We tend to think of spiritual practices as good in and of themselves. But are they always?
One negative example comes up a lot in discussions around current events and is easily recognizable by many: thoughts and prayers. All it takes is three words, but their impact can be severe. Something within us recoils when someone with the capacity to take action and effect change instead offers these words in the face of senseless tragedy.
This is not to say prayer is bad. It is good to recognize your own smallness, to appeal to something greater than and outside of yourself. It is good to give shape and form to your innermost desires, to name them and release them.
But you have to ask… here? Now? Is this really the time?
This is a common example of a spiritual practice that, in a specific context, seems at best inadequate and at worst completely malignant. There will be times when action is needed more than prayer. Offering prayer in its place can seem like an affront to our fundamental sense of human decency.
We see, then, that spiritual practices are situational and dependent on where we stand culturally and societally—just like anything else. Knowing what is best for the present moment takes wisdom and discernment, not black and white prescriptions plucked from a Bible verse. There is a sense of balance needed to decide whether this moment calls for one practice or the other, or maybe a little bit of both.
Hillary McBride recently addressed the same issue from a feminist perspective on Michael Gungor’s Loving THIS podcast. She draws from a book by Carol Lee Flinders called At the Root of This Longing, which outlines various tensions between feminism and spiritual traditions from around the world.
For example, think of the practice of contemplation. McBride says, “In certain spiritual traditions, the idea to develop your spiritual practice is to be quiet, to shut up, to listen. And feminism is saying, ‘Wait a second… that’s been done to us. We have been told to be silent.’ So we need to find our voice.”
Or consider how the denial of self has been used against women: “Feminism is saying, ‘Actually know who you are. It is okay to put yourself on the to-do list.’ When in patriarchal cultures, women have been told, ‘Your needs don’t matter. Serve everybody else.’ Feminism in balance is saying, ‘You’re allowed to matter. You can listen to your needs.’”
Just like with earlier example of prayer, this doesn’t mean that the opposite is wrong, or that we ought to swing fully in the other direction. McBride says, “I don’t think that as a feminist, it means I just talk whenever I want and all the time. There is a place for silence. There is a place for saying my needs take a backseat right now. For saying, ‘Okay, just because I want something I shouldn’t have it.’”
If this perspective seems odd, consider how spiritual practices have been shaped by men’s position in society: “If you can go into any space [as a man], then being told, ‘No, stay in this small space’ [such as a monastery or hermitage] is actually how you grow spiritually, because you’re doing the opposite of what you’ve been told you’re allowed to. So there’s a power and ego conflict that would cause you to grow. In the same way, if you can say whatever you want to say and people will listen, to be told to be silent is actually creating balance in energy for you.”
McBride goes on to say, “When we grow, it is because we are doing a thing that feels different than our normal way of being, and it’s giving us access to range.”
Spiritual practices, then, should be a challenge to the established order, an act of resistance that stretches us and moves us outside our usual spheres. They require us to have a pressing awareness of our current situation, our social standing, and our own needs. They allow us to release our grip on our own privilege and challenge us to confront our own biases.
In this way, balance can become its own spiritual practice—an act of stepping outside of one’s habits and routines and taking a closer look. Are they harmful? Are they good for me and others, here and now? Balance can be an act of examining oneself and pinpointing that which will enable us to grow the most. How can I best challenge myself to step outside of what feels comfortable and normal?
This can be hard work, especially when it threatens privilege. But the alternative is a spirituality that exists to make us comfortable and affirm our worst impulses. And let’s be honest… we’ve got enough of that already. Growth should be challenging, and it takes a sense of balance to pinpoint those pressure areas that will stretch us the most.
That’s something we could all use a little practice in.