During these summer days many are going to consider renewing their commitments to that legendary “Summer Bod”…
But what about that “Summer Soul”?
Are they more connected than we think?
The connection between physical and spiritual exercise is nothing new. St. Ignatius of Loyola begins his famous Spiritual Exercise manual with the following note: “…For as strolling, walking and running are bodily exercises, so every way of preparing and disposing the soul… to seek and find the Divine Will… is called a Spiritual Exercise” (Annotation 1, SE).1 And if Coach St. Iggy gave the thumbs up on this, it must be good.
So whether we are an experienced ‘spiritual athlete’…
Or just beginning the spiritual fitness journey…
Here are the first five connections between physical and spiritual exercise, followed by a practical spiritual workout for each point. (Click here for five more in Part 2!)
Don’t try to do them all at once. Start with one or two of the tips that you think will be most helpful for you and adapt them to your physical and spiritual needs.
1.) Start the Day Right
Just as physically working out early in the morning gets the body’s metabolism going throughout the day, spiritual workouts in the morning have a similar effect on our spiritual metabolism. What is a ‘spiritual metabolism’ you ask? It’s my term for our ability to internally “digest” or process our daily experiences. The higher our spiritual metabolism, the faster and more deeply we notice the hand of God acting in our midst. Start your day early, and get the spiritual metabolism working.
Spiritual Workout Tip: Start your morning with the Gospel of the day or your favorite inspirational prayer site (maybe even before you get out of bed). Some of my favorite prayer sites or apps include JesuitPrayer, Pray-As-You-Go, or RezandoVoy (in Spanish). They include short scriptural reflections to listen to on your phone during your morning routine or on your commute to work. Pick one phrase that sticks to you, and allow it to keep working on you all day. Make connections with what goes on in your day. Let the grace of that passage permeate every aspect of your day, and watch how your increased ‘spiritual metabolism’ energizes you with the peace of really “finding God in all things.”
2.) Connect your Heart-Mind-Body
Just as health studies suggest that exercise makes you smarter, so does prayer. If you think ‘Hand-Eye’ coordination is difficult and important for improving cognitive abilities, nothing is harder than Heart-Mind-Body coordination. Prayer is not just an act of contemplation in silence. It is not just a mental exercise. Rather, prayer invites us to unite the movements of our heart with the thoughts of our mind and then move outward in action to promote the faith that does justice.
Spiritual Workout Tip: St. Ignatius tells us to name the grace that we desire. So here’s a tip, ask for the grace necessary to:
- have the mind use the love
- found in the heart,
- to act with your body,
- in order to live out justice in your daily actions.
This is one awesome way of learning to “incarnate” the Word of God into your daily actions. Allow your actions to stem from your deepest internal desires. A social justice that stems from radical prayer is a powerful way of allowing the Kingdom of God to emerge here and in the world to come.
3.) Daily Self-Improvement: “Better Loving”
Just as many people use physical exercise to be “better looking,” spiritual exercise should make us “better loving.” While God created all God’s children beautiful, prayer has the potential to make your internal beauty radiate outwardly. Not only is meditating correlated with less stress and higher self-esteem at the psychological level, but prayer recognizes the divine connection between the internal and external realities of our daily experiences. Prayer will allow you take that inner joy and peace and allow it to radiate out to everyone you meet daily.
Spiritual Workout Tip: Ask yourself at the end of the day: have I loved? Have I allowed myself to be loved? The Examen prayer app is a great way to learn the connection between our ability to love others and our willingness to be loved unconditionally by God. St. Ignatius always advised his fellow Jesuits never to go a day without praying the Examen. Now I know why.
4.) Practice, Practice, Practice
The more you physically exercise, the better you get at it. The same goes with prayer. The beginning of starting a physical or spiritual workout routine is always the hardest. But once the habit is formed, “muscle memory” kicks in, and what was once a difficult physical movement becomes easier and more natural. The same with “spirit memory” and movements of the soul. We become more acquainted with our internal feelings and desires, fears and hopes, strengths and weaknesses. At first the silence of prayer and sitting alone with ourselves can be scary, but after a while it becomes essential for daily living. Forming the habit of prayer does not mean it becomes a boring routine, but rather the essence for life-giving action.
Spiritual Workout Tip: On my laptop background, I have the following quote: “Your future is created by what you do today, not tomorrow.” Put a reminder for yourself on your phone, your door, or your desk about your commitment to prayer. It’s easy to forget this “holy desire” with the other commitments that pull us in so many directions. Remember that spiritual commitments are not “duties” or “responsibilities,” but daily gifts from God that grow from practice. The Ignatian Spirituality website by Loyola Press has great resources for learning new prayer methods and developing a mature understanding of prayer. Don’t wait another minute and train your “spirit memory” now for your future spiritual exercise.
5.) Feed Yourself Right
Daily commitment to exercise is half the battle, but “eating right” is also an essential element of the whole healthy lifestyle experience. How can you work out effectively without the “fuel” necessary to function? Thus, just like your personal trainer doesn’t want your body trashed with junk food that can slow your progress, neither does God want you to trash your mind and soul with unnecessary material that will take your soul off its path. In prayer, “eating right” is once again half the battle. An Ignatian worldview invites us to discern every element that enters into our physical and spiritual senses. In the end, we must always ask the fundamental question: is this thing, person, lifestyle or idea aiding me to live my Principle and Foundation: “to praise, reverence and serve God”? If so, then full speed ahead!
Spiritual Workout Tip: How do you feed the soul right? Having spiritual conversations with friends, listening to music that keeps your mind and heart at peace, and even watching inspiring movies can all influence how you end up approaching your prayer. Here’s a list of Catholic films and shows on Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime that may help feed the soul some “spiritual protein” for muscle growth. Who would have thought that watching Netflix could have exercise benefits on the soul?
I’ll let one of the Church’s most famous spiritual coaches, St. Paul, close this first part of our workout plan for the summer:
“All this I do for the sake of the gospel, so that I too may have a share in it. Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one.” (1 Cor 9:23-25)
In the end, start by setting smaller goals and little by little one can win the most important race of all: the race for the Kingdom of God.
Godspeed on your Ignatian “Summer Soul” workout plan!
[For Part 2 with five more spiritual workout tips click here.]
- The full version of the “First Annotation” or “First Note” on St. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises states: The first Annotation is that by this name of Spiritual Exercises is meant every way of examining one’s conscience, of meditating, of contemplating, of praying vocally and mentally, and of performing other spiritual actions, as will be said later. For as strolling, walking and running are bodily exercises, so every way of preparing and disposing the soul to rid itself of all the disordered tendencies, and, after it is rid, to seek and find the Divine Will as to the management of one’s life for the salvation of the soul, is called a Spiritual Exercise. ↩