This is my final post on the series of reflections concerning the use of physical exercise as a model for the spiritual life. The analogy works well in some areas and not so well in others, which is exactly what analogies do (they all "limp" as the saying goes).
One area where they definitely resonate is that both have a large range of opinions about what is "best." Over the years the desire for surety has been crushed by the reality of "expert analysis." You know, "the definitive study of this or that", "the conclusions based on hard science and not opinions"; those indisputable facts which have been overturned by further studies and hard science. So, for example, eating a bowl of cereal for breakfast: is it hope of a healthy day or recipe for disaster? According to the periodic fasting contingent, missing breakfast makes me sharper and clearer (because my body is hungry) while others say it will lead to weight gain, lethargic energy levels and diminish me in body and mind. [I have made my choice, each one choose as you think best]
One of the great debates in weight training has to do with volume. It is agreed that low numbers of very heavy weights make you stronger and high repetitions at lighter weights provides for endurance. It also seems to be agreed upon by everyone that what you do is what you will get better at. But the question of most us (the people who will never appear on stage as awesome body builders or on playing fields as elite athletes) is what is the best way to get strong, healthy and look good?
For the last year I have encountered one school of thought after another. Sometimes they agree. Sometimes they just emphasize different aspects. But, sometimes they flat out contradict each other. Some even forbid the very exercises that another makes the foundation of the entire program.
Obviously, there are schools which do endless research on bodies and study the impact of exercise. Yet, 'science' has yet to provide the unequivocal answer to some basic questions. And I am reading lots of exercise blogs and websites!
So what of the Spiritual Life? My friend, Ol Dave (a frequent contributor of valuable insights) swears by the Ignatian approach. Well he should. Ignatius has long been recognized as one of the premier teachers of the way of spiritual growth. I have recently shared our parish's (deeper) embrace of St. Benedict's Rule for monastics. With some need for shifts here and there, it makes a wonderful model for parish life and a great approach to personal spirituality (with its emphasis on regular prayer and the use of Scripture, especially the psalms) and the concomitant immersion in a faith community. John of the Cross is a recognized Master of the Soul and his work on the journey of prayer (called the Dark Night of the Senses, the Dark Night of the Spirit and the Dark Night of the Soul) are of infinite value, especially to mystics and serious pray-ers. Some advocate a passionless, intellectual focused approach (Truth reigns here!) while others advocate a more affective, romantic piety (Love! Love! Love!). The American Protestant may be drawn to "getting saved" (a cathartic experience) and prayer is centered on praying for the lost. A more Catholic approach may be the struggle to holiness and a focus not just on prayers but works and sacraments. The "prophetic" spirit of the Liberal Christian resembles a social justice advocate, though the motivation is God's teaching in the Bible and the example of Jesus. Pentecostals seek the gift of tongues and an intimacy with the Holy Spirit. The value of Nature was shaped by Celtic and Franciscan approaches with their recognition of God's immanence. Some spiritualities are the fruit of an individualist emphasis, others embrace the communal. Some seek personal insight into the Bible, while others emphasize obedience to the church's voice throughout the ages and the guiding principles found in Holy Tradition. Some simply advocate the constant repetition of the Jesus Prayer. Some advise say nothing at all, embracing the prayer of silence and the via negativa and its awareness of God's transcendence.
I am trying to paint these options to the Spiritual life in neutral terms. I have my own set of preferences. I also have criteria to judge which is the more and which is the less authentic. However, what I have learned during my struggles to lose weight and get healthier is that the "experts" often admit that what works for one may not work for another. It turns out that we are all different. Yes, our differences do not make us singularly unique (we can be grouped), but we do well to discover which "shoes fit" in our approach to exercise, whether it is physical or spiritual.
Whatever we choose, know this. Our prayer life and spiritual disciplines must provide enough challenge that we grow. We must do it long enough and often enough to make a difference. We are best to embrace one school or another and learn its ways, and reach some level of competence with the practices before we try another. It is just a bad idea to train dead lifts at maximum effort one week, and then do nothing but run the next week, and then do dozens of arm curls with low weights the next week and continually change without time to grow in anything. Likewise, learning to pray the psalms daily takes months (and years) to grow into. Once we are grounded in a spirituality, then one can branch out to embrace the wisdom of other approaches. We also know that simply running every day, or lifting as heavy as possible will not produce the best results. Consistency also needs change for stimulation and growth. But the decision to do something is most useful when choices to act follow. So get on it. Commit to doing it every day for long enough to make a difference. And add a bit each day, just a little bit, because over time it adds up.