Mystics with Tool Kits

My partner, James, is a man of few words. A man dis-inclined to effusive expressions. A man who doesn’t see much point in talking about the spiritual realm. A man whose hands are so strong and skilled they earned him the title Master Carpenter. In other words, he and I are an odd match indeed.

James' Tool Bag

James’ Tool Bag

When we partnered up, it was quickly clear we needed ways to deal with our very different approaches to 1) home maintenance and 2) spirituality. If James were writing this, he’d fill you in on how we’ve dealt with #1. Since this is my blog, you get #2. That’s how we roll.

I have a great gaping loss in my life if we hang no stars and angels at Christmas or I never discuss the sermon that is calling me on my stuff. James cannot, will not feign interest or approval of practices that hold no interest for him. He’s ethical that way. Stubborn too.

It’s not that he’s unaware of things spiritual. He’s dedicated much time to framing up his own edifice of ethics and faith. But from his perspective, it’s not something one talks about. Much. It’s how one lives.

The Almighty gave me a great teacher in James. For, while the faith walk hugely defines my life, I am – these days – a real slob about practicing it. I struggle for basic disciplines of showing up for worship on time and reading scripture. I cheat on Sabbath, sneaking in to work. For someone who claims to revere the wisdom of all beings, I’m a terrible interrupter. I pledged to stay off Facebook during Lent, and do a creative act every day. Estimated success rate: 90% on the Facebook fast, 25% on creativity.

James is all about discipline. He fasts on three consecutive days every month for many reasons, none of them religious. He not only limits intake of refined sugar to 30 grams a day, but he also tracks it religiously (umm, yeah, that is indeed the word). Luckily for me, he also applies his disciplined practicality to maintaining a good relationship with me.

This is how he came to propose our approach to seasonal celebrations. Every Equinox, Solstice, and their half way points (the cross-quarters), we have a household observance. At Spring Equinox we planted window boxes.

our window box @ 1 month of growth

our window box @ 1 month of growth

For May Day we are likely to take a day for birding and return home with an armload of local flowers. Lammas, in August, is a celebration of the first grain harvest. Traditionally, a special cake is prepared. We usually make bread together, reciting our family connections to each ingredient. For each observance, we do something appropriate to that season of the year, something for the home and something to bind us together.

In one blueprint for the year, James satisfied my ongoing need for ritual without having to negotiate every single festival in the Christian calendar. A well-constructed solution.

As I prepare to lead a workshop on Rumi, the Sufi mystic poet, I’m struck how workmanlike he is in his spiritual life as well. Many think of Rumi as dissolved in mystic union. That’s there. But his poetry also includes plenty of discipline, structure, and pragmatism.

The foundation and walls of the spiritual life
are made of self-denials and disciplines.
 Don’t be contemptuous of old obediences. They help.

What does it take to pick up the tool kit of discipline? My friend Heidi calls this working on the “spiritual sixpack”. I’ve tried so often to turn all buff and skillful over a weekend of resolution and inspiration. The result is blisters and aches for one who’s not spiritually fit. In pain & distraction, I throw the new discipline to the corner and curl up with my favorite consolations.

Lately I’ve tried to pick up just one spiritual tool at a time, focusing on building my strength and comfort with that tool, coached in its use by a good book and a trusted advisor.

This month, I’m working with the tool of truth. Today truthfulness allows me to admit I’m not yet a master carpenter. I’m in the remedial shop class. And that’s ok. Rumi says, “I need more grace than I thought”.

For finally, the point is not to show off a spiritual six-pack. The point is to show up with a bit a grace for the world, a bit of compassion, a bit of reliability. To make a bit of progress.

Damn. Gotta run. I’m late for another holy week service.



  1. Splendid writing here, Beth! What a fine fine man you’ve found in James! My resolution has always had to be when packing for a visit back to see Mom & Dad to just have compassion. For years I’ve tried and failed. But that stubbornness of “keep trying” finally paid off in March and continued through April. I hope when Mom comes out for 12 days in May that I can keep up the practice. Perhaps it becomes easier instead of harder. All I know is I much prefer showing her compassion to the way I used to act around her. We humans are fallible, but once we get a good idea lodged in our heads, that fallibility perhaps becomes less predominant. Hope and spring spring eternal!

    1. Bravo Karin. There’s years of training to get to some acts of compassion. You were willing and ready when the moment of terrible loss opened the door.

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