Prayer, Just Like Exercise, Takes Discipline

How I found out that St. Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises and a marathon are similar.

A few years ago, I moved to a new city to begin a new job. While I welcomed the change of pace, I also found myself a bit lonely. On a whim, I asked a new colleague-turned-friend if she would like to join me in tackling a longstanding goal of mine: running a marathon. To my surprise, she agreed, and we set out to train for the 26.2-mile race.

Naturally, our training program had us start with shorter distances, gradually increasing our mileage until eventually we were able to run for several hours without stopping. Almost daily, we ran — sometimes separately, sometimes together, always with the same goal in mind.

There were many mornings when my alarm sounded and I didn’t want to get out of bed to go for a run, but I knew my friend was probably already running, and that helped hold me accountable. Training for and running that marathon was the most physically demanding thing I have ever done (except, perhaps, for childbirth). When we finally crossed the finish line — our bodies healthier and our friendship stronger than ever before — I was full of joy and gratitude.

Soon after our marathon finished, my friend invited me to join her in a seemingly different endeavor: the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius in daily life. The program, which would last for nine months, entailed praying every day and meeting weekly with a spiritual director. To my surprise, I agreed, and we set out to prepare for a marathon of another sort.

Naturally, the wise directors of the Spiritual Exercises program encouraged us to start with shorter, simpler periods of prayer, gradually increasing the length and depth of our prayer until we could sit in silence for an hour at a time. Almost daily, we prayed; usually on our own, though always with the same reflection material before us.

There were many mornings when my alarm sounded and I didn’t want to get out of bed to pray, but I knew that my friend was probably already praying and that helped hold me accountable. (I must also humbly admit here that there were plenty of mornings when I hit snooze or fell back asleep during the hour of prayer!) Praying through the Spiritual Exercises was the most spiritually demanding thing I have ever done (except, perhaps, for parenting young children). When we finally came to the end of the program — our spirits richer and our friendship deeper than ever before — I was full of joy and gratitude.

Somewhere along the way, it dawned on me (as it has dawned on many others over the ages) how wise St. Ignatius was to name his program the Spiritual Exercises. Like physical exercise, prayer requires practice and discipline. The more we do it, the more natural it becomes. For me, at least, both prayer and exercise work best if I incorporate them into my life as non-negotiable habits of self-care, like brushing my teeth. Often they feel like chores or obligations, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth doing.

Showing up is usually the hardest part; once I start a run or enter a quiet space of prayer, I am almost always glad to be there. Whenever I finish exercising — physically or spiritually — I am happier, healthier, and more at peace than I was when I started.

As I reflect back on that season of my life — the season in which I ran a marathon and prayed the Spiritual Exercises back-to-back — I am grateful for the lessons I learned about prayer, exercise, and discipline. I think the lesson I am most grateful for, though, is the lesson of companionship. The reason I had the courage to do any of it was because I had a companion, a friend with whom to train. Someone who listened to me, accompanied me, challenged me and encouraged me. Someone who held me accountable, yes, but above all else someone who loved me. And isn’t that actually who Jesus is for us, too? He came to reveal to us that above all else we are loved, and with that love comes the freedom and courage to do and become more than we could on our own.

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