The new year is upon us and many have already made their annual resolutions. Many will want to get healthier by shedding some pounds and exercising more frequently. Many articles come across my Facebook and Twitter feed from running companies like Runner’s World, RunHaven, and Active. As a person who enjoys a good run, I read the literature those websites produce. Recent articles I have read have addressed issues about overtraining, making the most from your long run, and eating healthier. I have read these secular articles with the eyes of faith, and personally discovered spiritual insights they offer. As many people begin to make their resolutions to become a slimmer and fitter version of themselves, the newly acquired habit of exercise, can offer lessons for the spiritual life.
Sometimes when I look in the mirror, I say to myself, I need to shed a few more pounds or I need to take better care of myself. I have the desire to be healthier and this is the first step in the process of becoming healthier physically. So too, in the spiritual life. Maybe we have looked in the spiritual mirror. We have seen how much God loves us, and our response to that love, is “why have I not loved God more.” I’m willing to bet, that some who read this have thought at some point in their spiritual life, “I wish I prayed more” or “I want to know Jesus better.” This speaks to the desire placed on our heart for God, as St. Augustine said, our hearts are restless until they rest in God. In the spiritual life, it is good to discover our desire to advance in holiness. That’s the first step, recognizing, and then acting.
Don’t Overdo It
As a runner, a lot of the literature warns about over-training. Many advise a ten percent rule, meaning that one shouldn’t increase their mileage more than ten percent each week. Imagine a person who has not exercised all that much, and then on New Year’s they decide to run a marathon. Their body is not ready for that and the possibility of injury can occur. In the spiritual life, we can have an eagerness to do many devotions, and take on more than we can handle. If renewing your spiritual life is a New Year’s resolution, it’s important not to overdo it. Just like running, we can do too much in the beginning. Trying to pray a rosary, do lectio divina, a holy hour, spiritual reading, and the 15 Prayers of St. Bridget, might be more than a novice should take on. If we set out to do too much, and we are faithful for the first few days, we might become discouraged when we do not accomplish our entire “prayer to-do list” in the future. One thing will go, then the next, and before we know it, our entire New Year’s prayer regiment has gone by the wayside and we are back where we started. Instead, commit yourself to one spiritual practice in the New Year. Incorporate it into your life, and gradually add something else if you feel called to do so.
An avid runner might become bored from time to time with their running routine. In the running world, a lot of articles recently are talking about reinvigorating the long run, that is, how to spice it up and make it more enjoyable. In the spiritual life, God gives us many graces when begin to pray regularly. But at some point, (all the spiritual masters experienced this), the well of prayer we drink from might dry up. This is called spiritual dryness, or the spiritual desert. In running, it is important to keep running even when the motivation might not be there. If one quits, the fitness gained will be lost. So too in the spiritual life. When we don’t feel God is speaking to us, or we don’t think we are getting anything out of prayer, it is precisely at those moments that we need to keep praying. God wants us to keep praying in the midst of that as a sign of our fidelity. The dryness will soon be replaced with abundant fruit one again.
“Lead us not into temptation”
Each week I look at my calendar and assess when I’ll be able to go to the gym. I schedule that time in, because otherwise, it will never happen. Sometimes when the notification comes up on my cell phone it is very easy for me to say, “I really need to keep working on this project.” Or, “I’m too tired.” These are worldly temptations against the idea of exercising. Now think about the spiritual life. The same is true. It’s easy for us to dismiss personal prayer time. If the best time for prayer is in the morning, it might be the temptation to hit the snooze button. “I need those extra few minutes.” If we pray in the evening, our other tasks might overtake that time for personal prayer, or if we pray before bed, the temptation of “I’m too tired” will be there. In the spiritual life we must resist these temptations. Not praying is precisely what the Evil One wants. When we pray, we become closer to God. When we do not, we become more distant from God. Avoid the temptation to dismiss prayer. Make it a priority.
The Spiritual Diet
Achieving a slimmer and fitter self involves a proper diet–eating healthy and avoiding snacks and sugar. We cannot expect to lose weight if we are not putting healthy stuff in. The same is true spiritually. We must be careful what we put in our souls. What am I watching on television? Who are the people I surround myself with? What type of conversation do I have? We cannot expect to advance in the spiritual life if we continue to put junk into our soul. The spiritual life is about discipline and asceticism. If something does not lead me closer to God, then I must abandon it. If it is hurting my relationship with God, if I am being led to sin by word or action, it’s time to run far away from it! Our spiritual diet should nourish us. As the evangelists tell us, it is from the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks (Mt. 12:34, Lk. 6:45). As St. Paul exhorts us, say only the good things people need to hear, things that will really build them up (Eph. 4:29). To advance in the spiritual life, we need that which is good, true, and beautiful. This will form our heart, and from this goodness, we will speak and act.
A number of years ago when I caught the running bug, I realized the connection between the spiritual life and our physical life. After all, St. Paul refers to the spiritual life as running the race and winning a crown (1 Cor 9:23-35, 2 Tim 4:7). A lot of articles I have read lately about how to become a better runner, have offered me insights into the spiritual life. These are a few of those lessons I’ve learned. If you are ready to take your spiritual life to a new level in 2016, these are some lessons we can learn from our New Year’s resolutions to become slim and fit. Run your race with perseverance (Hebrews 12:1).