To Marry the Physical and the Spiritual

Archpriest Gabriel Rochelle | 18 January 2020

Too much religion is way too cerebral.  For so many people it’s all about how much you can believe, how many facts you can learn to prove your point over against somebody else’s take, how diligent you are at arguing your case.  The enterprise becomes predominantly left-brained: orderly, systematic, rational, and logical.

The flip side of this is American anti-intellectualism, which is also left-brained but in a twisted sort of way.   I suspect there is a link between lack of intellectual curiosity and the insecurity that comes from not really affirming, deep down, what you say you believe.  If you’ve got to prove it over and over again, without any advance beyond where you begin, maybe something is wrong with your approach.

I want to go beyond both points on the religious compass.  I’m looking for balance.  I’ve long been convinced that the old Roman concept of “a sound mind in a sound body” bears wisdom for us yet today.  There is, or can be, a muscular spirituality, an intellectual physicality waiting for you if you are willing to pursue it.  The mind and the body are tied together, and the joint for them may well be the heart.

Consider this: for years researchers in physiology and psychology have been working with a concept that has been tagged “flow.”  It’s a simple word that describes a complex process; namely, the spiritual sensation we experience when our whole psychophysical system works at peak performance.  Wow.  That sounds pretentious.  But most of us have known this experience if we have been involved in virtually any physical exercise with true commitment.  Sometimes we call it “being in the zone.”

I’m cycling effortlessly on a recent day and I say to my companion, “You know this is one of those days when, if I didn’t have some responsibilities, I’d simply say, catch me down the road a thousand miles or so.”  The weather, the road, and the rhythm: they work together with my body to create a perfect experience.  You know inside that “it just doesn’t get any better than this.”

My beloved friend Deacon Michael Sawarynski back at the parish in Pennsylvania would say, after a particularly moving and special liturgy, “They were all here today: the angels, the archangels, the whole heavenly host – and us.”  And you knew what he meant; there was a sense of perfect harmony in the air, as if heaven and earth touched for a brief moment.  This is flow in a religious setting.

Here’s the caution: I am not suggesting that we merely shift from a left- to a right-brain position.   Recall that the right brain governs the synthetic, creative, chaotic, and intuitive aspects of our thinking.  We are not going to drop the intellectual, rational side of life into the bargain.  That’s not flow.

Flow is not achieved by shifting from one side of the brain to the other.  When you are “in the zone,” when flow is the name of the experience, both sides of the brain function at top order.  You become a whole person because right and left, physical and psychic, body and soul are joined in a harmonious experience.  You know it when you have it, and I suspect that most of my readers know the experience.  It’s a little bit of heaven on earth.

Flow teaches you that you can remain yourself when you release the perverse egocentricity that dogs us.  Wholeness is achieved, oddly enough, by forgetting about ourselves when we allow the experience of the moment to overwhelm us.  This, to me, is a spiritual experience that proves the teaching of the faith.

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