I purchased Lauren K. Winner’s Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Disciplines because it enabled me to get free shipping on some other stuff that I needed to get. But while the purchase might have been spontaneous, I’ve been fascinated with Orthodox Judaism since falling under the spell of Chaim Potok in high school. I find that the almost total break modern Christianity has made with traditional Judaism seems at the least regrettable, if not outright problematic. How do we understand almost 70% of Scripture if we have no functional link to our Jewish theological heritage? And how do we best understand the New Testament – written by Jewish converts to Christianity – without this heritage?
So I took a chance that Ms. Winner would have something of interest to say on this topic, and I was pleasantly surprised. She does. She writes well. She’s charming and engaging in a young womanly sort of way (you can almost hear her giggling as she discloses first her dating relationship with one of the characters in the book, and then her eventual engagement to him). But this isn’t a book that needs to be categorized by gender. She writes well and what she has to say and share can be beneficial to anyone.
Her basic idea is that having grown up as an observant Jew, some of the traditions and rituals and practices of Judaism have some useful application to Christian devotional life. I agree. I agree in large part because I was already familiar with many of the traditions she discusses. But also because I believe that we are created as kinesthetic creatures. Our hearts and minds and bodies are bound up together, and if we focus merely on intellectual or devotional practices without engaging our bodies and senses, we’re missing out on a great deal.
Ms. Winner’s Christian faith seems well-rooted. She doesn’t present these spiritual disciplines in a legalistic or pietistic fashion. They are helpful for her. Perhaps they can be helpful to others. She offers her experiences and observations in the spirit of Romans 14:1-12, neither judging nor despising. Her chapter on the Jewish traditions of mourning the dead and being with someone in mourning are particularly instructive and helpful as we seek to love and care for people in that situation.
If you feel that your devotional life and spiritual disciplines could use some freshening up, this might be a useful contribution towards that process. If you’re curious about aspects of the Christian faith that have been informed by our status as basically a Jewish sect, this book might be helpful to you. It’s a short, easy read that provides a lot of food for thought.
All that being said, because I am a Lutheran, I am duty-bound to remind you of a few basics. Spiritual disciplines are aids to our life of faith. They are not means of grace, nor do they convey salvific value in and of themselves. Lutherans are so cautious, though, of pietism and legalism that we often eschew any focus on spiritual discipline because we’re afraid people will misunderstand and the focus will move away from Christ crucified and resurrected.
The purpose of spiritual disciplines – whether informed by Orthodox Judaism or otherwise – should be to move our focus off of ourselves and what we do, and onto Christ. In other words, while advocating for some form of personal, habitual spiritual discipline sounds like it ought to be driving my focus inwards, in reality it ought to drive it outwards to Christ. As such, choosing a particular spiritual discipline does not make you better or holier than anyone else. It just says that you find the practice helpful in your own spiritual walk.
I’ve come to realize that some of those ‘silly’ devotional practices and disciplines can have very practical, tangible blessings as I seek to live as a faithful Christian in a culture fully focused on diverting and subverting that faith. I now see greater value in spiritual disciplines and habits. The little daily touchstones and rituals don’t denote weakness or foolish superstition, but can be vital links and reminders in my comings and goings and doings about whose I am, and how that ought to shape each of those comings, goings, and doings.