Finding the Sacred in Daily Living
A sunrise jog, a home-cooked meal with a friend, the smell of moist soil in a freshly-tilled garden, a smile from a stranger on the subway…
Most would agree that such Earthly experiences can give us something to look forward to or add a spark to an otherwise ordinary day. But to the increasing number of devotees in what some are calling “the invisible church,” these experiences are nothing short of spiritual opportunities—a chance to tap into the Divine, far outside the walls of any synagogue or cathedral.
“For a long time, there was an idea that there was only one way to do ministry, and that was within the church walls,” says Barbara Brown Taylor, author of An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. “But there is an explosion of spirit going on right now, and people are experimenting with other ways to serve and seek that go way beyond that definition.”
Taylor, an Episcopal minister, left a 15-year-stint as a parish preacher for life as an organic farmer and professor of spirituality at Columbia Theological Seminary, in Decatur, Georgia. She is among a host of faith leaders who have moved beyond the confines of the altar to shine a light on the sacred nature of the outdoors, physical activity, food, gardening and even mundane workaday tasks.
The proliferation of such unconventional sacred practices comes at a time when the number of Americans who identify with one religion is dwindling, while those who consider themselves “spiritual, but not religious” is at an all-time high.
According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, the number of adults who say they are not affiliated with any particular faith has grown to 16.1 percent, twice what it was 20 years ago. Among adults under age 30, one-quarter say they are unaffiliated. Meanwhile, 92 percent of Americans believe in God or a “universal spirit,” three-quarters pray and two in five meditate.
With the recent publication of such atheist tomes as Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and the meteoric rise of conservative Christian personalities like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, those on either end of the spiritual spectrum have taken center stage in an increasingly divisive dialogue in recent years.
Meanwhile, former Episcopal priest J. Pittman McGehee points out that the more moderate seekers have been quietly creating a modern-day alternative all their own. “There is a 21st -century spirituality out there that is neither fundamentalist nor atheist,” observes Pittman, a University of Houston psychology professor and co-author of The Invisible Church: Finding Spirituality Where You Are. “People are looking for the extraordinary in the ordinary, the miraculous in the mundane, and the sacred camouflaged in the profane.”
God in the Wilderness
Raised in a devoutly Jewish family and ordained at the prestigious Hebrew Union College, Jamie Korngold was following a fairly typical rabbinical path in the 1990s. She presided over Saturday services at an ornate synagogue in Calgary, where she lead a large congregation in songs, chants and readings. Still, she often found herself thinking about the people who weren’t there. “No matter how great my sermons were, I knew I wasn’t going to reach beyond the pulpit,” she recalls, noting that 70 percent of Jews are not affiliated with a traditional congregation. “I needed to meet the people where they are.”
Today, she has no synagogue at all. Instead, through her rapidly growing Boulder-Colorado-based Adventure Rabbi program, she leads brief Shabbat services at a mountaintop warming house at the Copper Mountain ski resort, before spending “a holy day” carving turns on powder-filled slopes with her congregants. For the Jewish New Year, she leads them on a hike to a mountain top, where they unroll a giant Torah and toss snow into a rushing stream to bid farewell to past mistakes and welcome new beginnings. At Passover, they—like their Biblical ancestors—gather in the desert, where she tells the story of the Jewish Exodus from Egypt during their hike to a striking red-rock arch in Moab, Utah.
“It was an experience like none that I had ever had,” says Lori Ropa, 45, a lifelong Jew who attended an Adventure Rabbi Rosh Hashanah retreat with her husband (a Christian), after both had grown disenchanted with traditional religious services. “The opportunity to have a peaceful connection with God and with myself amidst all of that beauty really creates an intense experience for me,” says Ropa, who now attends Korngold’s services regularly. “I go because I want to be there. Not because I feel I need to.”
Korngold’s God in the Wilderness: Rediscovering the Spirituality of the Great Outdoors, includes a reminder that Moses had to hike across the desert and climb a mountain to receive the Ten Commandments. “The physical exertion of the desert climb, coupled with the stark desert beauty, helped Moses to arrive spiritually and emotionally in a place beyond internal chatter—a place often called awe,” she writes, suggesting that, regardless of one’s faith, the very act of experiencing awe (for example, over a beautiful sunrise or the life cycle of a tree in the yard) connects us with something bigger.
“So, you spend much of your day in a cubicle… Get a spider plant, and watch the miracle of its growth on top of your file cabinet,” Korngold advises. “Change your route to work so that you can drive through a park.”
The Sacred Track
For 58-year-old Warren Kay, Ph.D., a track coach and religious studies professor at Merrimack College, in Boston, the act of running represents a moveable sanctuary where mental clutter falls away and time seems to bend to allow him to connect with himself and his higher power.
Kay, author of Running: The Sacred Art, believes that, “Running is the new yoga,” and notes that spiritual traditions have embraced running as a sacred vessel for centuries. In the village of Mount Hiei, Japan, members of a small Buddhist sect, known as the Marathon Monks, engage in a grueling, seven-year challenge in which seekers run as many as 50 miles a day in 100-day blocks in pursuit of enlightenment. In Tibet, the Lung-gom-pa runners use multi-day running journeys as their meditative practice. In Copper Canyon, Mexico, 50-mile barefoot races across the rugged desert comprise an integral part of the Tarahumara Indians’ spiritual fabric.
For Kay’s sought-after class, The Spirituality of Running, students read scripture from the religious tradition of their choice, and then go for a run, using the time to reflect on what they read. Or, they run first, and then come back to journal their thoughts.
Across the country, at the Shambhala Mountain Center, in Red Feather Lakes, Colorado, 51-year-old Marty Kibiloski, an Ironman veteran, combines Buddhist teachings with trail runs during a three-day running meditation retreat.
“What we are trying to show is that you can overlay the practice of meditation onto so many aspects of your life, not just sitting on a cushion,” says Kibiloski, who once lived what he called, “? a high achievement, low satisfaction life,” as a competitive marathoner, but has evolved a less-competitive, more thoughtful pace in both his running and personal life since adopting a Buddhist practice.
Whether running for miles or walking from the car to the grocery store, simply focusing on your cadence and your breath and being mindful of where your thoughts take you, can illuminate great things, he says. “Once you start really paying attention, you will be amazed at all that you’ve been missing.”
Delicious and Divine
L. Shannon Jung, a professor at Saint Paul School of Theology, in Kansas City, says he sees the burgeoning local food movement and surge in backyard gardening as welcome signs that people are rediscovering the heavenly roots of earthly bounty.
“We are rediscovering food as a link between us and God,” he says, adding that many of his students have gone on to start congregational community gardening programs in church yards. “When you watch a tiny green bud of spinach break through the surface of the soil, it really reminds you of our dependence upon things far beyond us.”
Meanwhile, in Liverpool, England, members of the Somewhere Else “bread church” meet twice a week to bake bread and talk about life as they wait for it to rise, the comforting smell filling the kitchen. Half of the bread, the staff of life, feeds the homeless.
To McGehee, the mere act of eating can be a reminder of what a divine wonder our own body is, as it stimulates every sense; the smell of an orange, the sound as we bite into it, its texture on our tongue. But when a meal is prepared lovingly and shared with a friend, it becomes even more sacred. “If you buy a burger at the drive-up, you are probably just fueling your body,” he comments. “But if you invite someone you care about to sit down with you for a burger, it can become a transcendent experience.”
Attend to Community
Taylor, whose acclaimed book, Leaving Church, recounts her parting with parish ministry in 1996, finds that some of her greatest moments of spiritual connectedness now come while digging her hands into the soil to find potatoes, bringing water to her chickens or sowing seeds. But she still believes that the traditional, walled church plays an important role, in that it brings us together physically.
“My worry is that in a culture that is individualistic and busy, if we aren’t careful, we might end up alone with no one to talk to about the things that matter most to us,” says Taylor. She encourages everyone to make time for community—whether it is at church on Sunday, a running group, book club or something else—wherever one’s spiritual life resides.
Most importantly, adds Korngold, pay attention to the moment: “The point that is often overlooked in the story of Moses and the burning bush is that he was busy tending his father-in- law’s flock, when he saw a bush out of the corner of his eye that was burning, but not consumed by flame. It was only when he stopped what he was doing, turned aside and paid attention that God spoke to him.
“If that were to have happened today, Moses’ cell phone probably would have gone off and he may have missed it altogether.”