I grew up in a family that loves sports and watches them fairly obsessively. Especially college football and March Madness. And the Braves. And Wimbledon. And the US Open. And golf. You get the picture. As an adult, I have enjoyed a largely sports-free life.
Except for the Olympics.
I love the Olympics. Gymnastics has always been my favorite since I watched Nadia Comaneci in 1976 when I was a small, seven-year old girl. Now I also enjoy watching the swimming and diving, track and field, beach volleyball, and many of the other competitions.
Like many young girls who watched Nadia, I wanted to be an Olympic gymnast. Let me be clear that this was not a realistic dream. But I wanted it even so. When I was about 10 I preferred turning cartwheels to walking. In class softball games, I always took an outfield position because I could do cartwheels instead of having to pay much attention to the game. I took gymnastics lessons. My dad made me a balance beam and even hung a bar between two pine trees in our backyard so that I could practice at home.
What makes the Olympic athletes so good is their practice. As much as I loved gymnastics, I would never have been Olympic material because I would never have been willing to devote myself entirely to the practice. Maybe to turning cartwheels everywhere I went, but not to the real gritty practice where you get rips in your hands from the uneven parallel bars and your feet are blistered and your muscles hurt most of the time. If you want to get to the Olympics, and even more if you want to win a medal, you have to give years of your life to practice.
Even if you don't want to be a medalist in a sport, to enjoy it, you still need to practice so that you have the skills you need and so that you're ready both mentally and physically, whether it's for a fun game among friends or for some kind of competition.
Spiritual practice is not unlike the practice needed for sports. We don't have Spiritual Olympics. (If we did, I'm betting Desmond Tutu would get the gold!) There's no competition in prayer. Now way to win, and thankfully you don't have to "beat" someone else. And yet the practice is equally important. Because there are spiritual challenges, and they often come when you least expect them.
Regularly engaging in whatever spiritual practice we have chosen is what allows us to be ready when the challenges come. If meditation or labyrinth walking or praying in color or lectio divina or centering prayer or the daily office or some other spiritual discipline becomes a habit for us when things are going well, then we will turn to it much more easily when the bottom drops out and we're faced with something difficult. Whether it's a diagnosis or a loved one's death or listening to one more story of violence on the news, we will have our default practice in place so that we can stay grounded in the midst of whatever happens.
In his book, The Naked Now, Richard Rohr says, "We must move from a belief-based religion to a practice-based religion, or little will change." Belief is certainly important, but if it doesn't influence how we act, then I'm not sure how it's helping. If I go to church and say that Jesus is my Lord and Savior, but I don't go out and treat my neighbor with dignity and respect, then I'm not sure what good my belief is. I'm not talking about getting into heaven. I'm talking about being a follower of Christ.
As I think about Richard Rohr's assertion, practice seems to have two meanings to me. First, we need the practices of our religion, those spiritual disciplines that enable us, not to earn a place in the afterlife or to win a spiritual competition, but to grow more deeply in faith and to respond to whatever comes from a place of centered maturity. Second, a practice-based religion would be about how we live our faith rather than just what we believe.
If we were practicing our faith more, then I believe there would be less hostility in the world. And I don't think that's just a naive idealism.
Ever since I have adopted walking the labyrinth regularly as one of my spiritual practices, I have noticed a change in my life. Less anxiety. More authenticity. More creativity. More love in my heart. More ability to forgive. It's not something that happens instantly - oh, walked the labyrinth today and all my troubles melted away. It's the day in and day out walking, even when I don't seem to get anything out of it, that has deepened me in ways I'm not even sure I fully understand. I walk it now when someone dies. I walk it when I'm feeling anxious. I walk it when big events happen whether good or bad. I walk on behalf of others. I walk on behalf of myself. Over the years I have tried a variety of spiritual practices, and some I continue to use, but walking the labyrinth allows me to engage my whole body, mind, and spirit in my practice.
The labyrinth isn't for everyone. But whatever your practice is, (if you don't have one, I encourage you to find one,) consider this encouragement to keep going. Keep going deeper. Keep practicing. Keep growing. We have to find away to work together in our world, if we don't want it to be destroyed. I believe that spiritual practices help.
We may not win a gold medal, but we may help save our planet and the people who call it home.