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Center for Action and Contemplation

The Importance of Practice

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Father Richard believes that contemplative practice is key to developing a heart-centered faith. He writes:  

Practice is an essential reset button that we must push many times before we can experience any genuine newness. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we are practicing all the time. When we operate by our habituated patterns, we strengthen certain neural pathways, which makes us, as the saying goes, “set in our ways.” But when we stop using old neural grooves, these pathways actually die off! Practice can literally create new responses and allow rigid ones to show themselves.

It is strange that we have come to understand the importance of practice in sports, in most therapies, in any successful business, and in any creative endeavor; but for some reason most of us do not see the need for it in the world of religion, where it is probably more important than in any other area. “New wine demands fresh skins or otherwise we lose both the wine and the container,” as Jesus put it (see Mark 2:22; Luke 5:37–38). Practices, more than anything else, create a new container for us, one that will protect the new wine we wish to take in.

Many are convinced that rituals and “practices” like a contemplative Eucharist, the rosary, processions and pilgrimages, repetitive chants, genuflections and prostrations, physically blessing oneself (as with the sign of the cross), singing, and silence have operated as a kind of body-based rewiring. Such practices allow us to know Reality mystically and contemplatively from a unitive consciousness. But, over time, as these practices turned into repetitive obligations, they degenerated; and most people came to understand them magically as divinely required transactions. Instead of inviting people into new consciousness, these practices often froze people in their first infantile understanding of those rituals, and transactions ended up substituting for transformations.

Mindless repetition of any practice, with no clear goal or purification of intention, can in fact keep us quite unconscious—unless the practices keep breaking us into new insight, desire, compassion, and an ever-larger notion of God and ourselves. Catatonic repetition of anything is a recipe for unconsciousness, the opposite of any real consciousness, intentionality, or spiritual maturity. If spirituality does not support very real growth in both inner and outer freedom, it is not authentic spirituality. It is such basic unfreedom that makes so many people dislike and mistrust religious people.

Such fear-based “spinning of prayer wheels” reflects the “magical” level of consciousness that dominated much of the world until it began to widely erode in the 1960s. Yet each of these practices can also be understood in a very mature way.

It’s a paradox that God’s gifts are totally free and unearned, and yet God does not give them except to people who really want them, choose them, and say “yes” to them. This is the fully symbiotic nature of grace. Divine Loving is so pure that it never manipulates, shames, or forces itself on anyone. Love waits to be invited and desired, and only then rushes in.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Just This (CAC Publishing: 2017), 94–97.

Story from Our Community:
In the past thirteen years as a pastor’s spouse, I saw the politics and wasted resources of my denomination. My faith slowly ebbed away. I no longer wanted to attend, but I do respect and recognize my husband’s calling. I’m now attending Quaker worship. Fr. Richard’s daily meditations and writings have encouraged me. I know my feelings are legitimate, and that God still loves me as I rebuild my faith. —Lori J.

Learn more about the Daily Meditations editorial team.

Image credit: Nicholas Kramer, Untitled (detail), 2021, photograph, Seattle. Used with permission.
Image inspiration: The pattern of the leaves and colors of this succulent invite us inward to its center. We yield to the call of its presence—so also with God.
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