced degrees I had. The thing that mattered was finding a pace, no matter how slow, so that I could keep moving forward without stopping and starting all the time. Thankfully, that pilgrimage was not an "ordinary" experience. But it certainly changed the way I live my life at sea-level.

Yet there's an important interdependence between quotidian and liminal practices: they work together. On one hand, precisely because it dislodges people from familiar surroundings, the liminal practice of pilgrimage affords a critical perspective on everything one tends to take for granted. From the top of Kilimanjaro, we could see the earth's curvature. We could look down on where we'd been -- literally and spiritually. Today, when I get bogged down in my work, I do a quick mental summit to look down on all the madness. From the summit, it all seems pretty small. Climbing Kilimanjaro -- even in imagination -- helps me keep things in perspective.

On the other hand, extraordinary practices like pilgrimage depend on ordinary practices like prayer and ritual to stay grounded. I read the daily lectionary, and I wanted to make sure I had those texts with me on the mountain. We read them aloud every morning before we got out of our green mummy bags. Most of the time, we'd offer irreverent counsel to whomever was speaking -- Isaiah, Jesus, the psalmist, advice that got us giggling so much we look like maggots wriggling on the tent floor. But the texts stayed with us for the rest of the day, and I needed them like air, like water. They kept me breathing, kept me hydrated. The daily disciplines keep these mountaintop experiences grounded.

All of these practices, whether ordinary or once-in-a-lifetime, whether quotidian or liminal, all use the body to mentor the soul, as Peter Brown puts it in his book, THE BODY AND SOCIETY (Columbia University Press, 1988). For more on the distinction between quotidian and liminal practices, see Gordon S. Mikoski, "Educating and Forming Disciples for the Reign of God," in Dorothy C. Bass and Craig Dykstra's FOR LIFE ABUNDANT (Eerdmans, 2008).

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