Exercise for the Soul


Exercise

I’m not a big fan of reality TV, but there is one show I really enjoy.  The Biggest Loser is about helping morbidly obese people lose weight and regain their health and vigor. The contestants, all of whom are obese and suffering from multiple weight-related ailments, live at an isolated health compound and work with world class trainers throughout their stay.  It’s fascinating to watch the amount of work Biggest Loser contestants need to correct years of behavior problems like overeating and under exercising.

One phenomenon that is readily evident to viewers of the show is how former athletes—those who at one time were accustomed to vigorous exercise and discipline—seem to progress much faster than those who have never routinely exercised or disciplined their bodies.

Besides weight loss, The Biggest Loser delves into the psychological struggles waged by each contestant. Some succeed, while others never quite make it.  Now in its 10th season, the show has generated a Biggest Loser fitness movement across the country.

Many Americans are dedicated to physical fitness routines. Yet a 2013 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that 80 percent of American age 18 and above do not exercise sufficiently to maintain good health.

Far fewer practice a discipline of exercise for the soul.  What a shame we can’t seem to find a way to generate a spiritual fitness movement across our country!  For Christians, exercise for the soul is more important than physical exercise, because the Holy Spirit dwells within our bodies, which St. Paul calls, “the temple of the Holy Spirit.” Left neglected, either by sin, complacency or getting buried in the business of day-to-day life, the Holy Spirit cannot speak to us.  Our bodies require daily attention on both the physical and spiritual levels. Prayer must be at the center of attention. Personally, this is an area I’ve struggled with lately.

Popular evangelist and church pastor Rev. David Jeremiah has said, “Prayer is the hard-work business of Christianity, and it nets amazing results.”  German Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was very specific in promoting the benefits of prayer, saying,

The entire day receives order and discipline when it acquires unity. This unity must be sought and found in morning prayer. The morning prayer determines the day.”

 Having practiced morning prayer for many years, I appreciate its importance to a Christian’s well being.

St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order of Roman Catholicism, was a Spanish knight who lived from 1491 to 1556.  As a young man, Ignatius kept a journal of his quest to grow in unity with God and discern God’s will in his life.  As his experience grew, the journal evolved into a well-defined set of prayers, meditations, reflections, and directions that are known today as the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.

These exercises are grouped into four stages, described as weeks but not literally seven-day periods, which are designed to be led by a director, or guide.  The Spiritual Exercises are intended to serve as a sort of lesson plan for the individual leading the exercises, not as a guide for individuals.

However, even without a director many aspects of the Spiritual Exercises can be useful to individuals seeking spiritual growth and greater commitment to serving God. This is particularly so for the way the Spiritual Exercises approach prayer through meditation and contemplation.

Meditation involves praying about the good and bad words, images and ideas that guide our lives.  Contemplation is emotion-driven, rather than thought-driven.  It focuses on placing ourselves in scenes from the Gospel and trying to imagine how it might have been.  Contemplation is praying through scripture rather than studying scripture.

One of the key elements of the Spiritual Exercises is the discernment of spirits.  According to St. Ignatius, the human spirit is influenced by three forces: an inward focus on self and selfish desires; Satanic power and suggestions; and God-inspired power and suggestions. Ignatius called these the “spiritual motions.”  The purpose of discernment is to discover the source of each spiritual motion in our lives, so as to help us help make good decisions.

Many contestants on The Biggest Loser reach so-called plateaus—a weight they just can’t seem to get below.  To overcome this barrier, they change their daily exercise routines, doing something different to restart the weight loss trend.

The same approach can be applied to spiritual exercises.  I do a fair job of exercising my body, but lately I’ve felt like my prayer life has slumped—I’ve hit a plateau.  I have difficulty concentrating and find my mind wandering when I pray. In the remaining days before the beginning of Advent, I plan to try a new prayer regimen built around the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola.  Have you hit a prayer plateau?  Perhaps it’s time to change your exercise routine for the soul.

 “Prayer is exhaling the spirit of man and inhaling the spirit of God.”

                                                                                       Edwin Keith

An English text of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola is available online at: http://www.jesuit.org/jesuits/wp-content/uploads/The-Spiritual-Exercises-.pdf.  The Website “Ignatian Spirituality,” a service of Loyola University Press, was the primary source for this blog entry (www.ignatianspirituality.com).

One response to this post.

  1. Zach, Thank you so much… another “home run”!

    Reply

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