Monday, January 8th, 2018

Spiritual Fitness

First comes glut, then comes sorrow, then—a trip to the gym tomorrow.
Tis the season when fitness center memberships surge along with our guilty resolve to become physically fit. Even as we are giving ourselves permission to indulge for the holidays, even as we put one more cookie in our mouths, even as we collectively moan and groan about the sinfulness of the goodies, most of us are mentally promising ourselves to compensate for our gluttony. The first day of January seems to hold us all suddenly accountable. We tackle our new gym workouts with fervor, and we empty the bookstore shelves in our search for the just-right-pain-free-diet. The rhythm of overdoing followed by remorse and restraint is deeply embedded in our holiday season.
Along with, and sometimes in spite of, the formal traditions of the year’s end religious holidays, there is an undergirding cycle of the spiritual during the season of darkness and cold. This is often experienced as spiritual yearning or deep disappointment with holiday celebration as the primary experience of the holiday season. The rituals are empty, not filling. Our bodies are too full, our souls still hungry. Still we narrow our focus to the physical.
Nearly two thirds of adults in the United States who make New Year’s resolutions set physical fitness goals as part of their commitment. Spiritual fitness often is not recognized as an important element of well-being that could benefit from a resolution and, yet, many of us are spiritually flabby and start the New Year in a state of spiritual discontent. Similar to the need to shake off over-indulgence of the body, there is the need to create a discipline and practice for spiritual fitness that builds strength for challenges, joy and peace in our lives as well as deeper meaning and direction.
What would the end goal of being spiritually fit look like? Military chaplains have tried to define it with, of course, military precision. There is a guide written by Navy Chaplains to help military members assess their spiritual condition, United States Marine Corps Spiritual Fitness Guide. Spirituality is defined as “that which gives meaning or purpose to life or that refers to a philosophy or a religion.” The guide then talks about the paths of various religions. There is a chart to see if you are spiritually fit, stressed, depleted or drained with behavioral descriptions for each category.
A large segment of the U.S. population now describes themselves as religiously unaffiliated (“nones”) yet are nonetheless spiritual. Many can’t quite find a perfect fit or structure to support spiritual fitness and want something a little more fluid than the Marine Corps guide. (Kudos that it exists.) Fitness—body or soul—involves a personal commitment and practice. Prayer seems integral to this practice. The 2015 Pew study of America’s Religious Landscape finds that many people who don’t believe in God, still pray on a regular basis. Praying (anyway) with doubts, with awkwardness, with feeling foolish, with not knowing how seems to be fundamental to the goal of spiritual fitness.
There are some problems with the reputation of prayer, especially for the non-affiliated with any religion. Prayer can be perceived as pious, hypocritically virtuous or a deadly boring drone of memorized words. A minister’s wife recently told me that she didn’t pray because she thought prayer had to be grand and eloquent. Others say they wouldn’t know how to pray even if they wanted to. Also, there is the anger and disappointment of prayers not answered. And, of course the granddaddy of all questions, who to pray to?
Even with all of the questions and doubt, science is giving validity to the invisible power of praying. Dr. Bruce Lipton in his book, The Biology of Belief, explains that genes and DNA do not control our biology; that instead DNA is controlled by signals from outside the cell, including the energetic messages emanating from our positive and negative thoughts/prayer. Meditation has been proven to lower blood pressure, relieve stress and alleviate depression. Spiritual fitness could start with being receptive to the mystery of transcendence. Praying anyway, in one’s own style and voice is one exercise for our spiritual core that needs encouragement.
Spiritual fitness is needed to get through this tough passage our world seems to be in. Young adults especially want to head towards a different kind of love and compassion. A template is needed for spiritual fitness that has its own universal practice that does not exclude but augments our religious traditions, and opens a channel for the voices of our individual souls.
The British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead captured what is needed today. He said, “I imagine a religious space that celebrates doubt, encourages experimentation and allows one to utter the word God without embarrassment.”

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