Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Discipline by Lauren F. Winner, Paraclete Press, 2003, 161 pp.
Last week, a high school friend who I had not seen in nearly 20 years contacted me on Facebook to let me know he was passing through my town, and invited me out for coffee. It was a delight to catch up, and the conversation flowed free and easy even after so many years. For me, it was a special treat to talk to someone who knew me before marriage, motherhood and pastoral life—as if he could unlock a more primitive version of myself, one that I have already unearthed a bit during this sabbatical time.
As it always seems to with me, conversation turned toward the realm of the spiritual and the religious. (I realized in this reunion that this sort of thing always happened way back in high school too, not just with him but with all my friends. I guess my calling was inevitable.) My friend described himself just like he did in high school—not a believer, but someone with a deep fascination and appreciation for the spiritual realm and the mythos of religion. He expressed a sentiment like, “I wish I could believe, but no one has been able to show me more than the man behind the curtain.” At the time I responded somewhat pathetically with a torrent about liberal Christianity, welcoming doubts, honoring questions and joining as Jesus-followers even if we weren’t sure what we believed.
What I really should have said, and what I am coming to believe ever more deeply, is the premise of Mudhouse Sabbath: that religious life (aka spiritual life) is not about belief, it’s about practice. Following a religious tradition is not about conforming your mind, it is about cultivating a way of life. Religious life is about taking on habits of living that have led seekers to God and transformed wayward souls into faithful followers for millenia. Whether we believe or do not believe, whether we “feel it” or not, religious practitioners continue to follow these ways of life—not because we have a blind allegiance to tradition, but because the practice of spiritual discipline shapes us in ways that make belief possible and mystical experiences knowable.
Lauren F. Winner’s Mudhouse Sabbath is a unique approach to this ongoing conversation about practices of faith. Winner was raised in an observant Jewish household, but converted to Christianity as an adult. She loves her Episcopalian church life, but misses the disciplines of her Jewish roots. This book, then, takes a look at a host of Jewish spiritual disciplines, compares Jewish and Christian practices, and imagines how Jewish ideas and habits might shape a Christian spiritual life as well.
It is important to note that Winner begins the book by refuting my claim about belief versus practice.
Action sits at the center of Judaism. Practice is to Judaism what belief is to Christianity… for Jews, the essence of the thing is a doing, an action. Your faith might come and go, but your practice ought not waver. (ix)
For Christians, however:
Spiritual practices don’t justify us. They don’t save us. Rather, they refine our Christianity; they make the inheritance Christ gives us on the cross more fully our own. … Practicing the disciplines does not make us Christians. Instead, the practicing teaches us what it means to live as Christians. … The ancient disciplines form us to respond to God, over and over always, in gratitude, in obedience, and in faith. (xii-xiii)
I am no longer convinced of Winner’s claim that the practices do not make us Christians. I do agree that our spiritual practices do not justify us—God’s grace does that. However, I question how we can call someone a Christian when they believe all orthodox doctrine, but do not let it influence their life decisions in any way by practicing love, generosity, prayer and compassion. The same is true in reverse: if you follow Jesus as the shaping influence of your life through acts of love, generosity, prayer, compassion and worship, but you are not sure what you believe, I think you are still a Christian. In this light, I doubt Winner would disagree, but it is something I continue to wrestle with, as someone whose life often has more doubt, more practice, and less confident belief.
None of that is the heart of the book, however. Winner’s book is primarily a description of the Jewish spiritual disciplines, a comparison to Christianity, and an invitation to Christians to make these practices a part of our lives. She describes eleven different practices: Sabbath, fitting food (keeping kosher), mourning, hospitality, prayer, body, fasting, aging, candle-lighting, weddings and doorposts (hanging mezuzot on doorposts).
What drew me to her book was what has always drawn me to Jewish spirituality—its embodiedness. So many traditional Christian spiritual disciplines (prayer, meditation, lectio divina, silence) focus on the mind and spirit. The practices Winner describes are much more physical—stopping work on Shabbat, caring about the kinds of food we eat and how they are prepared, placing physical markers in our homes and on our bodies to remind us of our faith. I have always been cautious about adapting any of these practices as my own, since I am not grounded in the community that shapes them. Winner has opened the door for me to imagine ways to incorporate these kinds of practices into my Christian life, with an appreciation for their Jewish origin and not a presumptuous attempt to imitate Judaism. I wrote recently about the spirituality of housework, which works for me in the same way as the practices Winner describes and reminds me of the Shabbat preparations she discusses.
This is a great introduction to spiritual disciplines that is accessible to everyone. It is a short book that would make a great subject for a church book discussion group or Sunday school class. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.