Tonight I was running around the park at sunset and moonrise, both the sun's light and the moon's reflection of it through the atmosphere creating a sensation of daytime or nighttime depending on which direction I happened to look. I greatly enjoy running along the river, across the bridge, and around the back side of the park under the trees which line the street.
I run there for several reasons. The first is that it is very close to where I live. The second is that it is quite beautiful at sunset. And the third reason is that I have no idea how far I've run when I run around the park, and I can just set an arbitrary goal of 3 laps or 5 laps. That may seem odd to many people, because in many cases serious runners want to track their progress closely. I too want to track my progress closely sometimes.
When I run on a treadmill, I like to run at specific speeds for specific distances and track my performance very closely. I know that it helps to have specific goals and to measure my steady progress toward those goals as I grow closer to reaching them. And I could easily afford to buy a device to track my mileage and carry over my habit of measurement and specific goals to my sunset runs. So why would I choose to run significant distances without knowing how far or how fast I've run?
The primary reason I don't track my progress is that I want to push myself to go as far as I can go safely. I don't want to stop for a moment, admire the sunset, and check my FitBit or a mobile phone app to find that I have run enough for the day and head home. I want to run until I can no longer do so without injury, finding my limits and pushing past them a little bit each time I find them. I want my limits to be a little further out each time I find them.
And so it is with my spiritual life. I have specific and measurable goals for my spiritual life, like praying at a certain time and in a certain way or generous giving at a certain time and in a certain way. I commit to reading spiritual texts for Lent each week and writing spiritual reflections. I can measure my progress toward these goals and track my time spent on those activities. This is all very good, and I will continue to do it.
Nonetheless, there will always be a place for arbitrary goals in my spiritual life, goals that push me to my limits without me knowing exactly how far those limits are so that my limits never become set in my mind. I have no desire for my limits to ever be set; I want the limits of my love expanded through spiritual practice to be ever-changing and ever-growing, not limits set in my heart of stone which can always be marked and at which I can always safely stop, knowing that I can go thus far and that it will not cost me more than I can bear.
I want to venture beyond what I can bear, to reach for that goal so far outside my limits that I can surpass those limits without ever congratulating myself on passing a milestone, without ever letting the prideful voice of the ego laud me for my persistence. For the sake of love, I want to run the race against my own frailty, to learn to hit the mark precisely by way of learning to do so through the process of missing it many times in practice, to burn so hot with the desire to love fully that I can live through the dark, cold night of the soul.
This is why I now delight in the arbitrary penances and prayers proscribed by the ancient Church; I have come to realize that it is arbitrary goals which draw me out of my comfort zone and into the wilderness where I must grow in order to survive and thrive, where I must be transformed in order to remain with Love. And oh, how She helps me cut the cords that bind me to the ego and draws me ever closer to being fully transformed in the light of the Son!
The Church proclaims the Gospel by drawing us to Christ who is Love, He who asked us to follow Him in going far beyond the safe milestones of the Law, to fulfill the Law by going not only the mile required but also going the extra arbitrary mile for the sake of Love. Though we may go that extra mile alongside our enemy, may we learn to go the extra mile for Love.
This is the benefit of arbitrary spirituality.
By Turgis - Turgis, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45719762