Father Mark, Reflections

Sixty feet-Six Inches

There’s a difference between planning and living. Both are necessary. Planning is definitely easier than living. Planning can help with living but cannot replace it. One of the problems about planning is that it cannot foresee every instance that might arise. Living is much more on the edge than planning. I learned this when I tried to learn to hit a curve ball.

One of the ways baseball mimics the spiritual life is that from the time the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand (60 feet 6 inches away) you have about a second to decide whether to respond and how to respond to the life he is giving you with a horsehide sphere 9.25 inches in circumference with 88 stitches holding it together. Studying the theories of how to hit: foot placement, hand placement, what the eye focuses, the location of where you want to put the ball in play if the pitch comes to a “friendly” place on and other things help to create a foundation. But integrating all of this into action, to me, takes a miracle. Once you step into the batter’s box, planning fades and living begins. You can guess, but unless your team is stealing the signals, you don’t know what’s coming. Even if your team is stealing the signals, you still don’t know where that little pill is going to go–hopefully not at your head.

It gets even more intricate than this. I can’t recall if it was St. Ted Williams or St. Stan Musial who taught me to watch the “spin” on the ball. The spin will tell you what the pitch is going to do. OK. I have one second to watch the spin on the ball and then react to it. Yeah, right.

Now if you’re still with me, (non-baseball lovers who don’t appreciate this most likely have stopped reading several paragraphs earlier) why am I telling you all of this?

It’s much easier to think, pray, reflect and study about the spiritual life in the dugout or at practice than to apply it at “Sixty Feet-Six Inches,” when life comes to you as a curve, a chaotic knuckle ball, screwball, slider or a plain vanilla fast ball that blows by you before you know it. Of course there’s always the passive-aggressive “change-up” that throws you off balance. But the following is the key point in this whole story.

Probably the best lesson I ever learned about baseball wasn’t really about baseball. I learned how to live at the feet of the late Benedictine, Fr. Thomas Keating who was the first of my many teachers in contemplative prayer. Why? Because the biggest challenge in the rectangle of life (batter’s box) you stand in is “What’s going on between your ears?” The mind easily goes on over drive, overheating and destroys our capacity to respond to what life gives us. Contemplative prayer, practiced over and over, empties the mind so that only the One Voice who directs all things in harmony, is heard. It is only when my mind is empty (OK, you can have some fun with this one), that I know how to respond to what life throws at me. In contemplative prayer, one stills the mind through the breath to empty the self (Thank you St. Paul Phil 2:7). Added to this is the science of focusing the attention between the eyebrows, above the frontal lobe that is busy doing all that thinking motivated by the emotional brain behind it. Leaving our racing thoughts behind, our minds chill out and we can hear and observe the reality of what is (really) going on and to spiritually receive the Divine Guidance from above who directs us.

This is why I usually avoid noise. Prolonged noise distracts and inhibits the human spirit from receiving Holy Spirit, making focusing much more difficult. Every person with whom I have ever worked with in spiritual direction or as a therapist has suffered from noise pollution whether the decibel kind or the evil messages given to them that have remained within them deteriorating their spirits and minds. Ball players, the great ones, have learned how to shut out the noise both outer and inner.

Welcome to life. Every day we enter the rectangular batters box to receive one of many pitches that life will throw at us. The spiritual life is like batting practice. How to still one’s mind, focus, listen and how to respond (or not).

We will strike out sometimes. But sooner or later we will come to the plate again–for another opportunity, another lesson, in God’s Field of Play.

Batter up!

Fr. Mark