This article first appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Want to lose weight, eat healthier and exercise after the gorging of the holiday season? Or are praying, meditating and spiritual journaling on your list of resolutions for 2001?

While many people focus on improving their physical well-being as a new year begins, others feel the need to exercise their souls. Dr. Allan Freedman, 49, a Snellville physician who was raised in a Conservative Jewish home, began developing a pattern of spiritual practice more than a decade ago.

"We observed all the holidays," he said. "We did the traditional Sabbath Friday evening things. I went to synagogue regularly. But into my 20s and even into my 30s, my Judaism was mechanical and ritualistic. In my mid-30s, I began to try to inject some passion into the rituals I was doing."

For him, that meant a regimen of prayer and study that he maintains as faithfully as he works out at the gym. Freedman says a "standard Hebrew prayer" every morning when he wakes, thanking God for another day. As he walks the dog --- usually around 5:30 a.m. --- he notices the sky, the moon and the stars and contemplates the cyclical nature of time. He says a blessing over breakfast. In the evening, he says a prayer with his daughter, Mindy, 5, as he puts her to bed, then reads or studies for a while. He says a prayer as he prepares to fall asleep.

Twice a week he goes to synagogue for morning prayers. Three times a month he studies with a rabbi. And once a month he meets with a Jewish study group.

"I get a sense of contentment when I'm in a routine," said Freedman.

"It's made all the difference in the world. I very rarely get discouraged or depressed, and I hope I'm a better husband and a better father. I hope I'm a better doctor."

The Rev. Marjorie Thompson, a Presbyterian minister and author of "Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life" (John Knox Press, $17.95), also prays and studies daily, and she tries to spend a few minutes each night reviewing the day, examining where she has felt God's presence and where she has failed to respond adequately.

"Reflection on spiritual issues and on our own lives helps us to find the inner meaning in external events and circumstances," said Thompson, who works for Upper Room Ministries in Nashville, the publisher of many devotional guides, including the quarterly day-by-day devotionals handed out in many Christian congregations.

"It helps us to make sense of things that are difficult to make sense of --- like suffering. And, I think, a daily practice of reading and reflection helps us to know ourselves more truly."

People who get in touch with themselves and their divine presence see their own weaknesses and strengths, she said. They become less judgmental and more sensitive and compassionate.

"Overall," Thompson said, "I think it builds a sense of perspective on life. It helps us to see the big picture instead of being caught up in so many little details of life that are really self-referential and self-absorbed."

Values and choices
In an often frantic and splintered society, more people are trying to develop spiritual disciplines, as evidenced by the number and range of books offering daily inspirations. There are volumes for almost every religious orientation (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and the "just spiritual"), every age group (fathers, mothers, teenagers, single adults, grandmothers, mothers of teenagers), and niche devotionals targeted to people in almost every situation (women with unfaithful husbands, couples wanting to enhance their sexual intimacy, "women who do too much").

But do women --- and men --- who "do too much" really need to add daily reading and journaling to their already busy lives?

Only if they truly feel the need and are willing to make time by giving up something else, said Sister Nancy Auster, a Sister of the Blessed Sacrament who helps operate Maisha House of Prayer in Atlanta.

"One has to think of what one values the most," she said. "From your values will come your choices."

Both Sister Nancy and her associate at Maisha House, Sister Loretta McCarthy, serve as spiritual directors to people who want to deepen their religious lives. While developing a pattern of prayer or reading is helpful, people should not feel confined to a particular method of religious expression, they say. "Find what draws you," said Sister Nancy.

The nuns pray and reflect together on the church's daily liturgical readings, but each also has her own means of connection with God. For Sister Nancy, it's nature photography and writing free-verse poetry; for Sister Loretta, it's abstract art and journaling.

Earlier this month, grieving deeply as she marked the anniversary of her mother's death, Sister Loretta went into the basement area of Maisha House and spent several hours expressing her feelings with finger paints and paper. At one point she placed her palms on a paper that seemed to express her mother's spirit in restful greens and blues on one half, and her own unrest in pinks and yellows on the other. Her hands slipped in the wet paint and blended the edges of the two. Looking back at the paper now, she senses that her deep connection with her mother continues despite death.

Seeing where God has been
When she's feeling troubled or discouraged, Sister Nancy takes her camera outside. She feels comforted by nature as she observes it directly and often finds new meaning when her photographs are developed.

The shadow of a tree, when printed, looks like a tall, thin woman dancing. A black-eyed Susan growing out of a rock symbolizes the persistence of life under difficult circumstances.

Even though they have more than 70 years of religious life between them, the nuns say they sometimes fail to see God working. Reading back over her journal "helps me see where I've been and where God's been in my life," said Sister Loretta.

Sister Nancy finds the same reassurance in her photographs. "When you think you've lost God, go back to where you last saw God," she said.

A regular pattern of spiritual exercise is like the skeleton of a body, Sister Loretta said: "It's something to hang life on."

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