Wednesday 6 June 2012

Spiritual Exercises for the Spiritual Athlete

By Artur Suski, S.J.

St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians compares the spiritual life and its care to that of the body:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified (1 Cor 9:24-27).

For an athlete to excel in his sport, he must put in countless hours of practice. Furthermore, perfecting techniques requires good practice, a practice that is properly supervised by someone who knows something about the sport; in other words, a coach. To achieve perfection in technique, an athlete needs to put in much effort, and with this also comes the temptation to not exercise. St. Paul keenly notices this tendency, and so he writes that self-discipline is the most important virtue – or attitude – in sports: the athlete knows his goal and he knows that he has to make sacrifices in order to reach it. He has to watch his diet; he has to go run even when he doesn’t feel like it; he cannot spend too much time with his friends because he must practice, etc. There are many athletes out there and they all want to win the race, and you must have something that the others do not have. Otherwise, why should you be the winner and not any of them?

Although we are not competing with others in our spiritual life, we do need that prized virtue of the athlete that is self-discipline. We know what our aim is, we know – for the most part – what it will take to get there; what remains is actually doing it. And this is the hard part. There are so many other things competing for our attention that we are often side-tracked, and at times to such a degree that we change our course altogether.

The soul is by far more important than the body; if we spend so much effort on the body, how much more ought we spend on the soul? This is a question that we must ask ourselves: how do we take care of our spiritual well-being? What are we doing to grow closer to Christ? Each day is a gift, and if we are not moving forward toward our goal, we are most likely regressing. It is the same with sports; every lost opportunity sets us back a tiny bit.

Let us now return to St. Paul’s comparison. When an athlete is well trained and continually maintains his athletic form, nothing will surprise him when it comes to his sport. He is always disposed to perform well; he is always in a state of readiness, and so he can respond adequately to any situation. It should be the same with the spiritual life: a Christian should always be ready when called upon by God. We should be so spiritually disposed as to always be ready to respond to God’s will in our lives. But what does this disposition really mean? It means that we should be in a state of indifference. In other words, we should always be open to receive God’s will, and so we should be mindful of our own sometimes inordinate desires and ambitions.

A faithful and constant prayer life is what nourishes the soul and disciplines it. When we meditate on the life of Christ, we desire all the more to imitate him; and what else has Jesus done apart from giving himself completely to his Father’s will? So, the next time you train your body, keep in mind this question: what will I do today for my spiritual life?

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