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A friend of mine reacts to stress in a particular fashion — she cleans. Instead of channeling negative emotions into negative behavior, she polishes, vacuums, dusts and mops. This week, her house is spotless. (It’s been a bad week.) Call it therapeutic behavior. I call it a spiritual practice. Bear with me — I’ll try to explain.

When times get tough, I bake. Pies, cakes, cookies, custard, you name it. Not to toot my own horn [sound of honking], but I’m good at it. Mind you, I react badly when asked to bake, or worse, forced to bake. But baking by choice — that’s my go-to for troubled times.

Baking is calming. Spooning flour into a dry measuring cup, sweeping the top with a knife…combining spices, butter and sugar…watching liquid batter rise into edible solid…I find these things soothing, and sometimes just-this-side of miraculous. When I bake, I commune with my patron saint, St. Lawrence, patron saint of cooks (he was roasted to death on a grill but kept his sense of humor). I participate in creation, albeit in a small, sugary way. I labor with my hands to cleanse my mind and heart of worry. What could be more prayerful than that?

Monks know the value of work as prayer, and of prayer bearing real, tangible fruit. When I have finished my labors, I have something to show for it. Granted, these things are not good for me or my waistline. I’ve tried giving away my baked goods — to cancer patients, to my local parish — but more often than not, I’m stuck with the results. There is nothing quite like the prayer of my banana bread…there is also nothing particularly healthy about it. But to not bake would not only cause increased consternation, it would be burying my gifts, hiding my lamp under a bushel basket. What would God think of that?

I heartily condone any practice that brings a person peace — whether that’s yoga or meditation or German chocolate cake. I wish my prayers were less caloric. But I praise God for the ability to summon serenity with a few teaspoons of vanilla, a pinch of nutmeg, and a rounded spoonful of baking powder.

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My pal Alice told me about a way to meditate anew on familiar biblical passages and favorite spiritual sayings. I call it “Quotation Subtraction.” It works like this: Choose a beloved, brief quote from a book, poem or other work of literature — the Bible, of course, is a great place to start — and meditate on what it means as you lose, one by one, the last word in the saying. Let’s use Psalm 46:10 as an example.

“Be still and know that I am God.”

Take a quiet moment to reflect on the words. What do they mean to you? Now remove the last word.

“Be still and know that I am.”

How does this change what you feel? What emotions and ideas do these words conjure up?

“Be still and know that I.”

And now? Who or what is the “I” in this quotation? Which “I” does God want you to know?

“Be still and know.”

Know what? Again, reflect on what these words mean to you.

“Be still and.”

And what? What is required of you in this moment?

“Be still.”

What value is there in stillness? What can you learn from it?

“Be.”

If God said this single word to you, what would you think or feel?

I have found this meditation surprisingly rich and unexpectedly revealing. It is a quick and easy spiritual practice that can open to you whole new avenues of thought. Imagine what you might do with John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world He gave his only begotten son”) or 1 John 4:7 (“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God”)!

Give it a whirl, and see how old words take on new meanings in your life!

There’s a potted plant growing in our church’s foyer. I couldn’t begin to guess what it is, as I have little knowledge of plants and even less luck growing them, but I assume it’s some sort of succulent. It is tall and spindly (much like me in high school), circuitously looping and twisting upwards and ending in a puff of leaves (not unlike the Lorax’s truffula trees) pressed hard against a window. It wants the sun. If the window were not there, where would it grow? Forever upwards, pointing its leafy face toward heat, warmth, light?

Our own spiritual journeys are a lot like that plant. They are seldom straightforward — they bend and reverse directions repeatedly. Yet no matter what occurs, we keep heading toward the light of God. Sometimes things get in the way. Our challenge is to discern which of those things are windows and which are not.

Windows are physical barriers that keep us from attaining unity with God. Some of those barriers might be time, family concerns, difficulties or differences with organized religions, or a lack of spiritual nurturing in childhood. But some barriers require a bit more poking to establish whether they are made of solid glass —or merely mirages.

If lack of time inhibits your spirituality, you may want to review your use of time: Are you putting God last, after the job, the dishes, even feeding the dog? It is quite easy to fall into the habit of associating your spiritual life with “spare” time. What’s more difficult is incorporating spirituality into the very fabric of your daily life, making it both warp and weft alongside more mundane commitments. My good friend SueBe has been marvelous in pointing out ways that I can do this — from taking time to walk a maze (or even just tracing a maze on paper with one’s finger) to prayer beads to simply stopping short of forming an opinion of someone else and turning it instead into an opportunity for reflection. My friend Alice introduced me to another one: Choose a prayer or biblical passage and read it aloud. Now repeat it, losing the last word. Continue to do this, dropping a word each time and pondering the changed meaning. Here’s a good quotation to start with, from Psalm 46:10: “Be still and know that I am God.”

Take time to examine your “window.” What is holding you back from union with God? Is it prejudices based on earthly (and therefore inherently feeble) interpretations of what and who God is? Are you letting someone else tell you what your heart knows is wrong? Or are you consciously setting up a barrier to God, putting God off, telling yourself you’ll “get to it” someday?

Is your window solid or a figment of your imagination? How can you get yourself “unstuck”? Take time to ponder your spiritual journey. Wipe out your windows — or at least wipe them clean — and get on with the business of growing. It is what we were put here to do, after all.

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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