I occasionally have bouts of sciatica. The telltale signs of burning muscle and pain shooting down my leg accosted me yesterday afternoon. It often sets in after extended periods of sitting or standing. Yesterday, it flared up because I’ve been doing too much sitting and not enough moving around. Unfortunately, there are times in my day and in my work, where sitting is the only option. The best thing I can do to avoid it is to stretch. That got me thinking…
Stretching to avoid pain serves as a metaphor for the spiritual life. If we stretch our spiritual muscles to go beyond what is comfortable and familiar in our daily lives, we will avoid the pain of sin and its consequences.
Allow me to elaborate.
The spiritual life begins by the turning of the mind and heart toward God. God initiates that desire and we respond. Jesus instructs us to love God above all and our neighbor as ourselves. Loving God challenges us enough; loving our neighbor can be a whole different kettle of fish! Some neighbors or relatives are easy to love, others are not. That doesn’t matter. Jesus makes it perfectly clear in the Sermon on the Mount:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mt 5:43-48)
How can we do this? St. Paul provides us the key when he tells us to“…be transformed by the renewal of your mind…” (Rm 12:2)
I’d like to put forth a spiritual stretch challenge for today, and perhaps for the rest of Lent. Renew your mind in two ways: 1) stop judging, and 2) guard your speech.
In the continuation of the Sermon on the Mount in the seventh chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus challenges us
Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you. Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove that splinter from your eye,’ while the wooden beam is in your eye? You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye. (Mt 7:1-5)
I have a person in my life whom I constantly judge. I observe her lifestyle and every time I see a certain behavior, the judging starts. In my mind I correct all the ways she falls short and what she should do to correct things. Now obviously, we can judge an action as right or wrong. The sin is in how we assign motivation to the person. I don’t know her heart. Only God does. He who sees all has greater mercy on her than I do. Shame on me! When I found myself doing it again this past weekend, I stopped. Instead of judging her in the moment, I prayed for her – and only that she will grow in love and knowledge of God. It is His work, not mine.
We need to stretch our mercy muscle. We need to stop judging before we start. We need to see Christ in the other and let Him looking back at us draw us to prayer.
Guard your speech
Jesus tells us in the twelfth chapter of Matthew, “It is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.” (Mt 12:34) Ouch! When I think of some of things that I say without thought or passing fancy, I cringe upon hearing this verse – and most specifically as it applies to the people closest to me.
I tutor high school math. I love each and every kid with whom I work. But, I must say, my most difficult student is my own daughter. When my students get frustrated, they speak calmly, asking that I explain the problem again. They work with me for an hour or so, dedicated to simply doing their math. When my daughter works with me, the usual social filters we put on certain behaviors seem to go out the window. She emotes her frustration and clearly communicates her desire to be doing other things. For me, it is a near occasion of sin, which often spills over to actual sin, as I indulge my frustration.
What is it in us that gives us permission to treat those we most love, those closest to us, with such disregard and lack of love? I think it’s just plain selfishness. We are secure in their love, so we take it for granted. Shouldn’t we love more those we most love? Shouldn’t we treat them the best?
We need to stretch our self-control muscles. The “fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (Gal 5:22-23) It is not something we accomplish by ourselves. It is the Holy Spirit’s work in us. We must pray to the Holy Spirit without ceasing in order to grow in self-control. As we grow in self-control we will grow in gentleness, faithfulness, generosity, kindness, patience, peace, and love. One naturally leads to the other. Its root is love.
In today’s Old Testament reading the Lord says, through the prophet Jeremiah, “I, the Lord, alone probe the mind and test the heart, to reward everyone according to his ways, according to the merit of his deeds.” (Jer 17:10) Ouch! Spiritual sciatica strikes! What a necessary reminder to do some stretching!
So today, commit yourself to stretching by not judging and by guarding your speech. As for me, I know I cannot do this by my own strength, so I pray with St. Benedict of Nursia (ca. 480-547) his prayer to the Holy Spirit. Wont’ you join me?
Gracious and Holy Father,
Please give me:
intellect to understand you,
reason to discern you,
diligence to seek you,
wisdom to find you,
a spirit to know you,
a heart to meditate upon you,
ears to hear you,
eyes to to see you,
a tongue to proclaim you,
a way of life pleasing to you,
patience to wait for you
and perseverance to look for you.
Grant me a perfect end,
your holy presence,
a blessed resurrection
and life everlasting. Amen.
Come Holy Spirit! Anne