Competing to Win
Years ago, as a basketball camp counselor, I was assigned to room with another counselor. He was a few years younger than I; he was also black, taller, stronger, and far more athletic than I. At the time, I might have dismissed his superior physique and athleticism as genetics and talent. His basketball skills and physical prowess appeared effortless. But as his roommate, I learned one of his secrets: every night before bed he did push-ups–lots of them. I no longer remember exactly how many he did, but I think it was batches of 50. I was impressed. I had never seen such disciplined exercise from a peer–and he was only 14.
This young man was already a good athlete; and he was aiming to be a great one. How would he get there? Exercise. Discipline. Practice. He would need to do this daily for years. And apparently he did: a few years after we were counselors together, I was not surprised to learn that my former roommate had become a quarterback for the University of Michigan–one of the top college football programs in the nation.
Our culture values this sort of physical exercise and athletic discipline: whether it’s the regular workout habit of an office worker or stay-at-home mom, or the rigorous training regime and performance of professional athletes. With professional athletes, not only is this sort of discipline valued, it is venerated: these professional athletes have become a type of secular saint. And truly, the feats performed and celebrated recently by the Olympians in Rio are worthy of admiration and are nothing short of astounding: from swimmers Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky to sprinter Usain Bolt to gymnast Simone Biles, these athletes have achieved athletic greatness through a singular focus on their goal: they compete to win.
Seeking an Imperishable Crown
Less valued by the modern world is spiritual exercise and discipline. But as St. Paul explains, it is we Christians who should be singularly focused on our goal.
“Know you not that they that run in the race, all run indeed, but one receiveth the prize? So run that you may obtain. And every one that striveth for the mastery, refraineth himself from all things: and they indeed that they may receive a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible one. I therefore so run, not as at an uncertainty: I so fight, not as one beating the air: But I chastise my body, and bring it into subjection: lest perhaps, when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway.” 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 (Douay Rheims. Emphasis added.).
Indeed, as followers of Jesus Christ, we pursue an imperishable and incorruptible crown–eternal union with God. Yet do we strive for it with singular focus? Do we discipline ourselves? Do we exercise daily to attain our goal? Do we regularly evaluate our progress?
If we want to obtain that imperishable crown–a crown of incomparably greater value than those bestowed upon athletes and Olympians–we must embrace spiritual exercise and discipline.
Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola
There are many forms of spiritual exercises, and I’ve addressed several in past articles. Today, I’ll encourage you to embrace the one that goes by the very name of spiritual exercise: The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.
Briefly, the Spiritual Exercises are a month-long retreat created by St. Ignatius. (As most laypeople are unable to attend a month-long retreat, the Spiritual Exercises have also been adapted into weekend silent retreats.) While one can find various books containing St. Ignatius’s meditations for the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius intended the Spiritual Exercises to be directed by an experienced spiritual director, not simply read from a book.
Rather than discussing the particulars of the Spiritual Exercises, let me offer some encouragement: There is no better way to recharge your spiritual life than to go on a quality, silent retreat based on St. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises. To know what God desires for us, it helps immensely to first remove ourselves from the world and its distractions and embrace silence. Only then can we hear the still, small voice of God. The excellent meditations of St. Ignatius–and a skilled priest and confessor guiding you in these meditations–will help you to hear that voice, to reject sin and the world, to rededicate yourself to Christ, and to develop good spiritual habits following the retreat.
Four years ago, I began annually attending the three-day Spiritual Exercises retreats offered by the religious order Miles Christi. I cannot recommend the Spiritual Exercise retreats of Miles Christi strongly enough. The priests are holy and knowledgeable. They stick closely to the meditations of St. Ignatius and leave plenty of time for silent prayer. They offer helpful guides to aid in meditations and teach the practice of mental prayer. They provide the opportunity for a general confession (the confession of all of one’s past sins) and spiritual direction. They celebrate Mass devoutly. (They even conducted a retreat for our local Juventutem group featuring Mass in the Extraordinary Form.) And at the end of the retreat, the priests also offer many practical resolutions for your consideration in incorporating into your post-retreat spiritual life. In sum, these retreats provide the necessary foundation to develop good prayer habits; to grow in the spiritual life; and ultimately, to progress on the path to sanctity. They have been a great aid to me and others I know who have attended.
If we are to be the Light of the World, our souls must be clean mirrors reflecting the Light of Christ. A silent Ignatian retreat can give you a fresh start, help to rid you of your sinful habits, and jumpstart your spiritual life and your growth in virtue. An annual silent Ignatian retreat will help keep you on track and aid you in evaluating your progress.
Register for a Miles Christi retreat today. If they don’t offer a retreat in your area, travel to one that does or search for a suitable alternative.
If a fourteen-year-old boy can do hundreds of pushups every night, surely we can embrace the discipline of daily spiritual exercise. We seek an imperishable crown. The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius can get you started.