Oct 29, 2018 265 0 David Torkington

Like Athletes We Must Get Fit For Faith

I was so sorry to hear that my boyhood hero recently died. His name was Roger Bannister or Sir Roger Bannister as he later became known. I had seen him run several times, but sadly I was not present to see him break the record by becoming the first man to run a mile in less than four minutes. When I did see the event on the news I was thrilled to see him fall into the arms of his coach Franz Stampfl as he broke the tape. Stampfl was one of the world’s leading athletic coaches of the twentieth century. He was simply a genius who trained more than 360 Olympians. He was my coach as well—our sports master invited him to be our athletic coach. It was from him that I learned far more than mere athletics. Although I did not realize it at the time, what I learned from him would help me immensely later in my spiritual life.


Saint Paul likens Christians to athletes who spend their time building up their spiritual muscles through daily exercise just as athletes spend their time building up their physical muscles. That is why the word asceticism comes from the Greek word for athlete. There can be no successful Christian life without an ascetical life. What I learned from Stampfl would be of immense value in

my future. The first thing I learned from him was that if something is really important to you, you will find the time for it. If you do not, or you cannot, it just means that despite what you may say it is of no consequence to you. He used to say that if you are unwilling to find the consistent and daily time for athletics then please do not waste his time because you are going nowhere. I can understand someone saying that athletics or sports are of no consequence to them, but how can a human being say that love and loving is of no consequence to him? Life without love is not only purposeless, it is dry, drab, boring, colorless and ultimately worthless. If love is offered to you everything else must take second place or you will miss out on the most important thing in life. That is what is offered to anyone who wants to take their spiritual life seriously.


When I was a young man, my cousin James told me that his girlfriend suddenly dropped him. It seemed she did not love him anymore. When I tried to discover the reasons why, I found that all his Saturdays were taken up with playing rugby and his Sundays recovering from his efforts. For the same reason, he liked to take Monday evening off, sitting in front of the television. On Wednesdays, he went to the gym to start getting back into shape again and on Thursday evening he liked to treat himself to a night at the cinema. Apparently, she rarely came because she did not like westerns or war films! Friday night was taken up with pre-match training and of course Saturday was match day. Although she sometimes came to watch him, she rarely saw him for long in the evenings because he was usually detained in the bar with his mates, especially after away games. That only left Tuesday night and one night a week is simply not enough.

If someone loves you and you genuinely love them, then you must have time together to give and receive what is more important than anything else on earth. It is the same with the love of God. Without daily quality time for God in prayer, we simply cannot receive the only love that can permanently change us for the better. My cousin saw the error of his ways and he has been happily married for fifty years. God is loving us continually, but if we do not find time for the prayer where we learn how to receive His love then we will get nowhere—nowhere, that is, that really matters.


The spiritual life seems to have become so complicated over the years that you almost feel like you need a couple of degrees in theology just to understand it, much less attempt to live it! Yet, it is essentially simple, so simple that you need the simplicity of a little child to see it. There is only one thing that is necessary and that is love. Not our love of God, but His love of us. In other words, Christianity is first a mysticism not a moralism. It is not primarily concerned with detailing the perfect moral behavior we see embodied in Christ’s life and then trying to copy it, virtue by virtue in our lives. That is stoicism, not Christianity, and it is doomed to failure. Christianity is primarily concerned with teaching us how to turn and open ourselves to receive the same Holy Spirit who filled Jesus. The more we are filled with His love then the easier it is to return that love in kind, as the divine suffuses and then surcharges human love so that it can reach up to God and out to others. Then and only then are we able to love God with our whole hearts, minds, and whole beings and to love our neighbor as Christ loves us.


The trouble is that we make the same mistake with Christ’s life as we do with the saints. We read their lives backward. We read about their rigorous ascetism, their superhuman sacrifices and their heroic virtues and believe that the only way we can be like them is to do likewise. If we would read their lives forward instead of backward then we would see that they were only capable of doing the seemingly impossible because they first received the power to do it in prayer. If we try to be and do what they did without first receiving what they received in prayer, then our brave attempts will inevitably end in disaster. True imitation of Christ or any of His saints means copying the way they did all in their power to receive the Holy Spirit who inspired and strengthened them with His love, to do what is impossible without it. That is essentially all we have to do. That is why the spiritual life is so simple, if only we had the simplicity of a little child to see it.


Ascetism for a beginner is quite simple: do not give up anything you like or enjoy except when it prevents you from giving quality space and time to God in prayer each day. If you think it is so easy then try it and stick to it. You will soon find it is not quite as easy as you thought. Do not let first enthusiasm fool you into heroics you will never sustain. When you have persevered for long enough you will gradually begin to receive and then experience the love that will enable you to do what is quite impossible without it. When one falls in love and begins to experience being loved there is nothing one would not do or any sacrifice one would not make for his lover. In fact, one positively looks for things to do, the harder and the more exacting the better, to enable him to show the real quality of his love. What was impossible to a self-centered egotist only a short time before becomes not only easier but also his/her greatest pleasure.

It is exactly the same in the spiritual life. The exemplary behavior, the extraordinary self-discipline and the heroic sacrifices made by a person who begins to experience the love of God are not the result of an arrogant stoic trying to make himself perfect. They are the actions of someone desperate to express his love in behavior that could not be maintained for long without the love that sustains it. All the little pleasures and pastimes that were thought indispensable before suddenly become dispensable, with the greatest of ease.


Virtues that were noticeable by their absence before are born of the love in which they are contained and communicated to those open to receive them. This happens when the love of God strikes a human heart. It strikes it as a simple ray of light strikes a prism. Then, just as that light is diffused and transformed into all the colors of the rainbow, the love of God is diffused and transformed into all the virtues and gifts that are needed to live and love as Christ Himself did. This happens automatically as the love of God suffuses our own imperfect love, making it possible for us to love God in return, along with the neighbor in need, in all we say and do. In short, first seek God and His kingdom, which is love, and everything else you want or desire will be given to you.

David Torkington

© (www.DavidTorkington.com) is a Spiritual Theologian, Author and Speaker, who specializes in Prayer, Christian Spirituality and Mystical Theology. He was educated at the Franciscan Study Centre, England, and the National Catholic Radio and Television Centre, Hatch End, London, where he was later appointed to the post of Dean of Studies. He was extra mural lecturer in Mystical Theology at the Dominican University in Rome (The Angelicum). In addition to giving Retreats and lecturing all over Europe, he undertook five prolonged lecture tours to Africa, mainly Equatorial Africa, speaking on Prayer and Spirituality to Religious, Monks, Diocesan Priests and lay people. His personal spirituality is predominantly Franciscan, his Mystical Theology Carmelite, all welded together with a solid blend of Benedictine moderation. He has sold over 300,000 books in more than twelve different languages. His most successful book is "Wisdom from the Western Isles," the popular "Peter Calvay Trilogy" (Hermit, Prophet, Mystic) re-edited in one volume in which he teaches the reader how to pray, from the very beginning to what Saint Teresa of Avila calls the Mystical Marriage. He is at present working on his latest book, "Wisdom from the Christian Mystics" which will be followed by his autobiography "Injured Innocence." When not writing, he spends time on his boat on the peaceful Beaulieu river in the New Forest, Hampshire, and exploring the Jurassic coast, Dorset. He is a member of The Athenaeum, Pall Mall, London. The three books mentioned in the article are “Wisdom from the Western Isles, Wisdom from Franciscan Italy” and “Wisdom from the Christian Mystics.” All are available from Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com or from any bookshop.


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