Change and Motivations
This past year motivated by health concerns and a desire for more energy and zest in my life, I resolved to embark on a program of increased fitness and substantial weight loss. Late stage diabetes runs in my family and I knew I was at risk if I continued to maintain or increase the weight I had. I have been healthy in the past and slimmer. I had been a distance runner on a daily basis, running in the occasional road race, including marathons (26.2 miles) until 1998 when I developed an injury. With a low thyroid condition and continuing to eat as if I were a runner, I gained weight to the point where I weighed 230 lbs. as recently as last March. With it problems of higher cholesterol, borderline high blood pressure, and occasional back problems began to plague me.
A past formula for conditioning involved running an hour every day. I resolved to make a serious attempt to make that a discipline in my life, combining it with a serious dietary change, I made a goal of returning to my high school weight of 180 lbs. After strengthening my legs with weight training I began with five minutes a day of very slow jogging on a treadmill. The treadmill is much easier on the knees and allows me to monitor my running style and speed and not have to contend with weather conditions. Each week I increased the time and distance by five minutes. I ran this each day of the week except for one shorter day. It was difficult and trying in maintaining the will and stamina to do this each day. In addition I found that a vigilant awareness and detachment of thoughts of eating or returning to previous patterns, or thoughts of giving up the daily discipline were essential.
Discipline is Commitment
Such a change involves an unraveling of previous habits, their associated thought patterns and the habit energy that sustains them. It was a great exercise in the necessity of discipline and faithfulness in any transformative process. In roughly five months time I lost 55 lbs. and settled into a daily pattern, initially of 65 min. or 7.5 miles a day running. I reduced that because of joint pain to 55 min. or 6.2 miles day (10 kilometers). I have come to a plateau of 175 lbs. Borderline issues of high cholesterol and blood pressure are resolved. I am taking a reduced dosage of thyroid medicine. My daily diet has changed significantly around a much healthier intake of protein, vegetables, and grains.Looking back I see how essential the moment to moment discipline is. At the same time I see how the motivations in life are powerful if we organize our will around them. When we learn to love our children, our spouses, our friends, we learn to orient, to commit ourselves to those purposes above the impulse or habit energy of the moment. At the same time I recognize how lacking I am in applying the same level of discipline to unify my life around the central motivation in life, the desire for oneness with God. By some measures the time I spend in formal practice is certainly high, yet the discipline is certainly not commensurate with the profundity of the Desire. Since we know that this singular desire is not of our creation, but it is the Beloved's desire for us, and it is limitless and enduring. Discipline is commitment. Why not be given to this discipline more profoundly in a discipline beyond the discipline I have given for the sake of health alone!
The discipline of giveness to the love of God, of ceaseless abiding and refuge in the Heart of Christ, this is the consecrated life. It is our heart's desire. Rather than the drama of self punitive measures of sackcloth and ashes, the spirituality of the season of Lent is a call to discipline, a call to the commitment of Love, a call to confront and transform the habit energies that hold our lives in constraint and bondage. In this way our life can be freely given, freely offered, an every moment love-offering to the One who offers Divine Life each moment, whose very nature is Self-Gift. The kenosis of Christ is not only our model, but it is Christ within us that makes this self-emptying, self-giving to the Source, the Father, the central dynamic of our human life. This circular self-offering manifested and present in the activity of the Spirit is the mystery of human existence and its participation in Trinitarian Life.
The Discipline of the Daily Rule of Life
" Tighten to nothing the circle that is the world's things. Then the naked Circle can grow wide, enlarging, embracing all." Hadewich of Antwerp
Students who come to me to learn Prayer of the Heart often begin with the question, "How an I fit the formal silent sitting time into my present life?" As they progress the question changes, "How can I make all of my life into ceaseless prayer?" This quote above from Hadewich addresses this dynamic in our life. The consecrated given life excludes nothing, it is all within the "naked circle" that is God. The goal of the spiritual life is not to accomplish anything, to attain to anything or any state, but to offer everything that we are and that we encounter to the infinite love and mercy of God. This is the consecrated life. The essential requirement of this transformation is commitment in the form of discipline and faithfulness. Just like the gradual incremental quality of my running program, our willingness to open and stretch and grow in Christ, each moment and each day. Like the hands outstretched, we may begin with a clenched fist. But gradually the clinging fingers unfurl and we find a loosening in trust, an emptying and freedom from the bondage of our habit energy of thinking, feeling, and acting, a relinquishment of our compulsions, our addictions and all that support them. Then we become the chalice of our Lord's Life received, consecrated, and poured out in love.
Our daily discipline must be incarnate. It must have form to be real. It is our covenant with the Beloved. Here are some elements of the Daily Rule of Life, reprinted from The Beloved is My Refuge:
Cultivation in the Garden of the Beloved-
As spiritual beings, humans may be compared to plants. The secret garden of our life in the Beloved needs to be watered and nurtured; it must be directed with supports, like a climbing tomato or bean plant needs a trellis or pole. Air and light and fertile ground are needed. A rule of life is a way of bringing together all those elements that will consecrate, nourish, protect, and sustain our life in God.
Elements of a Rule of Life:
The elements of a Rule of Life are the means of cultivating and expressing the garden of this relationship of communion with God.
Consecrated Silent Communion- To cultivate this communion we need established, consecrated times of the day which we set aside for the central relationship in our life, from which all relationships spring. The nature of that time of silent communion in formal sitting practice should be restful and restoring, but also giving. The essential need of those consecrated times is faithfulness. This is the watering of the garden.
Consecrated Reading and Reflection- We need to also give time to reading and reflecting about the God who is our heart’s desire. We should make of this a Holy Leisure, which is restoring and enriching. This is the fertilizing of the garden.
Consecrated Contrition and Conversion- Contrition and Conversion are ceaseless practice. Therefore it is essential to set times of gazing in the mirror of self-reflection each day. We do this not to judge or condemn or deem any part of our humanity unworthy. Rather we do this so that we be willing to look honestly and nakedly at all those elements in our life, in our actions, in our ethics, in our inner and outer life, which are not in harmony with interior communion with God. We look closely for those aspects of our daily life which lead us from our deepest intention of love, or worse, bring injury to this intimacy with God. This daily practice brings the freedom of contrition and release from all that impedes the love of God in our life. The grace of conversion is always being offered. We can only make ourselves accessible to it. This is the weeding and the tilling of the soil of our garden.
Consecrated Service/Work- The praxis of self-giving Love extends to all of our community, to all beings, to all Creation, -to love and serve God in the world around us. Each of us will do this uniquely with our own gifts. Without making vows of service of some kind, our Covenant of Communion with God is incomplete and defies the purpose of Prayer of the Heart, which is to bring forth the God-life of Agape into the world. This is true whether our service is peeling potatoes, weeding the garden, ministering to the sick or cleaning up the polluted waterways in our community. This service is the praxis of Ceaseless Prayer and the growing of the fruit of the garden.
Community Prayer and Liturgical Practice- This may be more readily attainable for some than others. We may need to be creative and flexible in finding our community of practice, whether local or long distance. We include the community of those who walk with us on the Prayer of the Heart path and the wisdom of those who have walked before. We are in the stream of God's Love with other followers of the Way of the Heart in the eternal Present. This is the flowering of the plants of the garden, outward expression of the life of Inner Communion.
Accountability- Vows of Practice- It is good to share our Rule of Life with at least one trusted soul friend or spiritual mentor. It is good to ask that person to pray for you, to help you to be faithful to your covenant and with whom you can discuss your covenant from time to time. This is the sharing of our garden with our soul friend, or Anam Cara.
Our "Rule of Life" or " Personal Covenant with God" are vows of practice. Our Vows of Practice are akin to marriage vows. They are serious commitments. At the same time we must cultivate the humility to accept that we will fail in our faithfulness at times. Yet we must not give into discouragement, but as in a marriage, return to our practice, our singular desire to give ourselves to Love. This singular desire is our life and the core of our vows of practice.
The Simplicity of this Great Interior Work-
Despite the value of having a formalized commitment to the "whole cloth" of daily practice and the disciplines that sustain it, we should never lose sight of the utter simplicity of this practice. Everything we do in our life, in our Prayer of the Heart practice is at the service of this one central desire, this singular intention which Jesus proclaimed in the Great Commandment. All disciplines and practices are at the service of this great work to which all humanity is called. The author of The Cloud of Unknowing states it beautifully in this way:
"For I tell you this, one loving blind desire for God alone is more valuable in itself, more pleasing to God and to the saints, more beneficial to your own growth, and more helpful to your friends, both living and dead, than anything else you can do." (Johnston, p. 60)
May your Lenten journey be one of new life transformed by Love,