Who has a Catholic cramp? Maybe a dogmatic double chin? What is the equivalent of spiritual flab? Right now, I am in the midst of some holy heaving, pious panting, and am in great need of a soulful sit-up.
If there were a spiritual Olympics, I am not even sure if I would qualify as an athlete. There is no medal or podium in my near future, as my soul is very much out of shape. (Quick note: to my mother who is almost undoubtedly reading this and now wondering/worried if I have lost my faith or am depressed — the answer is no, but…) I still attend church each Sunday, pray each night before I go to bed — yet I am finding that I’m doing just the bare minimum of “practice” to stay on the team.
It’s been a tough year for me personally and sometimes playing the game and suffering a few crushing defeats makes you just want to sit it out. Or to put it in the context of a spiritualized Winter Olympics: I’ve been riding the two-man luge with Jesus this past year, and we’ve taken some tumbles — several in fact — and I guess I just don’t want to get back on the ice or coordinate each turn with my partner right now. Rather, I just want to substitute the luge for a lodge, grab some hot chocolate, order a pizza, eat a bag of Bugles, and watch Netflix ad nauseam.
Hence, my spiritual flabbiness.
Speaking of flab, a brief history of my own: Between the summer of eighth and ninth grade, I rapidly evolved from merely a husky little boy to a “generously proportioned young man.” As high school began, I solved this fitness crisis by joining the football team. Two intense practices a day led by a former Marine, combined with a big growth spurt remedied my proportionality. I was 14 years old, tall, fit, trim, one girl may or may not have possibly flirted with me that year, and I caught two touchdowns in the season, which surprisingly was the most on the team that year. I got into good shape through dedicated physical training combined with some lucky genetic timing.
I have been thinking about this example lately — specifically in terms of finding ways for me to get back into good spiritual shape. Spiritual fitness is much harder than merely losing a few pounds or adding some tone to your arms. I ask myself often: What is it that I am missing in my training now? Where is my spiritual football team? Who is my intense, yet effective Marine coach? And, where is the intangible luck that I am not finding? I suppose I have been relying on Sunday Mass to be my panacea — parishioners my team, the priest my coach, and the mystery of God as my metaphorical growth spurt.
Yet, my soul remains winded.
For the previous 29 years of my life, I have found great joy in attending Mass and participating in religion. In fact, I even wrote a book about it in 2012 (Fearing the Stigmata). The sacraments meant everything to me and I would sing each song with vigor and off-pitch glee. Outside of church, nightly prayer was like a special walkie-talkie conversation to my BFF Jesus, and I slept happy, healthy and holy. Yet year 30 was different. I very nearly died in the emergency room of Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital after my stomach split open and spilled its acidic contents all throughout my body cavity for no clear medical reason. A few days before 30% of my stomach was removed in a six-hour abdominal surgery, my first niece was born, yet passed away several hours after birth in the arms of my little sister. I felt so much pain for my family and would feel exponentially worse knowing how much more pain my sister and her husband were enduring as well — having lost their first child, my parents’ first grandchild. I was beyond pissed at God (understatement!) and decided that if spiritual fitness pleased God — in an act of defiance, I would just let my soul get fat.
Fat, but …
At the time of writing this, I still experience great pain on a daily basis both physically and spiritually. Yet, I still run the plays on Sunday morning and make my catches. I lace up my cleats, stretch, and listen to my coach. Yet, I’m not entirely sure I enjoy the game as much as I used to. I’m still spiritually husky and perhaps that will change with time or new teammates, new plays or a different field — but not a different game. Obviously, I haven’t given up nor do I think I ever will, but as I learned in eighth grade, getting fit was a two-part process — and I could really use a spiritual growth spurt right now.
Some might call this spurt realizing God’s divine providence or experiencing his profound grace in the world — all I know is I’m looking for it. I’m sure we all are, in some way, in greater need of finding this grace at different times; whether it provides meaning to our fragile soul, or eases our pain, or heals anger inside of us. In many ways, it’s the elusive piece in spiritual fitness that, once found, not only brings us closer to God, but is the mind-body-soul panacea that we so often seek in this delicate and beautiful experience of humanity.
To our health.
Matt shares more insight into the times when life has kicked us in the butt in this video.