Lauren F. Winner: Most of our spiritual life is not spent in ecstasy
Q: You were recently ordained. How has that affirmed your sense of vocation?
I was in the ordination process for about a decade, so I stretched it out longer than people usually do. I believe that there are some people who are called in a very specific way to ordination. It is what God wants them to do.
The sense I kept getting from God was, “If you want to be ordained, that’s great. I’ll roll with that. If you don’t, that’s fine, too. We can do something else together in the world for the kingdom.”
Yet I feel very much like the office of the priesthood is the office I am meant to be occupying in the church.
I recently read a wonderful formulation from the Orthodox Russian theologian Paul Evdokimov, who wrote that the priesthood of the laity is devoted to consecrating the world for God, making the world holy. And the priesthood of clergy is devoted to explicating that consecration through and in the sacraments, which makes an enormous amount of sense to me.
I was ordained into the priesthood last December. I was told by a wise priest in New Haven that she didn’t really know what it meant to be a priest until she’d been one for about a decade. I heard her say that and thought, “That seems right.” So ask me in nine years, and maybe I’ll have more to say.
Q : So you have three callings: priest, professor and writer. How do you see those three different roles and their relationship to each other?
In my life, they don’t feel like three distinct things. They feel like they are part of the same whole.
Now, that might be different if I were teaching in the math department, but everything I do feels like it’s in the same basket. So I don’t actually think I’ve ever experienced it as three distinct callings.
Q: What are the spiritual practices that sustain your faith?
Writing has long been a spiritual practice in my life. I feel like the way that I understand and apprehend anything, really, is through writing about it.
I think this is related to my sense of being called to the pulpit. Many of my most vital experiences come when I have somehow been exploring Scripture on the page, often for a sermon. So that’s an important piece of my spiritual practice.
Prayer has always been a backbone of my spiritual life, corporate prayer and often -- though not always -- individual prayer. I had some time when I really fell away from individual prayer. My prayer life is foundationally liturgical. It was when I was practicing Judaism; it is as an Episcopalian.
For the last couple of years, a major piece of my prayer life has been a method of prayer developed by Sybil MacBeth in a book called “Praying in Color,” which is essentially about praying via doodling.
This sounds absurd, but doodling prayer has been the only mode of praying I have experienced where an hour will go by and I will think five minutes have elapsed.
This particular mode of praying works for me because, A, I have no artistic talent, so there’s no voice in my head -- as sometimes happens when I’m writing -- saying, “Stop being present to the experience and make that tree look better.” I know the tree is never going to look better.
And B, every spiritual director I’ve ever had has tried to get me to have some part of my prayer life that doesn’t include words, because I’m so word-oriented. When I am praying in words, there is always a danger I’ll start thinking my way out of the prayer.
Q: What’s the value for you, aside from getting away from words?
For me, this practice underscores that one essential thing that we are doing in prayer, which is simply noticing that we are in God’s presence.
When my mother was ill -- she was ill for 15 months before she died -- at some point, it seemed that praying for her healing was not what I needed and wanted to be doing. But then I didn’t know what to pray.
So I said to my spiritual director, “What’s the right thing to be praying for?” and he said, “Maybe you should just picture your mother and picture Jesus showing up, and that is your prayer.”
That really changed dramatically what I thought about petitionary prayer. The heart of all petitionary prayer is drawing people into God’s presence. This mode of praying really holds that knowledge for me.
Q: You mentioned writing as a spiritual practice. What are your writing practices?
I’m a very undisciplined writer, unfortunately. I love revision. To me, the heart of revision is about seeing again what story I’m trying to tell.
So I have a set of revision exercises that are not designed to necessarily get me closer to the final draft but are designed to help me see the story differently. It may be something like rewriting a piece in a different tense and just seeing what you stumble over, what you notice and what you’re invited to see.
Beyond those kinds of things, I’m not really sure I can dignify much about my writing life with the phrase or term “practices.”
Q: In your latest book you say that “rote, unshowy behavior” is perhaps typical of the middle period of spiritual life. Why?
I think that it is perhaps a blessed reality that most of our spiritual life is not spent in ecstasy. For me, the most sustaining and sustained rote, unshowy behavior is just going to church.
I recognize that sometimes people have very good reasons for not going to church. Sometimes people have been really burned in a church situation and may need to remove themselves from institutional church life. But for me, the kind of routines and rhythms of the local church are bedrock in my spiritual life, and they’re terrifically rote and unshowy.
That’s the behavior that holds me to the Christian story and allows me to sometimes notice when God shows up. I don’t think that I would have the capacity to ever notice if I were not moored in the patterns and habits of communal life.