Sacred Self-Care: Daily Practices for Nurturing Our Whole Selves

Amy Pagliarella and Shani McIlwain review Chanequa Walker-Barnes' new book where she writes: "We are our bodies. There can be no spiritual life that does not engage the body.”

Chanequa Walker-Barnes
HarperOne, 224 pages | Published August 15, 2023

“We are not spirits that are simply housed in bodies,” writes pastor, professor and clinical psychologist Chanequa Walker-Barnes. “We are our bodies. There can be no spiritual life that does not engage the body.”

With this holistic approach to self-care, Walker-Barnes weaves personal stories and epiphanies with hymns, Scripture and reflection questions to create Sacred Self Care: Daily Practices for Nurturing Our Whole Selves.

Leadership trainer, author and coach Shani McIlwain and Outlook Book Review Editor Amy Pagliarella reviewed this newly released guide together.

Shani: Sacred Self-Care was like a marriage between a therapy session and a Bible study! I heard Walker-Barnes keynote last spring, and to see this come to life on paper was beautiful; she took her ideas about rest and self-care and everything from her keynote came together here.

Amy: Yes — she really lets her own process unfold in this book’s pages. You could hand Sacred Self-Care to someone who doesn’t know Walker-Barnes’ work and they could easily see how her own life experiences led to her personal need for self-care as well as to this political notion of self-care as a kind of radical resistance.

She seems to be part of a growing movement that claims self-care as a human right, and it seems like many of those leading the way are Black women — I’m thinking, for example, of Rest is Resistance by Tricia Hersey (The Nap Bishop).

Shani: Yes, in Sacred Self-Care, I could see glimpses of other womanist thinkers like Tricia Hersey and Cole Arthur Riley. They all tell us to remember our embodiment, and, while growing up, I remember my mother would say, “You have to know your body. You have to know when something is wrong with your body.”

Now I’m taking this advice from my mother and applying it to my spiritual practices. Remember your body. Sometimes we forget what we’ve been taught, and (Sacred Self-Care) reminds us.

Amy: It does. And I think what Walker-Barnes does so well is bring the spiritual and the psychological together with her own experiences — and mistakes. I related to the ways she mistreated her body when she was younger, sometimes with punishing exercise or thinking that sleep was a sign of weakness. Then she describes the ways she’s contributed to her own healing by trusting her body and its need to rest. And her stories about seminarians and church folks having the same issues? She gets it.

Shani: Yes! As she says right here in the title of chapter two: “Self-care is Self-love.”

Amy: There’s a particular sentence from that chapter that I underlined a dozen times: “It didn’t help that I had internalized the idea that it was my Christian duty to serve others above all else. I thought it was a sign of God’s favor that my service was so highly desired…” Have you experienced this?

Shani: Always. I have to resist this urge to please people. I once heard at a conference, “Do you want to be a people pleaser or a Jesus pleaser?” And I started to wonder: what are the things that God is calling us to do that we aren’t doing because we can’t let go of something we’re no longer supposed to be doing?

Amy: That’s a great example of how self-care can deepen our relationship with God. The term self-care sometimes sounds like getting a manicure — but this book is about sacred self-care. What is meaningful to you about self-care that’s sacred?

Shani: To me, sacred self-care is our alone time with God, not just ourselves. It’s like the practice from day one in Sacred Self-Care that asks us to look at ourselves in a mirror. I had a hard time with that — I couldn’t do the full-length mirror! But I looked at myself and realized that I am fearfully and wonderfully made. God knitted me in the womb. This journey of life is all about getting to know God just as intimately as God knows us, and I feel like this book takes us one step closer to that.

Amy: Were there other spiritual practices that resonated with you?

Shani: Well, I thought the affirmations were powerful. And the moments of self-reflection with the questions at the end of each chapter — that’s where the therapist in her came through.

But my whole journey and theology have been formed first through music. I grew up learning all the hymns. I don’t think there was a single hymn or song in this book that I didn’t know, and I loved how she incorporated them.

Amy: I know that we each had to read this quickly so we could discuss it, but the book is laid out as a seven-week devotional or guide. How would you use Sacred Self-Care in your church or devotional life?

Shani: Yes, I read 50 days of reflections in 10! I want to go back and read one each day in a more intentional way. I think I will wait until Lent, and I want others to join me, so I will introduce it to my church. I experience Lent as the most spiritual season of the liturgical year, and I really resonated with her story of being in seminary and celebrating Lent (for the first time).

Amy: I’m going to re-read this starting after Labor Day. I find that the kids go back to school at the end of August, and I have a couple of weeks where I try to deal with all the work I neglected over the summer, and then I give myself a fall reset — to get back into healthier ways of being.

I can already hear myself saying, “I’m taking on new things — I won’t have time.” But that’s exactly why I need this book. What’s the point of taking on new work at church if I find myself saying “Well, now I don’t have time to pray!”

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