While everyone wakes up in the morning, goes to school or work, eats three meals a day, and sleeps, this regimen does not properly fill the day or order a person’s life.
Good athletes train and exercise daily to maintain fitness both during and after the season. Good musicians practice regularly to keep their skills attuned to their best performances. Good students not only study daily but acquire the habit of reading a good book even when school is not in session.
The Christian life demands a life of daily prayer in order to grow in love of God and love of neighbor. Regardless of a person’s profession or vocation, everyone needs some daily discipline of mind, body, and soul to govern and order his life. This disciplined life is not a monastic rule or military regimentation but a set of priorities.
How does one find time in a busy day, for example, to pray, read, and exercise while performing the duties of providing a living for a family and managing a home? The answer is self-evident: A person always finds time for the important and the essential. The things that matter have supreme importance.
How does one find the time of several hours each day to stop and eat three meals? Nutrition and nourishment are primary matters; they supply the energy and stamina to perform one’s duties at the highest level in all types of work and study. The health of the body requires the fulfillment of this obligation.
However, the mind and the soul also have similar needs that demand the same attention.
The mind too requires a certain food for intellectual health and excellence, a nourishment of the intelligence that comes from loving knowledge, seeking truth, and growing in wisdom that most naturally assumes the form of reading good books that exercise the mind and develop the habit of thinking about many subjects of general human interest, not just learning more about one’s area of specialized work. Just as one finds time in the day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, one can order a part of the day for the care of the mind that also needs intellectual food, water, and exercise.
Even if a person reads a half-hour or hour in the course of the day, he reads ten or twenty books in the course of the year. Every library or book store has a section devoted to the Classics, the Great Books that have passed the test of time and have spoken to generations of readers about “the permanent things” that matter to every human being.
The soul also needs more divine nourishment than the minimal weekly obligation of keeping holy the Sabbath and partaking of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. While the Word of God and the Eucharist truly nurture the heart and soul, man requires other spiritual food to supplement a devout life, whether it is the day’s Rosary, Mass, spiritual reading, or morning and evening prayer. The soul thrives and grows in stature and wisdom as often as it partakes of heavenly nourishment and needs more than just one day dedicated to the formation of the soul.
Discipline is a daily habit, not merely weekly, monthly, or occasionally. If a person reads one chapter from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament each day, he completes the entire Bible in a few years. One chapter a day from Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ or St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to a Devout Life fortifies the soul with patience, perseverance, humility, and purity of heart and centers the heart on “the things that are above.”
No Exercise? Get Sick.
Daily exercise is not only for athletes but for every person who values the gift of life and blessing of health. Like the food of the mind and the nourishment of the soul, it deserves priority. Because man is the union of body and soul, physical health breathes vitality and energy into the life of the mind and the state of the soul. In his classic The Intellectual Life A.D. Sertillanges, O.P., writes, “Every day you should take exercise. Remember the advice of an English doctor: ‘Those who do not find time to take exercise must find time to be ill’.”
Paraphrasing St. Thomas’s comment, he observes that “care of the body, which is the instrument of the soul, is virtue and wisdom.” Without this habit of daily exercise, “walks before and after work,” man risks the danger of becoming “a wizened and stunted creature . . . an old man before his time, and therefore a foolish steward of the talent entrusted to him by the Master.” The condition of the body affects the mind and soul just as the state of the soul informs the body. Just as the true, the good, and the beautiful all lead to one another and share a natural unity, the soul, mind, and body all affect each other. To improve the mind enriches the soul. To lift the soul brings life to the body. To be invigorated by exercise brings energy and vitality to the mind and soul.
Daily discipline is neither asceticism nor athleticism but the rational organization of life and the exercise of will power. Without daily disciplines, the habit of sloth develops, and free time degenerates into periods of dissipation, the wasting of time in mindless, idle activities that contribute nothing to health of the body, the excellence of the mind, or the nourishment of the soul.
Listening to the talk shows on television every night, watching athletic events all day Saturday and Sunday, and spending hours on the Internet do not organize the day, deserve priority, or require the discipline of will power. They do not breathe life, nourish the mind, or lift the soul. A person does not need more time to do these essential things but a greater desire to do first things first.
If the body, mind, and soul are not important enough to deserve the food and exercise they need, then human beings live by bread alone and miss the full life God intended when he created man in His image: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).