Guest Outpost blog by Andrew Davis
I once thought that spiritual practices were supposed to be either word based or “embodied,” but somehow I was never drawn to reading the psalms in Hebrew before sunrise or practicing downward-facing dog poses before dinner. I joked that I was “religious but not spiritual,” and felt content that I at least enjoyed the practice of ministry – even if my personal spiritual life was a big, fat zero.
Then, thanks to an insight gained from a faculty member at CREDO (a program run by the PC(USA) Board of Pensions to help pastors cultivate their health and leadership), I realized I do have a spiritual discipline, and I’ve been practicing it for several years.
Every weekday morning, after dropping my son off at his bus stop, I gather my materials. I sharpen several Ticonderoga #2 pencils, arrange fresh sheets of scratch paper on my desk, get out my folder and pour myself a cup of coffee. My practice is … math.
“Wait, math?” you might wonder. “That sounds nothing like an embodied spiritual practice!”
Well, to me, it is. Math fully engages my senses: I’ve come to love the dusty smell of the pencil shavings and the sound of the graphite scratching across the blank paper. These sensations are calming, and math rewards me with calm thought. Approaching a complex problem can stir up anxiety within me, but then I remember to tackle the problem in parts while seeking the whole. If I rush, I will make mistakes. However, when I slow down, take deep breaths and double-check my work, then I will find the correct answer. It’s like yoga for my brain — my shoulders will thank me later!
When I share this with people, I imagine them thinking, “Okay, so pencil shavings make math sensual. And you do it every day, so it is a practice. But how is math spiritual and embodied?”
The nonmaterial essence of math becomes known in very tangible ways (sound familiar?). Mathematical patterns are found within creation and reflected in the human mind. According to MIT physicist Max Tegmark, the universe itself has an underlying mathematical structure. Mathematical models even predicted empirical scientific discoveries – such as radio waves and the location of Neptune – before scientists could make the corresponding physical observations. I am astounded that by deliberately engaging in rational thought, my brain can understand and participate within the framework of God’s good creation itself.
My spiritual discipline of working through math problems grounds me in God’s creative act — day after day. In fact, I sense a sermon coming on … .
Andrew F. Davis lives on Third Street. His house, bank, grocery store, post office and church are also on Third Street. When Andy feels adventurous, he takes his coffee on Second Street. He is the pastor of Union Presbyterian Church in St. Peter, Minnesota.