The principle of spiritual atrophy and its consequences is a daunting prospect. The dictionary definition of “atrophy” that I’m using is the “gradual decline or ineffectiveness or vigor due to underuse or neglect.” If you do not exercise your muscles, you tend to lose strength in the muscle.
This is the case with spiritual development as well. The Greeks noted that it is critical that we attend to the needs of “mind, body and spirit.” A well-balanced life is the key to a good life.
The “mind” aspect of Greek thinking entailed developing learning strategies through questioning the world around you. It was learning about the “Three R’s,” Reading, Writing and Arithmetic. It engaged the Socratic method.
The “body” aspect of Greek thinking was making sure you are providing a strong instrument through exercise, so the brain, heart and other organs could function properly.
The “spiritual” aspect of Greek thinking entailed developing a healthy understanding of how you relate to the rest of society and finding your place in the world. It examined the idea of “Fate” and the role that gods and goddesses played in life, so it examined the cosmological understanding of the individual in the universe.
Every great teacher worth his weight will develop this idea of exercising the spiritual muscle. Jesus constantly refers to the figurative nature of spiritual nourishment. “I am the bread of life discourse” connotes that his word is life-giving. His journey into the desert points to the importance of solitude in discernment. Jesus is calling us to a spiritual life that will help fulfill our destiny on earth. He is calling us to be moral beings and serve one another.
Jesus quotes Deuteronomy: “Man cannot live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Matthew 4:4.
“Take no thought for your life, what you shall eat, what you shall drink or wherewithal you shall be clothed.” Matthew 6: 31.
“Seek first the Kingdom of God and all else will be given unto you.” Matthew 6: 33
These above passages point us to the need for spiritual discipline. Developing first the nourishment of scripture to prepare us for the day, we are called to fulfillment through the word of God throughout the day.
The Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, addresses the idea of spiritual nourishment in his book “Silence,” writing that we “start to select sensory food that will not nourish us.” Nhat Hanh calls us to discern that which is good for us, that will nourish us and inspire us to be our best selves. Nhat Hanh addresses the idea more through the spiritual discipline of mindfulness. When we are mindful of what is harming us in the world, we are less likely to want that toxicity.
If we are mindful of exercising the spiritual muscle of good habits, we can develop a healthy outlook on life. His book is great because Nhat Hanh gives some strong suggestions for retraining the mind to exercise the spiritual muscle through guided meditations. When we deny healthy nourishment of our lives through spirituality, we are depriving ourselves of life-giving forces.
When I’m talking about spiritual atrophy, I am engaging in the idea that we need to seek out understanding for who we are and what we do.
Why do we feel lifeless and uninspired?
What is it in our lives that denies inspiration?
Vocationally, why do we do what we do?
How can I be my best self and use my talents for good and be the best version of myself?
Identifying with those central spiritual questions can work that spiritual muscle to inspire us to see how “positive” and “negative” situations work in our lives.
A seemingly “negative” situation can help us in our spiritual development. It can teach us what we don’t want in our lives. It can help us see that the spiritual muscle we’ve developed through disciplines is working. It has been said that when we know that suffering is a part of life, we can identify with the things that work spiritually to help us overcome suffering. We can look back at the intense moments of our lives and realize that we survived. Our exercise of the spiritual muscle brought us through.
There was a time I was lost and didn’t want to go to church or pray. I discovered over time how that experience limited me and made me feel lifeless and uninspired. I was unable to be motivated to do anything. I couldn’t connect spiritually to life and it compromised the fullness of life I am called to live.
A “positive” situation can reinforce our need to keep moving forward. Meditation has personally helped give me energy and helped me find a center, and I’m more likely going to continue to develop that discipline as a result of its success. Although there may be times where I’m distracted, the act of sitting in silence more often than not brings rich fruit and centers me for the day.
Spiritual atrophy is conquerable. Reflecting on what worked for us in the past, can point us in the direction of how we are to move in the future. When we discern where our lives are in relation to spiritual development, we can acquire the spiritual nourishment required to not only work but grow in spirit.