This was originally posted as a column on the Grandin Media website.
A few years ago, I came across a book entitled “Fully Alive” by Ken Davis. I’m not sure what I expected from the book except that I knew it represented an evangelical Christian quoting St. Irenaeus’ when the late Bishop of Lyons said that “The glory of God is man fully alive.” What I found was Davis’ journey toward greater health by training for and competing in a variety of triathlons.
As I read through his book, it occurred to me that Ken Davis is as old as my father. I got to wondering if he could do a triathlon, why couldn’t I? I found a half-length triathlon that I’ve competed in the past two summers, and in August I’ll be doubling my distance from the past couple of years.
When I tell people that I’m a sort-of triathlete now, I get some interesting reactions. I’m not exactly in “triathlon shape.” Twenty plus years of youth ministry featuring all you can eat pizza, chips, hot dogs, and cookies, as well as late nights and erratic travel have left their mark on me. My wife had serious concerns I wouldn’t survive the 350m open water swim that was a part of my first triathlon (and I can’t say I blame her). But much like Ken Davis’ story, I’m trying to write a chapter of my own story that will allow me to feel healthier and improve my race time and endurance.
But it’s hard. Youth ministry food is what it has always been: sweet, deep-fried, and delicious. Some of the longer days make it hard to get out of bed early enough in the morning to get a proper workout in. It becomes easy to compromise, and I can expect that when race day comes along my deficiencies or improvements will reflect how much I’ve lived up to my own resolutions in this area.
One of my realizations this year has been how much this struggle to train is a metaphor for the spiritual life. The excuses to delay or avoid working out are the same ones we make to delay or avoid prayer: we’re too busy, too tired, there are a number of other worthwhile things we could be doing with the time, and so on. We face a similar temptation when it’s time to indulge. “It was right there.” “Just a little compromise won’t hurt.” “Well, I’ve already compromised this far… what’s a little bit more?”
This whole experience brings to light what St. Paul seemed to be expressing in his letter to the Romans. Paul writes: “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:19). Whether we look at the deficiencies in our spiritual lives or our those temptations which distract from praery, doing what is right is hard – very hard. But it isn’t as though the Lord didn’t warn us that it would be this way.
Our Lord used phrases like “take up your Cross” and “the narrow road” to describe what it means to be His disciple, and most of His first followers were later executed for telling His story.
Is it really so surprising that we find His call to be demanding? Or that, when faced with an area of Church teaching that impacts us personally, we are tempted to run in the opposite direction?
It is perhaps here that we might take some of the lessons we embrace when trying to improve our physical health and apply it to our spiritual well-being.
First, you need to have a goal. Physically, I have the goal to survive a sprint-length triathlon this summer, setting a baseline for race times in future years. Spiritually, there’s the need to have a similar baseline target; the idea of having a dedicated and intimate prayer life. In both cases, there are disciplines to be done daily (prayer, reading scripture, etc.), others which are done weekly (going to Sunday Mass, making a holy hour), and others less regularly like going to confession or making a spiritual retreat.
Second, you want to find a workout buddy. If you know someone is waiting to run or bike with you, it often provides the extra motivation to drag yourself out of bed and get your workout in. I’ve had similar experiences with prayer. When I wanted to add a holy hour to my routine during my time as a parish youth minister, I committed to meet a couple of my youth each week to pray. I had a roommate who agreed we would pray Night Prayer (from the Liturgy of the Hours) each night before we went to bed. In each of these cases – and others – I can say that having a “workout buddy” bore fruit in my spiritual life.
Finally, whatever resolutions we make (physical, spiritual, or otherwise) is rarely going to unfold the way we hope it will. There will be distractions and setbacks. Fitness trainers will tell us not to dwell on a day missed here or there, but to start and restart as often as possible. This is tremendously good advice for the spiritual life as well. Our best laid plans for prayer can go off the rails when we get sick, or called into work, or our routines are disturbed. Like anything else, the key in that moment is to start anew, rededicating ourselves to our spiritual training, that we might someday be able to say alongside St. Paul “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).