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Disciplined Living

The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Here and Now” published in 1994.

 

1.Living for the Gold (66-67)

Reading the conclusion of chapter nine of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, I can easily imagine that he has just been watching the Olympic games. He writes: “Do you not realize that, though all the runners in the stadium take part in the race, only one of them gets the prize? Run like that — to win. Every athlete concentrates completely on training, and this to win a wreath that will wither, whereas ours will never wither. So that is how I run, not without a clear goal; and how I box, not wasting blows on air. I punish my body and bring it under control, to avoid any risk that, having acted as herald for others, I myself may be disqualified.”

More than two thousands years later, these words seem even more to the point than when they were first written. Watching on television the Barcelona ‘92 Olympics, I was deeply impressed, even somewhat overwhelmed, by the single-minded dedication and the vigorous discipline with which the athletes trained themselves to win the gold medal. Hundreds of runners, jumpers, divers, gymnasts, and other athletes had dedicated every part of their life to make it to that little platform of ultimate success.

I watched with special attention the Frenchman, Gatier, and the Swede, Waldner, in their final table tennis match. The question that created nearly unbearable tension between the players and the thousands of onlookers, including King Gustav of Sweden and his wife, was: “Who of these two men will get the gold, and who will have to settle for the silver?”

     With incredible virtuosity, the two rivals danced around the table returning the little yellow ball from far away and close by, outsmarting each other and constantly surprising their screaming fans. The power, speed, agility, and accuracy with which Waldner and Gatier made their points kept everyone guessing to the last second who would be the winner.

When, finally, the Swede was able to break the third tie and win the game 25/23, his tense and sober face exploded in a huge smile as he threw himself into the arms of his coach. It was the first gold medal for Sweden in the Barcelona Olympics. The thundering ovation in the sports hall and the enthusiasm of the Swedes suggested that something of ultimate importance had taken place.

When Paul saw a game like this, he wondered when we would have as much dedication and discipline to win the eternal glory as the athletes had to gain their wealth or medal. Maybe it would be helpful to think of the choir of saints, angels, and archangels as the enthusiastic onlookers and to realize that the King himself is watching us and hopes that he can give us the gold of his eternal love.

 

2. A Clear Goal (68-69)

Do we have a clear goal in life? The athletes whose clear goal is the attainment of the Olympic gold are willing to let everything else become secondary. The way they eat, sleep, study, and train are all determined by that one clear goal.

This is as true in the spiritual life as it is in the life of competitive sports. Without a clear goal, we will always be distracted and spend our energy on secondary things. “Keep your eye on the prize,” Martin Luther King said to his people. What is our prize? Is it the divine life, the eternal life, the life with and in God. Jesus proclaimed to us that goal, that heavenly prize. To Nicodemus he said: “...this is how God loved the world: he gave his Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).

It is not easy to keep our eyes fixed on the eternal life, especially not in a world that keeps telling us that there are more immediate and urgent things on which to focus. There is scarcely a day that does not pull our attention away from our goal and make it look vague and cloudy. But still, we know from experience that without a clear goal our lives become fragmented into many tasks and obligations that drain us and leave us with a feeling of exhaustion and uselessness. How then do we keep our goal clear, how then do we fix our eyes on the prize? By the discipline of prayer: the discipline that helps us to bring God back again and again to the center of our life. We will always remain distracted, constantly busy with many urgent demands, but when there is a time and place set apart to return to our God who offers us eternal life, we gradually can come to realize that the many things we have to do, to say, or to think no longer distract us but are, instead, all leading us closer to our goal. Important, however, is that our goal remains clear. Prayer keeps our goal clear, and when our goal has become vague, prayer makes it clear again.

 

3. Eternal Life (69-70)

Eternal life. Where is it? When is it? For a long time I have thought about eternal life as a life after all my birthdays have run out. For most of my years I have spoken about the eternal life as the “afterlife,” as “life after death.” But the older I become, the less interest my “afterlife” holds for me. Worrying not only about tomorrow, next year, and the next decade, but even about the next life seems a false preoccupation. Wondering how things will be for me after I die seems, for the most part, a distraction. When my clear goal is the eternal life, that life must be reachable right now, where I am, because eternal life is life in and with God, and God is where I am here and now.

The great mystery of the spiritual life — the life in God is that we don’t have to wait for it as something that will happen later. Jesus says: “Dwell in me as I dwell in you.” It is this divine in-dwelling that is eternal life. It is the active presence of God at the center of my living — the movement of God’s Spirit within us — that gives us the eternal life.

     But still, what about life after death? When we live in communion with God, when we belong to God’s own household, there is no longer any “before” or “after.” Death is no longer the dividing line. Death has lost its power over those who belong to God, because God is the God of the living, not of the dead. Once we have tasted the joy and peace that come from being embraced by God’s love, we know that all is well and will be well. “Don’t be afraid,” Jesus says. “I have overcome the powers of death. . . come and dwell with me and know that where I am your God is.”

When eternal life is our clear goal it is not a distant goal. It is a goal that can be reached in the present moment. When our heart understands this divine truth, we are living the spiritual life.

 

4. Spiritual Reading (70-71)

An important discipline in the life of the Spirit is spiritual reading. Through spiritual reading we have some say over what enters into our minds. Each day our society bombards us with a myriad of images and sounds. Driving down Yonge Street in downtown Toronto is like driving through a dictionary: each word demanding our attention in all sorts of sizes and colors and with all sorts of gestures and noises. The words yell and scream at us: “Eat me, drink me, buy me, hire me, look at me, talk with me, sleep with me”! Whether we ask for it or not is not the question; we simply cannot go far without being engulfed by words and images forcibly intruding themselves into our minds.

But do we really want our mind to become the garbage can of the world? Do we want our mind to be filled with things that confuse us, excite us, depress us, arouse us, repulse us, or attract us whether we think it is good for us or not? Do we want to let others decide what enters into our mind and determines our thoughts and feelings?

Clearly we do not, but it requires real discipline to let God and not the world be the Lord of our mind. But that asks of us not just to be gentle as doves, but also cunning as serpents! Therefore spiritual reading is such a helpful discipline. Is there a book we are presently reading, a book that we have selected because it nurtures our mind and brings us closer to God? Our thoughts and feelings would be deeply affected if we were always to carry with us a book that puts our minds again and again in the direction we want to go. There are so many good books about the lives of holy men and women, about remarkable examples of peace-making, about communities that bring life to the poor and the oppressed, and about the spiritual life itself. Even if we were to read for only fifteen minutes a day in such a book, we would soon find our mind becoming less of a garbage can and more of a vase filled with good thoughts.

 

5. Reading Spiritually (72)

Spiritual reading is not only reading about spiritual people or spiritual things. It is also reading spiritually, that is, in a spiritual way! Reading in a spiritual way is reading with a desire to let God come closer to us.

Most of us read to acquire knowledge or to satisfy our curiosity. When we want to know how to repair a car, cook a meal, build a house, help a handicapped person, give a lecture, etc., we have to do a certain amount of reading. When we want to keep informed about world news, sports news, entertainment news, and society news, we must turn to different newspapers and magazines. The purpose of spiritual reading, however, is not to master knowledge or information, but to let God’s Spirit master us. Strange as it may sound, spiritual reading means to let ourselves be read by God! We can read the story of Jesus’ birth with curiosity and ask ourselves, “Did this really happen? Who put this story together and how?” But we can also read that same story with spiritual attentiveness and wonder: “How does God speak to me here and call me to a more generous love?” We can read the daily news simply to have something to talk about at work. But we can also read it to become more aware of the reality of a world that needs God’s words and saving actions.

The issue is not just what we read, but how we read it. Spiritual reading is reading with an inner attentiveness to the movement of God’s Spirit in our outer and inner lives. With that attentiveness, we will allow God to read us and to explain to us what we are truly about.

 

6. In Search of Meaning (73-74)

The great value of spiritual reading is that it helps us to give meaning to our lives. Without meaning, human life quickly degenerates. The human person not only wants to live, but also wants to know why to live. Viktor Frankl, the psychiatrist, who wrote about his experiences in a German concentration camp during the Second World War, shows convincingly that without meaning in our lives we can’t survive long. It is possible to live through many hardships when we believe that there still is someone or something worth living for. Food, drink, shelter, rest, friendship, and many other things are essential for life. But meaning is too!

It is remarkable how much of our life is lived without reflection on its meaning. It is not surprising that so many people are busy but bored! They have many things to do and are always running to get them done, but beneath the hectic activity they often wonder if anything is truly happening. A life that is not reflected upon eventually loses its meaning and becomes boring.

Spiritual reading is a discipline to keep us reflecting on our lives as we live them. When a child is born, friends get married, a parent dies, people revolt, or a nation starves, it’s not enough just to know about these things and to celebrate, grieve, or respond as best we can. We have to keep asking ourselves: “What does it all mean? What is God trying to tell us? How are we called to live in the midst of all this?” Without such questions our lives become numb and flat.

But are there any answers? There are, but we will never find them unless we are willing to live the questions first and trust that, as Rilke says, we will, without even noticing it, grow into the answer. When we keep the Bible and our spiritual books in one hand and the newspaper in the other, we will always discover new questions but we also will discover a way to live them faithfully, trusting that gradually the answer will be revealed to us.

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