In my last article, I introduced you to Franz Stampfl, my athletics coach when I was a boy. When transposed from the sporting life to the spiritual life his teaching taught me more about how to progress spiritually than any spiritual director whom I have ever known. I make no apology therefore for introducing you to further principles that I learnt from him in the hope that they will help you become spiritually fit too.
A favourite principle that Franz instilled in his pupils was called speed training. The theory is simply common sense. You may be wonderful with the ball at your feet or in your hands, you may have a brilliant backhand and a superlative smash, but if you do not get to the ball in time your skills will be superfluous. Speed training, therefore, is of the utmost importance in the spiritual life too. The difference between saints and ourselves, is not that we sin and they do not, but the speed with which they turn back to God to seek forgiveness. Sometimes it takes days, weeks, months or even years before we have the humility to accept that we have fallen, and then seek the forgiveness we need before beginning again. That is why we waste so much time that could have been saved, if only we had the sort of humility that enabled the saints to begin again without delay the very moment they were conscious of falling. Long before athletic coaches realised the importance of speed training then, it was practised by the saints who knew that it was the only way to sanctity. They found, by their own experience, that it is not easy to begin again without delay after falling back into sin or simply into laziness, without the speed training that they knew could only be learnt in prayer and with continual practice.
The Difference Between Saints and Sinners
What they came to realise more quickly than we do is, that it is in turning away from distractions and temptations, time and time again and without delay, inside of prayer, that they learnt the speed they needed to turn back to God outside of prayer to the very moment they fell. The difference between us and the saints is not that they did not sin and we do. They sinned just as we do. What distinguishes saints from sinners is the speed with which they get up after having fallen. The saints do not waste precious time pretending they do not sin, or making endless excuses, or blaming others for what they know only too well as their own fault. The moment they fell they sought forgiveness and began again, knowing they had sinned, but trusting in the mercy of God. Herein lies one of the main differences between the saints and sinners like us.
Why We Run Away From God
Only too often people simply cannot face their guilt so they run away from God and hide, as Adam did in the Garden of Eden. When God called out, “Adam, Adam, where are you?” (Genesis 3:9), God knew exactly where Adam was: it was Adam who did not know where he was. He had lost his way trying to hide his sin and the guilt that shamed him. Sometimes we can spend years on the run because pride will not allow us to admit what we have done. Our inability to eat humble pie means that we can spend half a lifetime suffering from spiritual starvation. What is even worse than the pride that comes before a fall, is the pride that follows the fall, because it stops us from getting up, sometimes permanently.
The Triple Jump
Every different sport or athletic event has its own techniques that have to be learnt and Franz Stampfl was an expert in both track and field events. With his technical advice and his secret training method that I will come to shortly, I saw comparatively ordinary athletes become candidates for the next Olympics. I was only an ordinary run of the mill pole vaulter, but with the help of Franz, I won the national championships. That was in the era before we went metric, and just one year before fiberglass poles were introduced into the country from the USA.
I also tried to break the county record at the triple jump, then known as the hop, step and jump but failed continually. When, in despair, I turned to Franz, the help I received was immediate and effective. He only needed to watch me once before he saw the problem. I had been so enthusiastic, so intent on breaking the record, that I put too much energy into the hop, leaving little energy for the step, and almost none for the final jump. Once Franz corrected me and taught me how to put equal space between the hop, step and the jump, my performance changed dramatically and I was able to break the record with ease. “You see”, said Franz, “it is all a matter of balance. Until you get the balance right you will go nowhere.” Then he added. “It is the same in life too, is it not? Get the balance wrong and everything is wrong.” I do not know about life in general, but it is certainly true of the spiritual life. If first enthusiasm encourages you to do too much too soon at the expense of everything else, then it is only a matter of time before you capitulate and give up. Franz taught me the importance of balance. In other words, if you spend too much time trying to pray and without proper help or direction, then failure will only be a matter of time. Prayer must be part of a balanced spiritual life in which there is also sufficient time for work, recreation, and for others for whom we have responsibility.
Who could be more dedicated to prayer than the Desert Fathers, but every day they also had to give themselves to the traditional seven hours of manual labour. When in later years they were in danger of forgetting this, they had to be reminded in reforms, like the Cistercian reform that was inspired by St Bernard of Clairvaux. In time their prayer life so inspired their work that eventually their work became their prayer, but it takes very many years for this to happen, most especially outside the monastic life. That is why Cardinal Basil Hume used to say, “To say your work is your prayer or your life is your prayer is not only meaningless but quite misleading. It is undoubtedly the ideal, but such an ideal will never be realised without giving daily time to personal prayer for very many years”. In the meantime, balance, balance, balance in all things, as Franz used to say.
The Secret Training Method for Athletes
Let me say a few words about what Franz called his secret training method. It was called weight-training or pumping iron. It was a new method of training imported from the United States in the early nineteen fifties, where it had transformed their athletes. It is simply taken for granted today – the principle behind it is very simple. By repeatedly raising the weights above your head you are not just developing the muscles in your arms and legs, but virtually every other muscle in your body at the same time as well. The whole person is not only made stronger and more powerful but is given powers of endurance far beyond those who do not use this method. Even those who are naturally gifted, or who have a high degree of technical training, soon realise they will end up the losers without weight-training. A new powerful super athlete can be fashioned by one single action, repeated over and over again.
The priest who taught me how to meditate listened to Franz as well as his other students. The next time I went to the meditation group that he ran he told us that what Franz had said not only applied to sport, but to the spiritual life too, particularly to prayer. What is prayer but the continual raising of the heart and mind to God? It is just like weight-training. Whatever form of prayer you are engaged in, whether it is saying your morning prayers, saying the rosary, trying to meditate or even contemplating you will always experience distractions, so you will always have to keep raising your heart and mind to God time and time again. As a person is doing this then the muscles of the heart and mind are continually being exercised, gradually transforming the whole spiritual metabolism.
However, there is a dimension to spiritual weight-lifting that Franz knew nothing about and which I only came to understand by accident. It is so important that I want to write about it next week, as part of our preparation for Pentecost. Pentecost celebrates the outpouring and the continual outpouring of God’s love – the Holy Spirit. All genuine Christian Asceticism teaches us what we can and must do to receive the Holy Spirit daily. It is only he who can draw us up into the Risen Christ and in, with and through him, into the endless abundance of loving and being loved that resides in the Three in One, to all eternity. As we celebrate the continual outpouring of the Holy Spirit in two weeks’ time I will extend my articles on how to receive his love by writing one more next week. Then we can all be best prepared to celebrate this feast with the knowledge and the commitment to begin our lives all over again. We can do this by doing all in our power to allow his power, the power of God’s love, to transform our lives on that day and on every subsequent day. It can and will do this if we continually try to allow his love to suffuse and surcharge our love with the only love that can permanently change us for the better – and for good!
The themes in this article are developed in David Torkington’s latest book Wisdom from the Christian Mystics