Many people include muscle stretching as part of their physical workouts. The goal is to improve joint mobility and reduce the risk of injury during their routine.
How does this work?
Our muscles have two interesting qualities: they are both viscous and elastic.Viscous material is thick and tends to maintain whatever shape you give it. Elastic material will stretch but resists elongation and returns to its initial length once you release it. The result of the two combined properties is that while stretching will temporarily lengthen the muscle, the tissue will soon return to its original form. Maintaining flexibility, therefore, requires repetitive stretching.
To Your Limits and Beyond
Stretching means taking something to its natural limit and then going further. When you stretch the muscles in your arm or leg, you flex or extend the joint until you start to encounter resistance, then you try to go just a bit further, usually holding the stretched position for a brief period. If you move the joint but don’t go far enough to meet resistance, nothing will change.
This concept applies to a variety of things in life. We push our bodies further to gain aerobic capacity, strength, or speed. We extend our intellect by acquiring knowledge, forming rational arguments, and thinking creatively and outside the box. We move past social limits when we act despite the others’ opinions or refuse to conform to popular beliefs or behavior patterns.
We can stretch spiritually, too. But what does this mean? What kind of limits and resistance do we need to overcome?
The limit we face should not come as a surprise: sin. Sin not only limits us, but the resistance it creates constricts us more and more over time. If we don’t push against it, our spiritual range of motion will continue to decline until we lose much of our spiritual mobility. In musculoskeletal medicine, we would call this a contracture, and I think the name fits in the spiritual life, too.
The more physical range of motion we lose, the harder it is to regain it. Because the process often happens gradually, those afflicted are often unaware of how much they’re missing. This is especially true in the spiritual dimension.
A prime example of spiritual contracture can be found in how we evangelize. Christ called on his disciples to share the Good News with others. While the Church continues to affirm this, we have gradually come to ignore personal evangelization because of the resistance we’ve encountered to its practice.
Just as injured people require the aid of someone with skill and expertise to help them regain their mobility (i.e., physical and occupational therapists), we need help, too. This aid comes through the Holy Spirit and the Church, whom the Spirit uses to assist our recovery.
What do we hope to gain when we push beyond sin? Virtue, holiness, and conformation to the image of Christ. God desires that we keep growing in the virtues of humility, gratitude, generosity, patience, mercy, self-control, compassion, thirst for righteousness, perseverance, meekness, purity, chastity, peacemaking, integrity and kindness. We should not give lip service to the truth but put it into practice. Unlike stretching in the natural world, where we usually try to please ourselves or others, Christian disciples seek to please and obey God.
Is growth in virtue God’s work or ours? It’s both. We cannot overcome sin without Christ, but he asks our cooperation. Here are a few practical tips we can follow.
This is a difficult but necessary first step. In humility, we need to take a hard, honest look at ourselves. How well are we following God’s commands and counsels and responding to His inspirations? Do we ignore particular directives because they’re inconvenient or ignored by the majority of those around us? Do we rationalize our attitudes and beliefs? Where are our personal areas of resistance?
We should reflect on a daily basis and periodically get away for a retreat so we can take more time to listen to the Spirit.
When we find discrepancies, as we inevitably will, do not give in to the temptation to wallow in guilt or self-deprecation. Repent, confess, and then do something about it.
Draw upon God’s resources.
Resistance to change is significant. We need to firmly establish spiritual habits and practices that will strengthen us and open us to the work of the Holy Spirit, including:
- Daily prayer.
- Regular Bible reading, meditation, and study.
- Participation in the sacraments and the Eucharist.
- The pursuit of a moral life.
- To remain in communion with the Church and draw upon her aid.
- Accountability to others.
Be intentional about growing in virtue.1
Identify your tendencies toward sin. Then determine the virtue that is opposite to the sin you wish to overcome. Next, see if you can identify any internal or external triggers that tempt you to sin. Finally, create a strategy for a virtuous response to the triggers. These could include:
- Setting up boundaries in thought and action to keep us from sin.
- Acting in virtue instead of the flesh.
- Setting a response to repair any wrong, should we fall.
Never stop looking for the resistance in your life. Increase your sensitivity to the Holy Spirit through prayer. Take on the same attitude expressed by the Apostle Paul:
It is not that I have already taken hold of it or have already attained perfect maturity, but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it, since I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ [Jesus]. Brothers, I for my part do not consider myself to have taken possession. Just one thing: forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 3:12-14 NABRE
1Kevin Luksus, “Virtue and Holiness,” Discipleship Training Program for Small Groups, St. Francis of Assisi University Parish, Muncie, IN, 2014, p. 182.
Keep Stretching is part of a series on practices that promote spiritual and psychological health.