Even More Thoughts on Michael Yankoski’s ‘The Sacred Year’

The third and final section of Michael Yankoski’s Sacred Year explores ‘Depth with Others.’ The first two parts of the book explore ‘Depth with Self’ and ‘Depth with God.’  These sections are good (track the links back here, here and here to hear some of my thoughts on them). However, many books on spiritual practice do not move past personal transformation and devotional practice to a transformed community. Yankoski devotes himself to a series of practices which help him live life with and for others.

It begins with gratitude. Yankoski wanted to grow in grace and he sets out to thank people who have had a significant impact on his life. But sometimes people don’t hear verbal declarations of thanksgiving and emails are a click away from being forgotten forever. So Michael recovers the time-honored and ancient practice of writing thank you notes (which he re-christens as gratigraphs). He shares of several of these gratigraphs he writes which are met with an emotional response by the recipients. There were people literally in tears. In an age where snail mail is rare, letters and notes show special care and intentionality. What Michael discovered is that it connected him with others in new and rich ways.

Yankoski also discovers others ways of being ‘deep with others.’ There is the holy inefficiency of protest (chapter sixteen), the dedicated pursuit of justice (chapter seventeen), the interdependence of living in intentional community (chapter eighteen), and active care for others (chapter nineteen). These practices interpenetrate one another and build on some of the other practices which  Yankoski has shared about (i.e. Selah, the daily examen, solitude, listening prayer, etc.).  Michael Yankoski’s sacred year was a pregnant space where a new way of being was birthed and cultivated in him.

During his year, Michael had carried a hazelnut in his pocket to remind him of his spiritual quest. The hazelnut alludes to one of the divine revelations of Julian  of Norwich. God had shown her a hazelnut as a picture of His love. The hazelnut is made, loved and sustained by God. It became a powerful picture for Julian (and her readers!) of entrusting oneself wholly to God. So during Michael’s year he keeps a hazelnut in his pocket to remind himself of his spiritual quest to deepen his spiritual life. At the end of the year, the hazelnut is forgotten in a pair of jeans which goes through the wash. Michael finds it a few days later and discovers it had sprouted.

This book comprises a year in the life of Michael Yankoski. Unlike other ‘year long spiritual quest books’ the chapters do not follow a strict chronology ( like A Year of Living Biblically, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, A Year of Living Like Jesus, or Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray and Still Loving My Neighbor). The practices Michael tries to build in his life overlap and undergird each other. There is a story arc to the book. At the beginning of his year, Yankoski is disillusioned with the circus-like-atmosphere of American Christianity and his own. At the end of his sacred year he finds himself at an ‘entirely different place entirely’ (327).  But the other difference between other ‘year long quest books’ is Michael ends his year with no intention of ceasing to practice. A year of intentional exploration has given way to a lifetime commitment to living deeply (329).

As I have ruminated on Michael’s year, I too have hungered to enter deeper into spiritual practice and I have thought about what that would look like for me. Yet this book is much more a memoir than a spiritual manual.  I am encouraged by Michael to explore deep places, to give loving attention to myself, to the Spirit’s presence and to our sacred, broken world, but the exact shape of my quest is different as I am different. I found in these pages a hospitable place to explore various practices. At some points I take Michael’s direct challenge to enter into something (like writing gratigraphs). At other points I need to adjust his discoveries to my context (an overworked and tired father of three). This is the sort of book that invites personal exploration and would be a great book to read alongside other friends (think book clubs and small groups). Really great stuff!

More Thoughts on ‘The Sacred Year’: by Michael Yankoski

When Father Solomon first challenged Michael Yankoski to enter deeper in to spiritual practices he told Michael, “Spiritual practices are a way of mapping your own personal soulscape–helping you become more aquainted with who you are, who God is, and the people he’s placed you into this life alongside of” (13). This gave Michael a way of organizing practices into ‘depth with self,’ ‘depth with God’ and ‘depth with others’ as he explored spiritual practices during The Sacred Year.  In two previous blog posts, I reflected on my initial thoughts in coming to this book and my reactions to part one of the book (Depth with Self). In this post I want to reflect on part two, Depth with God and what I have heard in the text.

First let me say again how much I love Michael’s treatment of practices. This is not a ‘how to’ book which gives step by step instructions on how to do each discipline. This is Michael’s journey to somewhere deeper. Each of these practices enable Michael to inhabit a new dimension previously absent in his life. As such, these practices overlap and feed into one another. We saw this in part one where the practice of Selah (shutting up and paying attention) enabled Michael to attend to his life, to receive daily bread, live simply, explore creativity and number his days. The same is true in part two. We have a list of interrelated practices, each enabling the next and allowing Michael to press deeper into the spiritual life.

We begin with the practice of confession. Michael shares a childhood story of shoving all his dirty clothes and mess under his bed when he was told to clean his room. When a pungent ‘rotten meat’ smell emanated from his room, his mother took a broom handle and helped Michael scrape out all of the junk from under his bed until they found the culprit (126-7). This becomes a poignant analogy for confession–it is a way of getting rid of the awful smell in our life. As Michael enters deeper into confession he is also has to face up to his image of God. There are ways that Michael has felt that God loathes him (129) or at very least is deeply disappointed in how sinful and defective he is!. Underlying the practice of confession is a confidence in God’s great love for us. God does not loathe us, he longs to set us free and confession brings us into greater freedom. Michael’s experience of confession is so rich that he petitions his baptist church to let him build a confessional in their sanctuary (138). They don’t accept Mike’s offer, but the pastors of his church do make themselves available for confession during the season of Lent and are surprised at how many people sign up (139).

In addition to confession, Michael delves into the realm of listening prayer (chapter 9). Like Michael, I grew up in a context which advocated intercessory prayer. We were good at making our requests known to God, but seldom made time to listen to Him. By focusing on listening prayer, Michael cultivates attentiveness to God.  This has resonance to the practice of solitude (chapter 11) where  he learns to counter the world full of social media caw-caw-cawing and ADD by entering deeper into silence, stillness and solitude. He also learns to ‘attend’ through his practice of sabbath (chapter 12–in a lot of ways, this practice is selah writ large) and entering into the wilderness (chapter 13).

Perhaps these practices all invite Michael into a different ‘pace’ but this is seen most readily in his explorations of the practice of ‘Lectio Divina,’ and regular Eucharist (chapter 10) and the sauntering pace of pilgrimage (chapter 14). Rather than rushing through texts and scavenging for something meaningful, Michael takes up Eugene Peterson’s challenge to Eat This Book–to chew on the biblical text by reading slowly and devotionally. Regular celebration of the Eucharist invited Michael to meditate on Christ’s death by chewing, sipping and swallowing.  When he explores the idea of pilgrimage, Michael is as much challenged by the mode of travel as he is by his destination. It is fitting that his pilgrimage to Mission, BC from Vancouver to the monastery he’s visited throughout his sacred year enables him to enter into place and pay attention to things that he would not have seen otherwise. This leads to a chance encounter (divine appointment) with Virgil, a lonely fellow traveler (226-9).

The Sacred Year has me thinking about  the nature of sacred practice. Someone once said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and experiencing different results. But how often do we do that? For example, my mom doesn’t know my children. When my grandfather was still alive, she would say to me over the phone, “I need to be there for my dad right now. When he passes away then I can visit you and your family.” My grandpa has been dead for a couple years now, my mom has yet to visit (though she has her reasons). If you want to grow personally, interpersonally and spiritually you need to act intentionally. You need to behave in away that counters your regular practice (i.e. buy a plane ticket and visit) Spiritual practices are a way of combating our status-quo responses.  By the way I share this story about my mom to my shame. I wish I had a closer relationship with her, but I also find it hard to reach out to her and connect.  Something has to change in our relationship. I feel primed  and challenged to explore part three of Michael’s book ‘Depth With Others.” 

Further Reflections on Michael Yankoski’s Sacred Year.

A couple week ago I posted my initial thoughts on Michael Yankoski’s The Sacred YearSince that time I have read through part one of the book.  Michael discusses practices which helped him achieve ‘depth with self’ (parts two and three go on to discuss depth with God and others).  Michael begins with the self because his sacred journey stems from his existential angst and longing for something meaningful.  Michael feels the rub between his persona and role a conference speaker and public Christian witness and his anxious inner self. As he beings his journey into Spiritual practices, he is seeking something which propels him away from the plasticity and cheesiness of ‘American Christianity’ to something more substantive. So he begins by contemplating an apple.

I will discuss the apple in a moment but first allow me to theologically nerd out. I love that Michael chose to talk about ‘practices’ instead of disciplines. Writers on the spiritual life sometimes tend to use these words interchangeably but they are different.  To me, ‘discipline’ carries a private connotation whereas ‘practice’ evokes something communal and participatory.  I know that writers on Spiritual Disciplines like Dallas Willard and Richard Foster also speak about ‘corporate disciplines’ but I think disciplines, in general, signify a sort of ‘private practice.’ The language of practice is more open-ended and invitational.

So Michael contemplates an apple.  From the apple he seeks to learn attentiveness. The fruit of attentiveness is that  you attend to what’s in front of you. Michael learns this from the Psalms, The Psalms are often broken up by the word selah which is a sort of musical notation. Michael says his favorite translation  he’s heard for selah is “Shut up and pay attention!”(26). So he gets intimate with an apple and sees, feels and tastes what it has to offer. This selah attentiveness spills into self examination with the practice of the Daily Examen (chapter three), baking bread and learning about sustenance (chapter four), paying attention to the pull of materialism and practicing simplicity (chapter five), cultivating creativity (chapter six) and living life mindful of our own mortality (chapter seven).  These chapters layer on top of one another and reflect the ways Michael is growing. These are not unrelated disciplines but a web of practices which invite Michael to a deeper place.

I am challenged by the energy and commitment that Michael presses into depth with self.  He is led along the way by the insights of friends and wise guides (like Father Solomon in the monastery) and hiking companions which name his lack of self. He uses the Bible and Christian tradition as his source book and draws generously on some very thoughtful recent Christian writers. However most of what is said in part one of this book seems accessible to any spiritual seeker.  Michael has a strong faith commitment, but by starting with the self he is on common ground with other seekers.   I think that the next section, ‘Depth with God’ will delve deeper into the Christian tradition and understanding

I liked Michael’s previous book Under the Overpass and read it while I was working directly with the homeless.  I read it in one sitting cover to cover.  I could not do that with this book.  Reading this book invites you into personal reflection. I found myself re-reading sections,  chewing on the words. I am excited to see where Michael Yankoski’s sacred year takes me!

Michael Yankoski’s Sacred Year: not a book review (just initial thoughts).

Michael Yankoski is a friend I knew from Regent College, He has a new book coming out in September. He was nice enough to send me a review copy and I intend to review it here. But this is not a review. I am not far enough along to write one yet. These are my initial reflections.

I wouldn’t say I was ever really ‘close’ to Michael. We spent a semester or two in the same community group at Regent, Micah 6:8, a prayer support group themed around the area of social justice. It wasn’t long before I realized how smart, thoughtful and charismatic he was. Michael is tall, he has better hair than me (not hard) and an infectious smile. I remember an early conversation where I subtly tried to inform him of my significant role in the (Regent) community. Actually. it was a bald attempt to make myself seem important. Michael was gracious and thanked me for ‘my work.’ This was before I realized that Michael was a published author whom I had read appreciatively. Of course I wondered later why I was so insecure that I felt I needed to prove myself to a virtual stranger. I can probably even dig up a prayer journal entry on that conversation, though I’d be surprised if Michael even remembered it.

I don’t think I really ever felt ‘jealous’ of Michael, perhaps just a little over-awed. I had numerous conversations  with my wife about how impressive Michael and Danae  are (Michael’s über talented and delightful wife).  But when I opened up the Sacred Year and read I discovered that in the years that I knew Michael he had  undergone an existential crisis. In his introduction he tells the story of meeting up with a fellow Regent student for coffee. This student expresses the same sort of admiration for Mike that I felt. As he confesses this to Michael, Michael reveals his existential crisis and the journey it set him on (xii). The rest of the book reveals the journey. The first chapter shares Michael’s ‘jadedness’ after travelling around to Christian conferences and events to share his experiences from his first book, Under the Overpass. One over-the-top Christian conference causes him to question whether he was “just another pawn in the brightly lit song-and-dance called ‘American Christianity'”(7).

This leads him to make a week-long-retreat to the local Benedictine abbey near Vancouver. There a spiritual director, Father Solomon, challenges Michael to a year long exploration of spiritual practices. At first Michael balked at a spirituality of trying harder, as if that could earn salvation. The wizened old monk  replied:

The God that called you into existence ex nihilo–out of nothing–is the same God who holds your existence this moment and every moment. Were he to withdraw his hand, you would vanish without memory. All things would. No you can’t make Godlove you.  You can’t make God like you. But nor do you need to; he already does. Never forget that is why he made you–because he wants you to exist. And not just exist. He wants you to live life in all its fullness.(13).

This sets Michael on a journey of exploring spiritual practices which deepen his daily walk with God.

From the outset, this book intrigues me. I have read more than my fair share of books on Spiritual Disciplines. But in lots of ways, my spirituality is still more informational than ‘formational.’ What excites me about this book is that Michael makes a real attempt to live this out. He doesn’t present himself as a Christian super-saint but as someone seeking to shore up what is lacking in his own faith. I am reading this book with interest, because this has been my struggle as well.  I too have have had my run-in with the shallowness of ‘American Christianity’ and have sought something deeper and more life-giving. I also am reading this book as someone who knows the author (a little) and so feels invested in his journey. I am predisposed to like this book because I think Michael is reaching for a deeper place than he did in Under the Overpass (which is still a great book!). I am eager to see the places Michael’s journey with spiritual practices takes him.