This article was previously published in Sword & Spade magazine.
Joel Raines, olympic-style weightlifting coach, speaks about the slow, ordinary walk toward greatness.
“First do the ordinary things well, then you can think of extraordinary things.”1 These are the words of Servant of God Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val as recalled by someone under his spiritual direction. I’m sure many of us can relate to the desire of making great strides because we want to, only coming to realize how long it takes for growth to actually occur.
Readers who are not familiar with Cardinal Merry del Val may have heard of or prayed the Litany of Humility, a beautiful litany that is attributed to him. He served as Pope St. Pius X’s Secretary of State and was indeed a close friend and confidant of that holy pope. He was the son of a distinguished Spanish diplomat and member of the aristocracy.
At a young age he was considered to have a delicate constitution, so his parents got him involved in sports as a way to strengthen him and round out his education. Perhaps led by the inspiration and prayers of a distant relative in heaven, St. Dominguito del Val (who was crucified to the cathedral wall in Saragossa in 1250 at age 7), Merry del Val became a great sportsman, climber, and rider. But he was a spiritual athlete too. His entire life was sent climbing the mountain of Christian
Christianity has become so subjective and personal that man can over-spiritualize his interior growth and neglect works of penance and acts of mercy.
perfection. Oftentimes we can see he made no distinction between his athletics and ascetics, like when he climbed the 10,000 ft Mt. Boe in the Dolomites on August 20, 1926, to mark the anniversary of the death of St. Pius X. He viewed this perfection as a living and active reality, experienced in the flesh and perfecting the spirit. Cardinal del Val knew the discipline of putting one foot in front of the other on the long walk up the mountain.
As an Olympic-style weightlifting coach this is the same approach I have to convince, plead, cajole and maybe even threaten into my athletes. Let’s face it, the kind of person that decides a barbell is going to be a part of their life does not come to me so they can just get a little better, lift just a little bit more. They want to do extraordinary things with the barbell, but then a hard reality sets in, that the long, slow process of doing the ordinary things well is the only way to extraordinary outcomes, to the top of mountains.
Inspired by the example of Cardinal Merry del Val and by the guidance of Divine Wisdom, I have learned many lessons from the barbell. The barbell will show you what kind of person you are. The barbell does not care who you are, what you do for a living, what kind of car you drive, or how much money you have. It does not compromise. The ordinary work has to be done. Effort, dedication, and commitment are the only things that will bring you success. You cannot fake it, talent will not keep you on top for long, and most of your victories will go unnoticed, because they are over yourself and not some grand enemy. As weightlifting is perfected in the slow discipline of repetition, so too, if we want to mature in the faith, to climb the mountain of God, we must accept the discipline of prayer and incremental improvement.
The word “ascetical” comes from the Greek word that means to exercise or train, and St. Paul frequently makes reference to the Christian as an athlete – striving, training, and struggling (1 Cor 9:27; 2 Tim 4:7-8). Growing in virtue requires all the same things that adding 20 pounds to your back squat does. Forming yourself to be willing to do the difficult and arduous things associated with a barbell will help you do the difficult and arduous things with your wife, your children, your parish, your prayer life.
We’re likely familiar and even comfortable with the ascetical, because it is physical and commonly understood (things like fasting, kneeling, etc.). Sometimes, however, we fail to see the other side of the coin of Christian perfection, which is the mystical side of our discipline, the actual life of God within us. I’ve heard it beautifully described as the invasion of the soul by the Supernatural.
In the early Church there was no distinction between the ascetical and mystical, they were seen as one life of holiness, but somewhere along the way the ascetical life was deemed fit for the common Christian while the mystical life was reserved for those with some kind of extraordinary charism or phenomena (think stigmatist). This is false. Without acknowledging the activity of God within us, alongside our disciplines, we run the risk of a grave error, thinking we can will ourselves to perfection. But, we should see it as we see the ascetical or “athletic” side of faith, as slow and steady growth that requires focus on the ordinary.
The caution then is this; if you are not working on your prayer life, docility to the Holy Spirit, and contemplation of the Glory of God (the end of Christian life), then no amount of virtuous acts, dedication, or penance will matter. “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatsoever else you do, do all for the glory of God.” (I Cor. 10:31). We should be confident in God’s action within us, in His glory reigning in us.
Our modern society can also push us to the other extreme. Christianity has become so subjective and personal that man can over-spiritualize his interior growth and neglect works of penance and acts of mercy. An effeminate practice of religion emerges, and doing the difficult and arduous good gives way to sentimentality and softness.
The barbell has given me confidence to advance in virtue and the courage for the practice and discipline of meditative prayer. Understanding the process of becoming a stronger lifter helped me understand the process of growing in the way of Christian perfection. Slow. Ordinary. Work. Every day your training involves preparation, warm ups, workouts, and cool downs. There’s clearly an analogy here: Reading scripture prepares, making Acts of Faith, Hope and Love warms us up for the day’s workout; prayer and worship are the work we owe to God along with charity to our neighbors; and Acts of Thanksgiving along with a daily examination of conscience are the cool downs.
But having a daily rule for life is little different than making a 12 week wave cycle to increase your back squat. The Church has even given us our own leaning and bulking seasons, like Lent and Easter. If gains are to be made, just showing up one hour at the gym per week is not enough. How much more, then, will be required to grow in Christian perfection? I appreciate the process more and see it much clearer as a living and active reality. I now understand how hard the process is, and have become more willing to forgive others, seek help and counsel, and treat each ordinary, menial task as important, simply because that is the way God wants it and it will give Him Glory.
I find it unfortunate that so many who wrap their hands around a barbell never think of Christ and His Church and how their training could be used for the Glory of God. That is why I am encouraging you, dear reader, to grab a barbell and get to work. If you want to learn more about history, go to the library. If you want to learn more about yourself, get in the weight room. So many men around us already practice the ordinary things with the barbell; you could be the one to show them how that barbell could lead them to Christian perfection. And, conversely, the discipline of a good weightlifter might help you gain understanding of the discipline of prayer. In a world so overwhelmed with mediocrity, yet so sure it can do anything with a quick burst of effort, the slow work of lifting something well can be a good tonic.
Go pick up something heavy today.
 del Gal, The Spiritual Life of Cardinal Merry del Val, 110, emphasis added.