I’ve been realizing that I’m a glutton. At least that’s the name for it that my Spiritual Director and I came to recently as I described how my ambitions toward discipline and self-control fall short, how I can’t let my wife buy graham crackers because some dark night I’ll eat them all. I’m a hungry person whatever it is. I am someone who wants more—more time, more books, more talent, more speed. But when the time comes, when I get the books I want, when I have a chance to exercise my talent, I wait, I surf, I can’t get myself out the door. My ambition to lose ten pounds fades at the offer of cheese dip and chips. My hope to read every evening gives way to a dumb sitcom.
This reality was further named, when I found a prayer card with one of my favorite ancient prayers on it, the Prayer of Saint Ephrem:
O Lord and Master of my life take from me the spirit of laziness, meddling, ambition and vain talk. But give me a spirit of prudence, humility, patience and love. Yes Lord and King, grant me to see my own sins and faults and not judge my brother. For You are Blessed, forever and ever. Amen.
I once tried to memorize this prayer and going over its lines I always found the contrasts odd—take from me this spirit of laziness and ambition? It would seem that if you struggled with laziness you wouldn’t also struggle with ambition. But reflecting on my own life this names exactly my “spirit.” I am both overly eager to achieve and too easily dissuaded from doing what I need to achieve my goal—gluttony is this combination of ambition and laziness.
I have seen this in particular in my training for triathlons which more than a metaphor for my spiritual life reflects it. I have read a lot about triathlon training over the last few years and I know enough to know what I need to do to get in shape for race day. That means that over the last few months I’ve bounced around in my training, trying out different patterns of training, mixing and matching different workouts. Rather than simply outlining a training plan and sticking to it, I keep tinkering with my plan. That’s part of the problem with being self-coached.
Frustrated with my lack of progress and with no time to spare toward getting fit for the first triathlon this season, I’ve finally given up and decided to follow a plan out of a book by an author who I trust. I’ve had to adapt the plan a bit to fit in some of my non-triathlon training, but essentially I’m following a series of workouts that someone else put down for me. If it says run three minutes hard and then rest ninety seconds, I don’t rest one hundred—I stick to the workouts as laid out.
When talking with my spiritual director he told me to pay attention to the subjective and objective elements of my life in trying to get a hold of my gluttony. The subjective elements are those things that have to do with my will—the things I make a decision around. Do I do this workout or not, do I eat those graham crackers or not, do I feel like praying now? The objective elements are those things like a training plan or a prayer book. They provide a structure to which I can choose to submit and they offer a reward for that submission. I do the workout even if I don’t feel like it and I get fitter. I pray the prayer even if I feel no devotion and I’ve just submitted myself again to God. Of course we need the subjective, we need days when we want to train and we need times when we feel devotion to God, but we can’t depend on those, we can’t let those guide us.
I talked recently with a professional triathlon coach. He told me that the best athletes, the most seasoned professionals are those who follow the plan. At training camps he’ll take a group out for a training ride and tell them to go easy. The young pros have a tendency to try to fight for the front of the group, especially climbing a hill, to show how fast and strong they are. The seasoned pros, those who have many wins under their belt sit at the back—easy means easy. Good athletes know that they should follow the paces their coach gives them. Every workout is not a time to show how fast you can go—sometimes athletes need to go slow to build endurance before they can go fast. “Take from me this spirit of…ambition.”
Our spiritual life is no different. It’s not about spiritual heroics or spiritual laziness—it is the proficient, day after day work of living out the Christian life. We don’t want to be spiritually lazy, neglecting to read the scriptures, to participate in the life of the church, to pray and fast, but neither do we want to be spiritual show offs, people who are competitive in our ministries, haughty in our devotion (do you know how long I’m fasting, do you know how much I pray). The way through is right there in Saint Ephrem’s prayer—we exchange the spirit of laziness, meddling, ambition and vain talk for the spirit of prudence, humility, patience and love. Keep to your training plan, follow the discipline of a prayer book and rule of life, and just do it.