Seven Ways to Nourish Your Spirit and Soul
I think that we can all agree that 2020 has been a year unlike any we have ever seen. We have been experiencing ongoing natural disasters, a global pandemic, a contentious election cycle and civil unrest. Combine those events with a 24-hour news cycle and social media, and we become players in the unrelenting drama playing out all around us. These stressors can have a cumulative, negative effect on our physical and emotional health.
Recent studies reported by the CDC show an increase in struggles with mental health or substance abuse since April 2020. While our faith can provide strength during such difficult times, these same stressors can also undermine our spiritual wellbeing. Social distancing, eucharistic fasts and other protocols required to keep us all safe during worship may increase feelings of isolation and frustration for both parishioners and church leaders. If you are clergy, you likely have been navigating an unfamiliar landscape for which seminary did little to prepare you — learning new technologies, providing pastoral care at a distance, fielding unprecedented anxiety from parishioners and wrestling with what it means to be a priest in pandemic.
In the midst of all of this upheaval, it can be difficult to find time to focus on our spiritual health. And yet, studies show that our faith and spiritually-focused activities can lead to increased resilience under stress (Pargament and Cummings, Anchored by Faith). For many of us, taking the time to be intentional about cultivating our spiritual health has become a necessity, not a luxury, during this time. While we all connect with God in different ways, practices that point us to something bigger than ourselves and the situation at hand can give us the strength that we need so that we can care for those in our families and our parishes.
So, what might we do to strengthen this connection to God during these stressful times? Here are a few ideas.
Scripture to build a framework
Spending time reading the Bible on a regular basis can provide a framework of faith that puts words to our feelings and provides company across the ages. The words of Lamentations, of the psalms and the prophets have been particularly helpful in giving voice to the emotions of this time. Over the past seven months, I have found comfort and strength in the letters of Paul, as he addresses conflict, fear and faith in the religious communities to which he writes. This reading of scripture is not done for exegetical purposes. Rather it is done slowly and intentionally, with space and time to ponder and listen for God’s voice. The words come back to me at times when they are needed and provide a rich source of strength in difficult times.
Prayer to nourish and ground us
Setting aside time to talk to God and space to listen can also nourish our spiritual ground. Praying Daily Devotions or the Daily Office can help build a regular practice of prayer — the bookends of Morning Prayer and Compline provide a structure to point us to God through the words of the Prayer Book. There is comfort in words so regularly spoken that they find their way into our hearts. However, for those of us who spend a lot of time talking to God and not as much listening, making room for Centering Prayer or meditation may be even more important. Such contemplative practices can improve resilience in the face of constant change.
People to sustain the spirit
Perhaps one of the greatest difficulties of COVID-19 is the way that it has hampered our physical contact with others. Even with the limits of social distancing, it is possible (and necessary) to maintain relationships with those people who are key to our spiritual wellbeing. Identifying the people who support our spiritual growth and then creating regular times to check in with one another is particularly important during this time. Many of us have close friends who walk with us on our spiritual journeys. This may be the time to schedule actual walks outside together or regular virtual conversations. Clergy and vestry leaders may also gain support from regular meetings within our deanery or diocese.
Within the Diocese of Atlanta, where I am resident, our bishop and canons are providing this type of support, and it is invaluable in helping us recognize that we are all facing the same challenges. Spiritual directors and therapists are integral to our spiritual wellbeing at this time. If you do not have someone to talk to about your spiritual life, now is the time to find that person. Spiritual Directors International maintains a listing of individuals and organizations who may be able to companion you on your journey.
Nature to bring respite and perspective
There is something soul-filling about spending time outside, feeling the sun on our faces or the breeze on our skin. Many people I know have planted gardens during the pandemic or found another way to watch the cycle of growth, from seed to plant. Others have taken up bird-watching or hiking. All of these experiences remind us not only of the beauty of creation, but also of the grandeur of God’s creative power. My husband and I have begun hiking by the Chattahoochee River not far from where we live. Every day the river is different, and we see so much wildlife and plant life on our walks that we are always pointed to something beyond ourselves.
Take advantage of time outside, in whatever way you are able. When I lived in New York City, I sat by the Hudson River on days when I needed to get outside of myself, and when it was snowy and cold, I watched birds in the tree outside my apartment window. Both of these activities helped me remember my place in the world around me.
Volunteer to help others and add meaning to your days
While our landscape has changed and giving time to organizations may look different right now, there are still many opportunities to help others. When we give of ourselves, we are reminded not only of the needs of others, but also the gifts that God has given us. This is the perfect time to find an agency or organization whose mission is meaningful to our values and then to give our time accordingly. Helping others helps us make meaning in our own lives and contributes to our spiritual wellbeing.
Movement to strengthen body and spirit
We may not be as physically active as we were before the pandemic if our work lives have been scaled down to a home office with no commute. It can be tempting, especially as the weather gets colder, to hunker down inside and hibernate on the couch in the evenings (or maybe I’m just speaking for myself). However, physical activity not only helps our bodies, it helps our emotions, too. Gentle stretching, walking (even inside), dancing and more vigorous activity remind us of our own embodiment.
If we think about our bodies as gifts from God and rejoice in whatever it is they are able to do, we are pointed again to that which is greater than ourselves. In times when we experience chronic pain, this practice can be a challenge. So, let’s acknowledge where we are at the present moment physically, and move accordingly. As a yoga instructor, I have worked with people in chronic pain — even limited movement can be beneficial.
Practice moderation to stay healthy
This is a time to be aware of our coping mechanisms that might not be beneficial to our health or mental and spiritual wellbeing. Whether it is eating, drinking alcohol, watching/reading the news or spending time on social media, now is the time to be aware and to maintain a healthy intake of all of these things. Practicing awareness and moderation frees us up to spend more time on the practices that do feed our souls.
These are just a few practices that I have found helpful and have seen benefit others during this unsettled time. Without a doubt, you will find the things that nourish you. Overall, the reminder that God is with us, even in the most difficult times, provides us with the strength we need to persevere. May your soul be watered, even in the desert places.
The Rev. Rebecca Roberts is Associate Rector at St. Catherine’s Episcopal Church in Marietta, Georgia. She holds a Master of Divinity from the General Theological Seminary and a Master of Arts in Theology from the School of Theology at Sewanee. She loves to read, hike, practice yoga and eat her husband’s cooking.
- Leadership in Times of Change by Robin Hammeal-Urban, Vestry Papers, May 2015
- The Quiet Center: Cultivating Inner Peace in Unsettling Times, an ECF webinar presented by Rebecca Roberts, April 1, 2020
- Self-care in a Pandemic by Sandra Montes, Vestry Papers, November 2020
- Self Care by Ken Mosesian, an ECF Vital Practices blog, July 16, 2020
- Self-Care for the Sake of Others (in the Age of COVID-19), an ECF webinar presented by Chanta Bhan, April 6, 2020