To begin is for everyone. To persevere is for saints. ~ St. Josemaria Escriva
An active physical life and an active spiritual life – both are so desirable yet can seem so unobtainable. We often think they’ll magically transpire just because we want them to but, somehow, when we try to muster the effort we rapidly lose interest and motivation. Let’s look at some of the difficulties we encounter that cause the false starts in our physical and spiritual progress.
It’s easy to look at pictures of impeccably toned models or athletes and dismiss them as some kind of superhuman fantasy that we could never hope to achieve. There is a voice in the back of our heads that tells us we’re not good enough or dedicated enough to reach the same levels of physical excellence, so we head back to our ordinary ways of life, thinking that exercise – or even we ourselves – are just not worth it.
The same goes for our spiritual lives.
The demands of the scriptures can seem so unrealistic, the stories of the saints so crushingly heroic and the weight of the Church’s teachings so burdensome that it can be exhausting just thinking about how to start. We end up in a depressing limbo, envying others for what they have achieved while despairing of our own inertia.
Yet every human that has made any progress physically or spiritually, started out as – and remains – just that: human; flesh and blood, imbued with every frailty that humans are prey to. If they have the propensity to change their lives, so do we. Even more so when our belief as Christians tells us that we have powerful help at hand: For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help (Heb 4:15-16); Everything is possible for one who believes (Mark 9:23); For with God nothing is impossible (Luke 1:37); Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:5).
In matters both physical and spiritual, our belief in the possible should be encapsulated in one small, simple and expectant action: prayer
“Prayer requires that we stand in God’s presence with open hands, naked and vulnerable, proclaiming to ourselves and to others that without God we can do nothing. This is difficult in a climate where the predominant counsel is ‘Do your best and God will do the rest.’ When life is divided into ‘our best’ and ‘God’s rest,’ we have turned prayer into a last resort to be used only when our resources are depleted. Then even the Lord has become the victim of our impatience. Discipleship does not mean to use God when we can no longer function ourselves. On the contrary, it means to recognize that we can do nothing at all, but that God can do everything through us. As disciples, we find not some but all of our strength, hope, courage, and confidence in God. Therefore, prayer must be our first concern.” ~ Henry Nouwen
We can be so unfair to our future selves! Our alcoholic binge today has absolutely no regard for tomorrow’s hangover; this week’s laziness coldly turns a blind eye to next week’s stress over jobs left untouched. Similarly, our lack of exercise this year has little concern for next year’s poor health and a lifetime of spiritual inertia rarely contemplates an eternity without God.
If, in contrast, we lived with our future selves always in mind, we would have an ulterior motive that constantly turned the direction of our lives towards something better. It’s often this comprehension that drives us to change our lives: I want to be a healthy father for my children but I’m so overweight and out of breath; I must start exercising! My job is so stressful, but I need determination and serenity; I ought to pray more! It should be no surprise that such circumstances jolt us out of complacency. They are there to kick-start a new way of living with a greater purpose in mind.
When the brain is young and not yet fully formed, there’s a lot of flexibility and plasticity – which explains why kids learn so quickly, says Deborah Ancona, professor of management and organizational studies at MIT. “It turns out that we, as human beings, develop neural pathways, and the more we use those neural pathways over years and years and years, they become very stuck and deeply embedded, moving into deeper portions of the brain”. By the time we get to the age of 25, we have so many existing pathways that our brain relies on, it’s hard to break free of them.
So, for example, if we spend years ignoring the alarm clock in the morning, the brain eventually accepts that the alarm is there to be ignored. The same goes for exercise and for prayer. We know for sure the negative effects of a junk-food or social-media habit on our physical or spiritual health, but it can be too easy to give in. We say to ourselves, I should really exercise or pray more, but immediately quell those thoughts with distractions, marking out neural pathways that become increasingly difficult to change.
One reason is because our brain is “inherently lazy” and will always “choose the most energy efficient path” if we let it, writes Tara Swart in her book Neuroscience for Leadership – and that tends to be the path it knows we follow most often. Eventually, whenever we make efforts to rejuvenate our spiritual and physical health, we are swamped by a host of excuses that are really our brain following the neural paths of least resistance.
If we want to form new habits, we’re going to have to hone the parts of the brain that we use less frequently, says Swart. And this new task is often so challenging that we’ll feel mentally and physically exhausted because we’re forcing our brain to work in ways it’s unaccustomed to. This is the only way we’ll actually grow new neurons strong enough to connect with existing neurons and form new pathways. In order to conquer a challenge in this way, we need practice and repetition and these, in turn, require a daily or weekly decision to turn up – at the gym, the church, the fitness studio, the confessional.
The power of resilience is what characterises success. Time and again, research shows that grit and determination are greater markers of success than talent or intelligence alone. Unfortunately, resilience itself only comes from engaging with activities that call for it, yet even the smallest desire to make the tiniest progress can be all we need – just take a look at this remarkable video [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KbVpCc_r9Sw]. The English writer and lexicographer, Dr Samuel Johnson, whose great achievement, A Dictionary of the English Language, took nine years to complete, wrote, “Great works are performed not by strength, but by perseverance”. In the end, the state of our physical and spiritual health may simply come down to this one factor: resolving to show up every day until the job is done.
We have such grandiose plans, yet we dreadfully overestimate ourselves. In our minds, we can easily run a marathon or get up early every morning for an hour’s devotional without prior conditioning, but until we really test ourselves we have no idea how short we’ll fall and how disappointed we’ll be.
We need to start small. I started weightlifting a year ago and one of the great and positively humbling aspects of powerlifting is that you literally cannot lift more than you can lift; the bar simply doesn’t come off the ground or off the rack. It’s an excellent measure of our capacity and, if we struggle and have to strip weights off the bar to start again at a lower level, then so be it. But small steps are what build up our strength. My coach makes us follow a program of adding 5kg (11lbs) to our deadlift each week, until we hit our peak lift, where we then drop 25kg (55lbs) and start over again. Every 5-6 weeks, we hit a new peak 5kg greater than the previous occasion. It seems a painfully slow process, but it’s extremely effective in scaffolding the increase in strength and maintaining focus on small gains. Looking back a year later, it’s amazing to see how far we’ve progressed.
I’ve tried a similar strategy with attending weekly confession and Eucharistic Adoration. When I first started, I went once a month and arrived for the last 20 minutes, when I made my confession and did my penance in time for Benediction at the end. Bit by bit, I extended the duration I attended; then I started to attend every two weeks, by which time it slotted well into my Saturday morning schedule and became much easier to make into a weekly habit.
On the other hand, I still have a way to go to achieve this strategy with my daily Rosary.
A year ago, I’d never held a barbell above my head, let alone considered Olympic weightlifting as a sport to enjoy. In fact – and this is perhaps another reason for my many false starts – I’d never really found any method of fitness that I enjoyed. Yet, due to the excellent and enthusiastic coaching, and within weeks of joining the classes, I was watching youtube videos of professional lifters, signing up to weightlifting blogs and websites, buying books on mobility and strength – and soaking up every piece of advice and constructive criticism from my coach. It’s been an incredible year, literally going from strength to strength, as adjustment to minor adjustment of my starting position, my stance, my grip, my posture and balance and even my mental approach, has seen me hit personal bests month after month. NB: I’m 43 next month – what goes as a personal best for me is daily routine for some of the young men and women in the gym.
Still, if only I could say the same of my spiritual life! However, there is nothing better than receiving one-to-one tuition that really focuses on the issues you face in your spiritual life, and which drills down to the many tiny but fundamental areas of weakness peculiar to you. In the church, we know this as confession. Like weightlifting, we must make it a regular activity for it to bear fruit and, where possible, make it to the same priest who can get to know your particular shortcomings over time and give you the best possible advice for making progress and gaining strength (although, once in a while, a different perspective can open up a whole new level of understanding). So often, our enthusiasm for something simply comes from being taught more about it, and the more we learn the more we want to know.
Isolation quickly kills enthusiasm. When we’re on our own, we’re too ready to listen to our own excuses and to capitulate to our own rationale for not pursuing an active physical or spiritual life. How often do you hear someone saying, “Oh, I don’t need the church (or the gym). I don’t need organized religion or body-pump classes. I have a private relationship with God. I can quite easily exercise at home”? Or, on a personal scale, when we tell ourselves that we’re a bit tired this week, so it won’t matter if we skip barbell club (or Mass) and we can do a few push-ups (or say a few prayers) on our own instead. Really? Firstly, it takes a special kind of determination to persist on one’s own at any kind of proficient level and, secondly, don’t we all know how much better it is in a group? Fun, laughter, encouragement, friendship, affirmation, camaraderie in the face of challenges, what’s not to like? Along with that all-important push from the person who says, “Where were you last week? We missed you!”
When I first approached a fitness coach two years ago, I was adamant that I was only going to pay for one session per week, anticipating it would be enough to keep my own health and that of my bank balance nicely ticking over.
Well, the coach looked at me skeptically and agreed, but I rapidly grasped how unfit I was, how little progress I was making and how much harder the task was going to be than I thought. So, I signed up to her 6-week intensive course of three training sessions per week, plus nutrition and mindset coaching. Then another 6 weeks. Then another. Evening and weekend routines changed, meals changed, budgeting changed (as I spent less on beer and whisky and more on fitness). Eventually – and I have the before and after photos to prove it – a whole new man appeared. I can’t tell you how much my life has improved as a result and it’s not just related to losing weight. I have regained almost full mobility after a shoulder injury, found greater mental energy, dealt with depression and anxiety that plagued me for years, slept better, seen other health complaints disappear and gained a whole set of skills I never thought possible at my age. Fitness now occupies a proportionately larger part of my life than it’s ever done before, five to six days a week, because it’s the bedrock of everything else that’s good in my physical life. It underpins my capacity to do every physical task better than ever, and has given me the resilience to tackle mental tasks in ways I never expected. Sure, it demands a greater proportion of my salary each month and I feel duty-bound to pay it. But it’s a small price to pay when the dividends are so great.
I regret not starting earlier. Twenty years earlier. The longer you leave it, the more difficult it is to make that start and meanwhile, in your head, you think you’re maintaining the same level of fitness you had in your youth. In reality, you’re going backwards, fast.
I’ll leave you to apply this particular fitness metaphor to faith. Suffice to say that everything changes just as radically in our spiritual lives when we give more time to God. Our lives are turned around; we see everything from a very different perspective. We realize we must put aside greater portions of our lives for something that pays such great dividends. But if we don’t, we never stand still in our faith; we just go backwards, fast.
I remember as a child, on holiday in the English countryside, watching a craftsman carve a beautiful badger’s head into a piece of ram’s horn that he was going to use as a handle for a walking stick. He was meticulous to the point of painstaking, but there was something mesmerizing about the tiny strokes of the chisel that slowly brought to life the fur on the animal’s face. I was about to turn away when I heard a woman say to him, “I couldn’t do that – it must take so much patience!” His quiet reply, in a lilting country accent, has stayed with me ever since: “You don’t need patience for something you love!”
Here, perhaps, is the real answer to why we struggle to make progress in our physical and spiritual lives. We don’t love our bodies and souls enough to spend time on them or to do what’s best for them. We give up too easily, because we’re conditioned to love other things more: food and drink, televised sport, social media, incessant newsfeed soundbites that don’t require any patience. St Augustine reputedly said that we should take care of our bodies as if we were going to live forever and our souls as if we were going to die tomorrow. These are tasks that we must carry out in equal measure and with great love, love for the gifts of our body and soul and love for the Giver of the gifts, who already loves them immeasurably. St John Paul II reminds us that, “The human person is a unique composite, a unity of spirit and matter, soul and body, fashioned in the image of God and destined to live forever. Every human life is sacred, because every human person is sacred”. So, we are worth it, and that in itself ought to be the greatest driver of our desire for a better physical and spiritual life.
Photo credit: Lucas Favre / unsplash
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