"I'm going to throw up the next time down the field."
It had been a long time since I had played a full-speed game of ultimate frisbee. It's been a long time since I've played a full-speed game of anything. My workouts now include riding my bike, yoga, or maybe a jog, but those aren't the same as playing an actual sport. My cousin Charlie, my roommate John Adam "J. Barrelroll," and I went to the park by our apartment to throw a frisbee around. We do this quite a bit. When the weather is as nice as it was in Dallas last weekend, you have to take advantage of it.
We threw a few times, mostly laughing at how difficult the windy day made any throw, and were talking about walking back when a guy approached us and wanted to know if we wanted in on a game of ultimate. He and his buddies play every week. They were wearing athletic clothes and cleats, we were wearing chaco sandals and khaki shorts. We agreed to play with these guys, knowing we would be the worst players on the field.
Within seconds I was winded. Around the third or fourth time down the field I knew I was going to have to play a "YMCA ball"-style game here: picking the moments to run full speed and then basically walking around the rest of the time, like old men playing hoops at a YMCA.
Ascesis is a word used often in Christian history. It's a word that means self-denial, self-restraint, or the ability to deny your desires in order to better control your impulses. It comes from the Greek word for exercise. Spiritual disciplines are like physical exercise. You have to learn to control yourself so you are prepared for both the weight of trials and the joy of God's calling for your life. The ascetic is one who has exercised himself to the point he can handle what God has for him, and can resist what the world throws his way. In the same way I need to trim some physical fat from my midsection, I also need to trim spiritual fat. An early church father Evagrius of Pontus once wrote, "Spiritual fat is the obtuseness with which evil cloaks the intelligence."
Ascesis isn't devotion to a set of rules. Instead, proper spiritual exercise sets us free to live and act as the Spirit guides us. Our spirit becomes lithe and we move through the world with supernatural fluidity. When you feel it, you know. Another early mystic, Benedict of Nursia once wrote, "For as you advance gradually in a holy life and in faith, your heart is enlarged and you run the way of God's commandments in an ineffable sweetness of love."
The great basketball stars don't think about over-working themselves during games. They've gotten in good enough shape fatigue doesn't even factor into their thinking. Instead, the greats are able to play the game with complete freedom and control of their abilities. Lebron James seems to move at a different speed than everyone around him, making snap decisions and expressing himself through a nearly poetic playing-style. In the same way, spiritual exercise like the observance of Lent or fasts will trim spiritual fat and allow us to move freely through God's love.