(computer issues and more than a few pastoral care emergencies.... I discovered two drafts which I did not publish. My apologies for the bumpy nature of recent postings. This is the finale of the series which I previously said had ended...)
Using physical exercise as a model for understanding spiritual exercises can be a useful tool. After all, we can match up some of the virtues required: persistence, focus, commitment, self sacrifice. However, the relationship is analogical and all analogies have strengths and weaknesses.
In exercise it is easier to measure progress. I can look at the scale and see that my weight has changed, I can measure my waist and see if my stomach is flatter. I can also measure output. I can measure the exertion level and my physical response (pulse). I can see if I am stronger or faster. There are also criteria to measure against. I think the hardest question to answer is what is expected? How long should it take to run a mile? How much should I be able to lift? There are scales based on age and sex which let you know.
In the spiritual life it is less easy to measure. The soul is immaterial and hard to eye ball. We cannot easily determine if we love God and others more each day. It is hard to grade a prayer life or scale a meditation. If people get discouraged and quit physical exercise easily, perhaps it is fair to say that far more never even engage in spiritual exercise at all.
Many of us overstate what we do. "I don't need to go to the gym," I have been told over and over. The reasons vary: I don't want to get too big and muscular (frequently stated by women; as if most women are genetically loaded to look like Arnold Schwartzenegger after a weight months of lifting). Another one, "I walk around constatnly, I probably go twenty miles a day!" (Fitbit, a tracking device which records your daily steps may end up telling you it is closer to 2,000 than the 10,000 recommended each day)
So I hear people say, "well I pray all day" or "I already know all that stuff." Or I feel very close to God so we must be fine. Perhaps the most common, "I know I need to do more, I am just too busy, or not sure how to start; or I am too lazy" (some people are honest). The "eye ball test" so to speak of the state of one's soul...
So hear is the dilemma. Without measures we can think we "pray all day" but it is important to have actual times dedicated to praying. Not unlike "walking all day" needs a base of thirty minutes of focused exertion. And our spiritual life needs to incorporate multiple dimensions. If all you do is run then you will be good at running, but you will not be very strong. And the demands of daily life require more than the ability to run ten or twelve miles. So prayer time, being quiet with God, needs to be supplemented (Christian prejudice here) with Bible reading. The best way to hear God is through His word. The best way to hear the word is reading it (slowly and repeatedly). For "heavy lifting" we do well to add the Scriptural approach of the Ancient Church (spiritual reading to supplement the literal) to our Bible footnotes. Or cross check word references (Blueletter Bible is a great tool) to see how often it appears and what it means in different contexts. Or study the ancient world and read the Bible in its context (instead of assuming it was written for ours and addresses our needs and concerns!) For additional growth in endurance and strength incorporate fasting. There are health benefits to fasting both physically and spiritually. In addition, handing over time to dedicate it to serving others, handing over money to support others, and using our special skills to benefit others are all spiritual exercises (stewardship) which are directly connected to our growth in faith and love.
Once again, to reiterate what I posted yesterday, the purpose is to give one's self to God. So keeping track cannot become an end in itself. We are not counting rosaries or psalms prayed to meet some self promoting level of spirituality. On the other hand, to not have some concrete measure of what we are doing (call them goals) means that we are floating around, at the whim of every impulse or outside influence.
For me, I have a committed workout regime which allows for strength and endurance. My body has been transformed in the last year. I am not required to take the pills the doctor said I would need. I am stronger and my body composition has gone from 'fat' to 'lean.' In my spiritual life, I have long followed a similar practice. I dedicate thirty minutes to prayer and meditate on the daily readings. I try to use rosaries for repetitive prayer (usually thanks and praise, or an invocation of Jesus). The steady rhythm is not unlike walking for three or four miles. It is not exertion, but it gets me in a zone or awareness. Whatever else it accomplishes, it means for that period of time I am giving self to the Lord.
In fact, I suggest taking a walk and doing the repetitive prayer model daily. To start the day with a prayer walk benefits body and soul. Then pick up the Bible and read, study, meditate and respond with your life. Include periodic fasting and acts of generosity. Have a goal for a "good day" and then relax and enjoy life.
My prayer is that you are inspired to do thirty minutes of moderate exercise a day and supplement it with strength training three times a week. I also hope that as you focus on bringing your body to a higher level of health and vitality you are not neglecting your soul. Prayer, study, service/work makes a soul healthy and strong.