I’ve been exercising more and feel the better for it. I have chronic low back pain and exercise helps a great deal, stretching and strengthening those tiny but crucial muscles around the vertebrae.
And during this holy season, these holi-days, of Advent, I exercise both body and soul and feel the better for it.
We all know that we must fight fat and cholesterol and carbs and calories and sugar in order to be healthy. We must do thirty minutes daily of aerobics so that our heart rate will rise and our blood move freely through our arteries to feed our flesh and return through our veins and into our pumping heart to begin again the journey of circulation. We know now, in this modern world of ours, through words on pages and in media of all kinds, lots of “how-to’s,” lots of self-helps. We know that “natural” is good (although the definition of natural remains elusive), that fish is better than meat, that baked is better than fried, that fresh is better than frozen, canned, or cured. Dark veggies and bright fruits should fill our plate. We must avoid fries, hamburgers, hot-dogs, and pizza. I fear that we what we really want is white rolls rather than brown, white rice rather than whole grain, fast food rather than slow. We know a great deal about how to have healthier bodies.
As I rolled along on the elliptical machine, pushing and pulling, I thought of these things. I thought how lopsided our society had become, as though we walked with one leg instead of two, dragging the weak leg, the spiritual leg, behind. We seem to be unaware that we limp, listing to one side. We don’t notice the odd rhythm of our step, the scraping noise of our sick soul pulled along, for we are used to being unbalanced. Then we wonder why we feel a sad pain in the ignored area of our souls, our hearts and minds, why we get depressed, why life seems overwhelmingly meaningless. We look to pills and other self-help mantras, rather than diet and exercise suitable for souls.
We ignore our souls as we exercise our bodies. We starve the spirit and feed the body. We are unbalanced, undernourished, weak. Just as we feel physical pain, we feel spiritual pain. How do we exercise and feed our souls to assuage that pain, that longing for something (or Someone) greater, that anguish that weaves through life, ambushing us unawares? I for one want to walk straight and tall and without a limp. I want to assuage my spiritual pain. I want a soul regimen, one with good diet and exercise.
Exercise and feeding of the soul, of course, must be practiced with as much care as that of the body. There are exercises that help and those that hurt. There is healthy food and unhealthy food. How do we know?
Just so, the Church defines and illuminates how to exercise and feed souls. She shows us, like a good mother, the healthy way, the care-full way, the diet to grow our souls. Our spirit-muscles strengthen with her commandments as we feed at her table, God’s altar. As we follow her teachings, we learn to love.
And this learning to love is what Advent is about. We await the coming of Love Incarnate in Bethlehem and as we look to Christmas Day 2013, we feed on Scripture, learning that love does indeed have a definition. Love is doing good – not doing harm – to our neighbor. Love is the summary of all law, the distilled essence of the Ten Commandments. For the Ten Commandments give us love’s recipe, guidelines to nourish us. The Ten Commandments, given by God to Moses so long ago on those clay tablets on Mount Sinai, are the prescription for how to love and how to heal our spirits.
It has often been said that if mankind followed the Ten Commandments, we would live in a peaceful utopia. Probably true. We would worship only God and keep Sundays holy. We would honor our parents. We would not kill one another, we would not sleep with another’s spouse, we would not steal, we would not lie, we would not desire what is not ours. In a sense the last five – those commandments about how to love one another – are largely about taking what is not ours to take, are all forms of theft, whether taking life, illicit sex, another’s goods, another’s good name. And we are not supposed to even desire these things for that transgresses the commandment, thou shalt not covet.
A friend once told me that when he couldn’t think of things to confess, he would confess that he hadn’t loved enough. For me I can always confess covetousness, a sure sign of not loving enough. I don’t often covet other’s material goods, but other odd and not-so-odd things I often covet – clear skin, thick hair (I have mottled skin and little hair); energy (I am slow-moving); good vision (always a problem even with thick glasses). I covet more serious things too, more painful things. I envy women with many children, although I am not childless.
Just making this list is bitter for me, for I know the other side, the true side, to these complaints. My mottled skin reflects my many years outside in glorious sunshine, lucky me! My thinning hair means that I have been graced with a long life. My low energy allows me to reflect and write. My poor vision has been balanced with acute hearing and miraculous attention to aromas, breezes, conversation, melody and song. And my few children? I have a wonderful son with a wonderful family. I’m a step-mom to three more sons and their wonder-filled families. I have eight grandchildren, with a great-grandchild due in April. How can I complain? I can’t. I am ashamed of my covetousness.
So coveting is a nasty thing, a tightening of the heart, a blinding of the soul to blessings. It is un-love for it treats others as objects to be owned. Perhaps it is the opposite of thanksgiving.
But my sins against God’s law of love are forgiven in the sacrament of confession, through the Incarnation of God’s (only) son, through this redeeming intersection in human time on the Cross, through his glorious resurrection. And with confession and forgiveness, my own pain and shame vanishes. I am washed clean. I often leave church with a happy smile on my face. Joy has replaced the pain in my heart; I know true happiness.
So I try to exercise my soul at least as often as I exercise my body. I want to walk straight and tall, with no limp, balanced. I want to be pain-free, full of hope, to learn to truly love my neighbor as myself.