So, earlier this year, around May, I realized that a significant change was necessary for my physical health to remain actually, well, healthy. I stepped onto a scale and found a horrifying number blinking at me from the scale. I got off, I moved the scale thinking it was out of balance. Apparently it was, because the number was actually higher than the first one!
Pairing that experience with dizziness and shortness of breath at times (in part from a history of smoking on and off) and I came to the conclusion that a decisive change was necessary – I know of few people whose metabolisms sped up as they aged and I didn’t think I would be an exception to that. I realized that genuflection had become really my only form of exercise.
So I have embarked, and am still on, a fairly comprehensive overhaul of my physical fitness. Gone are sugar, most carbohydrates, and the like. In their place there is lots and lots of protein. I am now in the gym most days either lifting weights or playing basketball – or both on two-a-day days.
I have approached this with the zeal that many converts bring to their new church home! So far, I am down around 70 pounds and looking to lose a bit more.
What I keep finding myself wondering is why this new burst of discipline and how do I apply it to my spiritual life? What can I learn from the relative success of this regimen that I can carry over to my relationship with God?
Judging by the attempts of various delivery people and others to deliver packages or solicit us for this that or the other, many people assume priests are in the sanctuary 20 or so hours of the day. In actuality, our time becomes rather taken up with the drudgery of many other office jobs – albeit punctuated by times of prayer and encounters with both the holy and the bizarre.
The challenge as I am relatively early in ministry is to find in each day some of the excitement I had in my ordination, first mass, or starting a new program. I find I am very good at starting new things – it’s the regular patterns, routines and habits, that I find far more challenging.
So some of the things I am learning along the way are these:
This may be the greatest learning thusfar – and one that I still struggle with. Approaching each meal or workout with a level of presence and awareness that makes them more than one more thing done without reflection. It is far too easy to shovel in food or neglect any exercise at all because our bodies seem to like habit. Yet we work best when we are working – actively engaging the environment around us. Even rest should have some element of intentionality to it so that it too is constructive and builds up the soul.
Our prayer lives fall into this – we skip prayers here or there, don’t make a confession, decide that we don’t have time because of this or that pressing need. Before we are even aware of it, we slip into mindless, unintentional living. We lose track of the source of all of our gifts and begin to treat those gifts loosely and with little regard for their deeper value – their consecration to God.
I am beginning to think that I need to pray and exercise as if my life depended on it. It does.
The Psalmist asks God to teach us to number our days. In that simple prayer lies a powerful recognition that the most precious thing we have is to be cherished – its measure is to be numbered – for it is short.
Our lives, to have fullness, must have a well-balanced hub. Different spokes, when misaligned or out of joint, will cause the whole thing to wobble and then, without warning, to sometimes fly off. Different people have different spokes. We have work, family, recreation, church, health, relationships, and devotion. If any of these becomes misaligned it begins to put stress on all of the others until suddenly the wheel, the whole thing, just won’t move. We get stuck and can’t even begin to figure out how to pry loose that which seems lost.
So It’s Really Not About Me
Each of those aspects of our lives have, at their heart, our relationships with others – with individuals, groups, communities, and with God. None of them can be taken lightly. What I am finding is that the more intentionality I have with fitness, the more aware I become of other aspects of my life that need attention (like prayer).
I don’t really like to cook. I like to eat – cooking I can give or take. Yet, this focus on health has ramped up my interest in cooking which has, as you might imagine, had a positive impact on our domestic tranquility as I have lightened the burden of cooking in our house for my wife. Moreover, I have also been thinking about the relationship between food and faith in a new way – for example thinking about community meals and community gardens in new ways.
Perhaps the most striking realization has been that improving my health is really not about me – it is about the way I interact with and treat not only other people but the fullness of the gifts I am given. There is a reason gluttony is a deadly sin. It is a sin that denigrates the gifts we are given – that treats them without regard. Neither life, nor food, nor any other thing given to man is there for our enjoyment alone – it is there to draw us ever deeper into the mystery of other.
An unintentionally lived life and disregarded gifts are sources of deep sin. They remove us from an awareness of how our action or inaction is impacting others.
A small example. Wearing safety belts. I despise them. My libertarian instincts rebel against them even as my communitarian instincts affirm their existence. I have the rather more Calvinist view that if you really want to stop reckless driving you should put a giant spike in steering wheels. There would be far fewer accidents. Anyway. Back to safety belts.
They are not important solely because they keep me safe, they are important to the nurses who would have to see the results of my neglect if I had an accident. They are important because they spare loved ones the pain of seeing us in pain. They are important because we are better able to help others if we ourselves have not been seriously harmed in an accident.
In other words, taking care of ourselves enables us to care for others. Prayer has the same effect. It is often not about the efficacy or lack thereof of prayer but about the conscious rebinding of our selves, souls, and bodies to the one who holds all in care – and to one another. We pray in two ways – we give thanks and we implore. We give thanks for all the blessings of this life and we implore God for strength, forgiveness, mercy, healing, and for the many other benefits that only the source of all can provide.
Prayer and thanksgiving point us in the direction of making the offering of thanks to God when we can respond to God’s decisive gift and mirror Christ’s offering with faith and say “This is my body which is given for you.” In other words, we – through gratitude and thanks – come to know deeply and profoundly that our whole self is God’s and we offer it back with thanks for God to use us to the glory of his Kingdom.
Everyday is Both Exceptional and Unexeptional
In the poem “Morning,” John Keble gives articulation to holy simplicity. He writes, “And help us, this and every day, To live more nearly as we pray.” It is not deduction of or even emotional response to God that will ultimately lead one closer to Him, but the simple acting of living in prayer. The banality of the verse implies something profound about the Christian life. It is not just the great miracles that communicate the grace of God, but the joys of a well-lived life and a nature that are full of divine promise.
One of the characteristics of Wordsworth that Keble so admired was that Wordsworth had “described the manners and religion of the poor…in an celestial light.” It is simple and yet enormously difficult to live into the Lord’s Prayer, to say the Creeds with integrity, to forgive and accept forgiveness.
It is in the day to day that we find opportunities to live more exceptional lives. In the gospel for Gaudete Sunday (the third Sunday of Advent) we find John the Baptist exhorting that tax collectors should be fair, that soldiers should not do untoward violence, and whoever has two coats should look to give one away.
John was not calling them to anything more than simple discipleship in their daily living. Yet that was the mark of the transformed and repentant life – the extraordinary could be measured by the way these men and women went about their very mundane lives.
The trick of dieting and exercise is to make them at once routine but also see them as part of something exceptional. When done with regularity, intentionality, and discipline, they will carry me forward even when I am feeling a bit off or just not into it. It is by making them an unexceptional part of my day that they are accomplishing what to me seems like exceptional change in my health.
So to with prayer. It is when it becomes part of our daily life – a firm part of our routine – that we are able to be carried by them even when our conscious self is just not that into it. It is in the unexceptional patterns of prayerful living that the exceptional begins to take place as our heart and soul are drawn ever closer to God perhaps despite us and without our awareness.
It happens slowly – painfully slowly at times. I am coming to mark hours and minutes (not just days as the Psalmist would have it) as I tick away when I can eat what or how many more minutes of lung-scorching I can handle. Yet change is coming. It is happening by fits and starts, by turns easily and with great difficulty, in some ways out of force and sometimes with great fluidity.
I am hoping that over time God is doing something similarly with my spiritual life. That the patterns and habits of prayer, repentance, and thanksgiving are allowing some change to happen within that I may or may not be aware of and yet can trust is happening – something exceptional is underway.
Sudduth Cummings said:
Your experience, Father, replicates what many of us have gone through during the early days of priesthood. Your reflections are an accurate summary of the process of our shared recognition, repentance and amendment of life. Sadly, some of us have had to repeat the process over and over. The distractions and stress of parish “busy-ness” is a strong magnet that for some of us, all too easily draws us away from the central task of prayer and waiting upon the Lored which Eugene Peterson so well described in his “The Unnecessary Pastor”, and Father Martin Thornton dealt with so expertly in his series of classics such as “English Sprituality”, “Christian Proficiency” and “Pastoral Theology: A Reorientation” (later reprinted by Cowley Press as “The Heart of the Parish: A Theology of the Remnant”), Simon Chan’s beautiful “Spriitual Theology”, and which Dallas Willard and others have presented in their books as well. Thank you for sharing this and keep up the good work. May the grace of the Lord continue to guide and strengthen you.