This past weekend as I was doing odd chores around the house a cable channel was showing Rocky IV, so I had it on in the background as I was tidying up. Like other Rocky movies, there was a montage that showed his training as he prepared to fight the seemingly unstoppable Soviet boxer Ivan Drago. While the training montages in the Rocky movies are inspiring, they are misleading. It takes a lot more than five minutes to reach peak performance. I’ve never had a band or orchestra create a soundtrack just for me and perform it for me while I running or biking for hours. We will hear a musician perform a challenging piece of music flawlessly, but we don’t hear all the missed notes and skipped beats in practices and rehearsals. While practice and training is worth it, it is also time consuming, exhausting, and two steps forward and one step back. There are no shortcuts to excellence.
In Matthew 6:1-8 and 6:14-18, Jesus invites us to practice our piety, to become skillful in prayer, in generosity, in denying ourselves so we can say yes to God and neighbor. It’s a kind of spiritual muscle memory. Just as a pianist knows exactly where each key is or a wide receiver can out maneuver a defender and hit their route without much thought because of their countless hours of practice, so we grow in our piety, in our life of prayer and service and self-denial, by practice. But this practice is done in secret. It is not for other people to see. It’s not even done so we can become aware of our own goodness. It is done for God alone. The point of muscle memory is that we do not have to think about what we need to do, we just do it. When we pray, we move from being self-aware of how we pray or the words we use toward becoming less self-conscious so we encounter God. When we become less self-aware in giving, when we give or deny ourselves for the sake of someone else, we see ourselves less and we see our neighbors more.
We practice our piety in secret so it becomes second nature, so we become less aware of ourselves and more aware of God and neighbor. What habits have we developed that are second nature? What does the way we acquired these skills teach us about practicing prayer, service, and self-denial?