Recently I was at a cell phone store needing to purchase a new phone. I was accompanied by the other priest of our parish and our parish’s office manager. The back wall of the store was a larger than life, lit from behind advertisement for this particular cell phone brand. The advertisement pictured an attractive young lady with a big smile and wind swept hair standing on what seemed to be a beach with an open, blue sky behind her. For the life of me, I cannot even remember if she was holding a phone or not. At one point, while we were waiting patiently for our store attendant the other priest turned to the two of us and asked, “What exactly are they selling in that advertisement?”
It was a good and fair question. My hunch is that they were not even remotely concerned about “selling” any specific product. I do not think the advertisers behind the image really care whether a particular customer buys either the cheapest or the most expensive phone after gazing upon the larger than life young lady with the big smile. My hunch is that what was being sold was the brand itself and it was being marketed by a clever combination of the myth of youth and never-ending vitality (found in the young woman) and the lure of ever new experiences (expressed in the wide open, blue sky). The advertisers are wagering that if they can get consumers to unconsciously connect their brand with these two very powerful myths of our psyche then not only will they sell a product for a day but they will likely acquire a consumer for a lifetime.
For our purposes here I would like to focus on the latter myth which, I believe, is rampant in our contemporary society even to the point of addiction for some people and my fear of how it might even bleed into our approach to the spiritual life.
Through a non-stop string of advertisements like the one mentioned above, through a continual stream of movies and books (i.e. “Eat, Pray, Love” and “Fifty Shades of Grey” the preview of which I just saw at a theater – after which I just felt “icky” to use a technical term) we are being sold the idea that the “full and good life” is about having ever new and increasingly extreme experiences whether that be found in jumping off bridges, scaling mountains, abandoning day-in and day-out relationships in order to go explore the world and find oneself or in kinky (bordering on abusive) shenanigans in the bedroom. Why? My personal hunch is that people conditioned to never be satisfied with the daily and mundane, people conditioned to always be looking for the new and greater experience (like an addict searching for the next “hit”) make far better consumers and will probably spend more than people who are actually content in their lives and in their relationships.
The need for ever new experiences is a form of addiction and it is causing great harm in our world today. It is also bleeding into Christian spiritual life where the journey of faith shifts from growing deeper in relationship with God and others through lives of commitment and faithfulness to having yet another spiritual experience to brandish almost like another knot in ones belt or a new trophy for a case.
But there is a spiritual corrective. There is beauty and great spiritual vitality in the ordinary. Our Christian faith through the common and mundane elements of the sacraments (bread, wine, water, oil, words spoken), through the everyday living of community – whether as large as universal church or as intimate as domestic church, through the call of faithful and consistent friendship with the poor and vulnerable, through the continually returning to the same Sacred Scripture, through recurring recitation of prayer witnesses and leads us into this awareness. There is a depth to the ordinary and often God is more likely found there than in a never-ending quest for the new spiritual experience.
People in exercise science, physical therapy and athletics are aware of the term “muscle memory”. Basically it means training the muscles to spontaneously and unconsciously perform tasks. This “training” can run the gamut from the continual drills of a sports team so that when the game is on and intense the needed action “just happens” to a physical therapist helping a stroke victim re-learn how to walk and pick up an object. Regardless of the scenario, the commonality of muscle memory training is that it is often mundane, repetitive and even down right tedious. But, when push comes to shove, this is what enables the action most needed in the moment to happen.
I would propose that, in regards to the spiritual life, an addiction to ever new experiences prohibits and impedes the growth of spiritual muscle memory. This is dangerous because when push comes to shove in life and when pain, confusion and suffering come along people will then not have the spiritual muscle memory to fall back on and will then easily get lost, perhaps even irretrievably. We can run from spiritual and emotional high to spiritual and emotional high but in the long run by doing so we never develop the ingrained muscle memory needed to remain standing when life gets complicated and when it gets tough.
I am not opposed to key spiritual moments in the journey of faith. If we are sincere about the faith journey we will have these moments and we will need them. But, at least in my reading of the great mystics going back to our Lord’s admonition to Peter after the Transfiguration, we cannot nor should we remain in nor should we continually seek out those moments as if they were all that there is to the Christian faith. Further, hindsight in the spiritual life often reveals that God is more present in the ordinary, mundane and easily overlooked growth of the spiritual life than in the extreme moments (at least in my experience).
To use a favorite phrase of mine from Spanish – “poco a poco” – which I translate as “little by little” or “step by step”. The spiritual life is ninety-nine percent poco a poco. Muscle memory is acquired poco a poco. This is why I believe that a better analogy to the authentic spiritual life is the pilgrimage rather than some vague quest for self-realization. A pilgrimage is a little by little and step by step process. It has a set goal. It supposes a return to one’s everyday life and it is often accompanied with set and enduring prayers and rituals. Also, one gets dirty and hungry on a pilgrimage. Spiritual muscle memory is acquired through pilgrimage. It is not acquired through a vague quest jumping from one experience to another. This side of heaven we are the Church on pilgrimage. We progress, poco a poco.
There is something important about spiritual muscle memory and there is great and enduring beauty and vitality in the ordinary. We would do well not to overlook it.