A freezing morning– but after lying awake for three hours and praying for part of the time, I thought I heard Him call me to Matins, so I scraped the frost off the car windows and drove down the road. Those special Lenten morning prayers were the foundation of my athletic effort today, my Wheaties. What—did I say athletic effort? It has been said that Lent and its ascetic labor is spiritual athleticism. When I meditated on that idea for a while I found some peace and patience for the journey. For if the Church generally, and Lent, provide these exercises for the soul, I might think of the whole program as a large gym with every kind of equipment to help me in my workouts. Some days I might use the treadmill and the upper-body Nautilus machines. Other days I might attend a Yoga class, or swim in the pool. Some days I might stay home and sleep.
I’m an amateur. Not only that, but I have severe handicaps. But the Master Teacher doesn’t let me get away with anything. I might have trainers who can show me what a helpful course would look like, but when it comes down to running an extra five minutes today, or in the Lenten case praying an extra five minutes, or eating five fewer bites—then only He knows if that was a big advance for me, or if I am still being too easy on myself. He can reveal to me how lazy and gluttonous I am, how I cater to my weaknesses and make provision for them. That’s why it doesn’t help at all to compare my progress with anyone else’s. The Lord knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust. But He is our biggest encourager, He is the Prize itself, Whom we want to know more intimately. So we press on.
I’ve learned very well how lazy I am at the local (earthly body) health club. But I also know that just getting on the treadmill and walking slowly, on those Slow Days, is better than languishing at home. Every little step forward is at least in the right direction, aiming for the healing of my soul—and here I have introduced the overarching metaphor, of the Orthodox Church as a spiritual hospital. It has all the best treatments and medicines one needs, including this 40-day “Fitness Challenge” to prepare us for the celebration of the Resurrection of Christ. With patience let us run the race that is before us—even if, like me, you will be the tortoise bringing up the rear–by God’s mercy and grace.