A Spirituality That’s Not a Luxury
People often ask me what my “spiritual practice” is like. It’s a weird notion, when I think about it. Because I don’t think of it as something on the side, an a la carte indulgence for the leisure class, or for people with more leisure time than I’ve ever had. American Buddhists seem particularly interested in one’s “practice,” and a kind of judgmentalism often accompanies the inquiry. In that way, a “spiritual practice” becomes another idol of middle class consumerism, kind of like flaunting a tan in January by trips to Florida or California or Hawaii was in the seventies and eighties. “Check out my disposable income!”
It’s also the case with those with the leisure to indulge in various forms of “retreat.” Now, I like the idea of a retreat, but, for me anyway, leaving my life to focus on “inner spiritual work” suggests only a kind of selfishness. I would surely feel overwhelming guilt for gifting myself with such spiritual “me time.” All the tasks I would leave to my wife or my children, just so I can, quite literally, retreat.
Don’t get me wrong, prayer and contemplation are central to my life—but only because they are part of my life and not something superadded as a bourgeois indicator of status, if only to myself.
In my twenties, like many people, I tried out various meditative disciplines—a half hour of meditation each morning before heading to work, for example, or following various instructive paths in search of the possession of some kind of spirituality. Before we were married, my wife and I used to visit the church of the now defunct Duns Scotus Friary in Southfield, Michigan to pray the rosary and sit still for a while—it was a beautiful Romanesque building with an incredibly beautiful rose window and an imposing walnut carving of the Virgin standing before it.
But then we had children. Lots of them. And a farm. And animals.
For a while, I used to carry a pocket-sized edition of The Way of the Pilgrim, and I was intrigued by the message of the book, taken from 1 Thessalonians 5, to “pray without ceasing.” I like this idea. I also bought the Philokalia as a way to get into the secret of prayer. I also read Thomas a’ Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ. Ultimately, they only served to discourage me. Then I realized what the problem was.
The problem wasn’t with me. The problem is that I was turning to men who were neither married nor had children for spiritual advice—rather an affliction in Christianity and to Christians, I think. Their answer was to turn the world into a monastery. What a horrible cultural project. As Vladimir Solovyov—also unmarried and childless—observed, Christ sent the Apostles into the world, not into the desert. I know a lot of people are convinced that monastic principles applied to life in the world, even family life, offer the key to Christian living (Yo, Ephraimites!), but that model also offers the kind of spiritual keeping-up-with-the-Joneses ethos I saw with the Buddhists, the same implied spiritual snobbery, and, even if it didn’t, is unsustainable for a family for very long.
So, in my social context of family and in my varied worklife—the farm, teaching, editing, writing—I try to keep things as simple as possible—and as contemplative as possible. As I’ve written before, the rosary is a kind of anchor in my spiritual life, though praying it is not some regulated, every-day-at-the-same-time deal. Often I pray the rosary in the middle of the night, after our English shepherd Sparrow wakes me up to go outside and I can’t fall right back to sleep. Sometimes I pray it while driving, or in my deer blind in the autumn, or by the beehives in summer.
Another useful approach, that I’ve found at least, is that offered by the anonymously written medieval text The Cloud of Unknowing which recommends simplicity as method. In contemplation, the Cloud author recommends, besides the traditional prayers of the Church, to pray without words, or at least with as few as possible:
“And if they be in words, as they be but seldom, then be they but in full few words; ye, and in ever fewer the better. Ye, and if it be but a little word of a syllable, methinks it better than of two and more according to the work of the spirit.” 
But perhaps the most helpful guide I have found in leading a prayerful life while still in the world has been one of my patron saints, the French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil—who also had neither spouse nor children. For Weil, the entire secret to the spiritual life resides in attention. Her prescription is something available to anyone, even schoolchildren, as she writes in the essay, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God”:
“Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object; it means holding in our minds, within reach of this thought, but on a lower level and not in contact with it, the diverse knowledge we have acquired with we are forced to make use of. Our thought should be in relation to all particular and already formulated thoughts, as a man on a mountain who, as he looks forward, sees also below him, without actually looking at them, a great many forests and plains. Above all our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to prepare it.” 
She sees this happen even in the mundane school tasks of working out an algebra problem or translating from Latin or Greek:
“it does not even matter much whether we succeed in finding the solution or understanding the proof, although it is important to try really hard to do so…. Without our knowing or feeling it, the apparently barren effort has brought more light into the soul. The result will one day be discovered in prayer.” 
“Every school exercise, thought of in this way, is like a sacrament.
“In every school exercise there is a special way of waiting upon truth, setting our hearts upon it, yet not allowing ourselves to go out in search of it.” 
And, of course, attention is not only for children, as Weil writes in the essay “Attention and Will”:
“Attention unmixed attention is prayer.
“If we turn our minds towards the good, it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself.
“Extreme attention is what constitutes the creative faculty in man and the only extreme attention is religious. The amount of creative genius in any period is strictly in proportion to the amount of extreme attention and thus of authentic religion at that period.” 
And, finally, in “Human Personality,” Weil speaks most directly: “The name of this intense, pure, disinterested, gratuitous, generous attention is love.” 
This is my primary answer to the question “What is your spiritual practice?” I try to pay attention—to my farm, its plants and animals, waters and woods; to what I’m reading, what I’m writing; and to the people in my life. I can’t maintain that level of attention all the time, but it is the still spot to which I always try to return. It may not be very glamorous, but it’s sustainable. And you don’t need to have a “spiritual father” or “spiritual mother” to do it. It is also the essence of Sophiology.
Michael’s latest book is Sophia in Exile. He can be reached at email@example.com See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Divine Feminine.
1. The Cloud of Unknowing, ed. Patrick J. Gallacher (TEAMS, 1997), 65. I have modernized the spelling.
2. Simone Weil, Waiting for God, trans. Emma Crauford (Harper, 1951), 62.
3. Ibid., 58.
4. Ibid., 63.
5. The Simone Weil Reader, ed. Siân Miles (Grove Press, 1986), 212.