By Cole Hartin
I sit in a room lined entirely with wood. It covers floor, ceiling, and walls. The room, though small, has large windows in which the crisp light beams, brightened by its reflection off the Bay of Fundy just below the ridge. Outside the windows is Acadian forest, some of it old growth, I’m told, because the hill on which we sit was too steep for the logging machines to do their work. The ground is carpeted in verdant moss and ferns. There is a door that opens directly into the woods.I drive the 50 kilometers or so to this space in rural New Brunswick each month to meet with a therapist and several other young folks launching out into ministry. This is part of a diocesan effort to nurture reflective and sustainable habits of ministry for us all. It’s not the kind of practice I would have sought out on my own, given the demands of ministry and family life, but each month, as I drive over rolling hills to the sacred, quiet place, I feel thankful to God for the few hours of sabbath and rest. I feel like I am following Jesus out to the wilderness to pray.
A therapist facilitates our discussions, where we share the joys and pains of this season of life. Each meeting we focus on a different element, but I remember opening up one week about how running has been vital for me. With all of life’s pressures and the struggles of parish ministry, taking time to run each week has kept me healthy and sane, for the most part.
While I reflected on this, our therapist pointed out, “You guys live so much in your heads, of course taking time to just live in your body is going to be necessary,” or something to that effect. And it’s true. I’ve spent the last ten years of my life so heavily invested in understanding ideas and concepts that at times I’ve neglected the necessary work of embodying them.
One of the saving graces for me has been the eucharistic liturgy of the Church, as well as the offices of morning and evening prayer. These orders of worship are meant to draw my whole body into praise to God. Whether I’m kneeling in prayer, feeling the pages of the Bible, hearing it preached or read, touching and tasting the hosts, I’m brought bodily into contact with the holiness of worship.
Now this embodied liturgical prayer is not unique to Anglicanism; it’s found across ecclesial divides. Still it is just this Anglican way of Catholic spirituality that has nourished me. Moreover, while there are times I’ve said morning prayer sitting in a comfortable high back chair, the fact that the norm of worship requires me to do something other than to sit and think is vital.
It’s not just worship that is meant to involve our whole selves, but our work, recreation, relationships, travel, etc. If our whole day is spent shuffling from our tablet screen, to looking through our windshield, to staring at a computer screen at work, back home to watch television or Netflix, we are missing out of the full depth and breadth of life that God has called us to as embodied human beings.
This is not a new insight. We’ve all heard this before. Our whole being – physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual – is intimately connected. That’s why rigorous exercise reduces mental stress and why folks deprived of physical affection are more likely to feel lonely and depressed. It’s why treating anxiety can aid in healing physical conditions. It’s also why, even among pastors, no matter how many spiritual disciplines one picks up, if one’s spirituality is dismembered from a healthy mind and body, dysfunction won’t be far behind.
I am not an expert in understanding the mind-body connection, but I know in my own life it has been important to learn how deeply my spiritual, mental, and physical states are entwined.
When I began making time for regular exercise, whether it is walking to work or going for a jog in the evening, I found not only was I more present throughout the rest of my day, but I also felt more spiritually refreshed and invigorated. It’s also been deeply important that on weekends, or during my vacation this summer, that part of my time away from parish ministry involved swimming, combing the beach, and wrestling with my sons.
The sad reality is that this isn’t always easy for me. I feel a persistent urge to “keep up” with what is going on in the Church and the academy. I have a long list of books I plan to read, and a lingering sense of frustration that there are others I won’t be able to get through. I have plans for our parish, for evangelism and discipleship, for youth and children’s ministries. I want to write articles and work on a book. This is to say nothing of fostering meaningful relationships with my wife and children, let alone with friends.
In many ways this push to keep focused and complete projects has served me well. There is a lot I’ve been able to accomplish, and for this I am thankful. But the desire to accomplish and complete can be destructive when it leads us to neglect parts of ourselves.
All of us struggle to balance our lives, whether we are in ministry or not. Very often, physical exercise, or simply doing anything where we are mentally disengaged, can be difficult. When our schedules are chock-full of external commitments, the first thing to go is time for a walk or a day off spent hiking. We tend to be driven by our schedules, or even by spiritual practices that keep us from other important parts of our God-given existence. We do this for a variety of reasons:
Being present in our bodies takes time. It takes time to run. It takes more time to ride or walk to work than it does to drive.
It’s not productive. Spending time walking our dogs or gardening isn’t going to help our parishes grow or shrink our to-do lists.
It can feel so indulgent. In pastoral ministry we see so many people struggling and suffering. How can we justify taking an hour or a day of unencumbered leisure?
I think these are all fair points. I’ve found, however, that though it seems counter-productive and time consuming, taking time to be present in my body actually increases my ability to be attentive to the demands on my life. Furthermore, being physically healthy, and taking time for a mental rest, ensures that the time I do spend with those who suffer is time where I am engaged. Exercise is refreshing and gives me a better perspective on what I have to do. It takes time, but the time away refocuses my energy so I am more efficient in the remaining time that I do work. In fact, studies show that exercise can actually benefit our mental functioning, including memory. They also suggest that much of our busyness is unproductive anyway, and it is possible to get more done in fewer hours each day.
Behind all of this stand the realities of creation and the incarnation. God created things visible and invisible. And both he called “good.” Moreover, when Christ took on human flesh, he said “yes” not just to our minds or spirits, but to our bodies as well. My prayer is that I would take time to honor the goodness of bodily life, not only for my own well-being, but that I might better love the God who became embodied.
The Rev. Dr. Cole Hartin is assistant curate at St. Luke’s in Saint John, New Brunswick.