While I grew up in the Episcopal Church (right here at St. James's from about age 11), I didn't start thinking proactively about my Christian faith until I got involved with an evangelical fellowship in college. I learned a lot of unfamiliar evangelical lingo, including "quiet time" (sometimes shortened to "QT") to refer to time spent in prayer and Bible study. As a friend explained in a talk, if you want to have a good relationship with somebody, you spend time with that person. Likewise, if you want to have a good relationship with God, you must spend time with God, and "quiet time" is how you do that. A few years later, I joined a small nontraditional church in Washington, D.C., where church membership involved committing to several specific spiritual disciplines, including one hour a day spent in prayer and Bible study.
I regularly failed at maintaining any kind of quiet-time discipline, in college and afterward—and to be honest, I'm still failing at it. I could argue that I can't find the time, but that's ridiculous. I regularly find time to read, scroll Facebook, and watch HGTV real estate shows. My problem is that I'm not quite sure what to do with designated prayer or Bible study time. My mind wanders. I get sleepy. I pray for all the people I know who need prayers and then I'm not sure what to do next. If I try to read any Bible passage more complicated than a Psalm, I get bored or confused (Paul's run-on sentences make me twitchy). I don't know what I'm supposed to be looking for when I read. While Bible stories have lots of juicy tidbits (all the mayhem and murder and love affairs), they can get bogged down by strange names and long lists and convoluted descriptions.
I've always gained more understanding about myself, the world, God, and what those three things have to do with each other, by reading novels and poetry instead of the Bible or theology. The prayers that feel most nourishing and authentic are the well-worn prayers we say together in church, or prayers I utter spontaneously—a burst of thanksgiving for the first sunny 70 degree day in springtime or Daniel's safe arrival home from a business trip, a raw cry for help when one of my kids is struggling, a friend shares bad news, or a front-page story strikes me in the gut.
I think my college friend was right, that we draw closer to God by being deliberate about our relationship with God. But I'm not so sure that 30 or 60 minutes of prayer and Bible study is the only or primary way to do that. I think of the human relationships that mean the most to me, with my husband and children. Certainly, dedicated time with them is meaningful. But what reinforces our love and care for one another aren't only or primarily those special times set apart from the daily routine, but our encounters in the thick of that routine.
Last summer, for example, Daniel and I took a five-day vacation, just the two of us, while our kids were all at camp. We had uninterrupted conversations, woke up without immediately confronting needy children and pets, and picked restaurants without considering the quality of their kids' menu. We remember that vacation fondly. But what makes our marriage vital isn't rare adults-only vacations or occasional dinners out, but rather our deliberate attention, listening, kindness and support in our mundane and often chaotic family life. Likewise, any parent of a teenager knows that plopping down on their bed and saying, "Let's have a talk!" is more likely to elicit suspicion, annoyance, or "Mom, will this take long? Because I really have to finish this social studies paper," than a meaningful heart-to-heart talk. Instead, some of the most revealing and intimate conversations with our kids happen in the minivan as we drive from activity to activity, or while working together to bake cookies for the school fundraiser.
I wonder if our relationship with God, like our relationship with beloved family members and friends, is likewise nurtured more by our paying holy attention to God's presence in the mundane, chaotic stew of daily life, rather than by dedicated time set apart from the normal routine. That's not to discount the disciplines of prayer and study altogether. Christians have developed many ways that we can open ourselves to God through prayer and scripture, such as "centering" prayer (in which we don't speak to God, but rather quiet the mind to make room for God to speak to us) or lectio divina (a meditative approach to reading scripture). Many Christians make a daily practice of reading a short Bible passage, perhaps with a resource such as Forward Day by Day, or use special devotional guides during Advent and Lent. While I still struggle with daily prayer, I've enjoyed trying out the monastic practice of "praying the hours," which author Phyllis Tickle has made simple for us non-monastics in her excellent series of prayer books titled The Divine Hours.
Two thousand years of Christian spirituality commend regular prayer and study disciplines as important to a living faith. Nevertheless, I'm not as convinced as I once was that my failure to have a daily "quiet time" means that I'm failing to connect with God. We connect with God not by retreating from the world into some "spiritual" space. We connect with God when we engage—with attention, compassion, curiosity, and wonder—with the world God created and in which he lived, died, and rose as a human being just like us.
Essayist Nancy Mairs, who teaches writing at the University of Arizona and converted to Catholicism as an adult, has this to say about her own difficulty in setting aside time for spiritual matters, and her ultimate realization that the world of the spirit and the world of bodies and chores and everyday life are one and the same.
There just didn't seem to be the kind of quiet time [in my life that] I believed requisite for attending to matters of the spirit. What on earth did I think these [matters of the spirit] were? What did I think "attending" to them constituted? Where did I think they stayed while I drew baths for my children and taught my students where to put topic sentences in their paragraphs and painstakingly translated all the Anglo-Saxon poetry of The Exeter Book and made love to my husband and also some other people and boiled quarts of fig jam and took the old, old woman from the bungalow across the street to get her hearing aids fixed and cradled the black cat Freya while she died of feline leukemia virus? So ancient and absolute in Western thinking is the separation of the sacred from the profane that they seem by nature to exclude each other; and so closely are they identified with spiritual and material reality, respectively, that to speak of the interpenetration of soul and body, rather than their (not generally peaceful) co-existence, if one can bring oneself to do it at all, smacks more than a little of scandal. Mystics of all traditions more readily tolerate eruptions of the holy into quotidian routine; but not a lot of mystics go to graduate school, at least at the University of Arizona.
Not a lot of mystics go to suburban Episcopal churches, or work in insurance companies or law offices or medical facilities, or frequent playgrounds and pediatricians' offices with their toddlers either. But even us non-mystics can pay attention to how the holy erupts into our quotidian (that is, daily, mundane) routines. I have a sense that this kind of holy attention—the "scandal" of understanding that the material and the spiritual have everything to do with each other—can foster an intimacy with God in a way that even the most disciplined and productive "quiet time" cannot.
Ellen Painter Dollar is a professional writer and member of St. James’s Episcopal Church. She blogs for St. James’s every Monday, offering reflections on current events, family life, and parish life.