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Fr Ray Hemingray has shared his thought for today, Sunday 21st February 2021.

‘Exercise’

When we think of exercise, we normally think first of physical exercise. Do you do much physical exercise? I know there are many people who regularly walk, jog or run several miles a week – including people much older than me in my mid-seventies! I have to confess that I haven’t been doing much physical exercise recently. Walking up and down stairs and walking to the car seem to have been the limits of my physical exercise of late, the latter activity having been somewhat curtailed by the lockdown.

I expect I am not alone. I am reminded of a story about the late comedian Peter Cook. He was once asked on a television chat show if he did regular exercise. “Oh yes”, he said, “I’m heavily into aerobics, isometrics and isotonics. To the untrained eye, it may look like having a cup of coffee and a fag.”

Another form of exercise is mental exercise. Recently I came across an expression I hadn’t heard or seen before – ‘neurobic exercise’. The article I was reading said that neurobic exercise is supposed to help prevent memory loss and increase mental fitness. But I can’t remember where I found the article! I shall have to stick to writing my weekly Thought for the Day, and my daily dose of two crosswords, in order to keep the grey cells active.

But seriously, mental exercise is good for us. And there has never been a better time, being in lockdown, to indulge in mental exercises. From speaking to parishioners, I know that many have been doing a lot more reading, or doing jigsaws, or sewing, or something else that requires a lot of concentration. While we are concentrating on doing something we enjoy, it can take our minds off any problems or worries we may have.

But there’s a third form of exercise I’d like to mention today. Spiritual exercise. So why am I mentioning this? Well, it has to do with the season of the Church’s year in which we now find ourselves – Lent.

Lent is the period from Ash Wednesday to Easter and lasts 40 days (if you don’t count the Sundays). The origin of this period of religious observance is uncertain, but some scholars think that Lent was introduced into the Christian Church as a period of observance in the early fourth century. The period of 40 days is said to correspond to the period of 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, before he embarked on his ministry.

Originally, Lent was intended to be a period of fasting leading up to the celebration of Easter. But Lent also came to be recognised as a time for exercising spiritual disciplines, such as prayer, penance and reflection.

We don’t hear much nowadays of people fasting, in the sense of deliberately eating very little, but many use the period of Lent to miss out of their diet things that they normally enjoy eating or drinking. It provides a focus on the season and reminds us of our sins and weaknesses and our need to seek forgiveness from God.

There’s a Scottish proverb, which I am sure you have all heard: ‘Confession is good for the soul’. Confession can help to release pent-up feelings, it can help us come to terms with our faults and sins and lead us to ask for God’s forgiveness. We have a loving God, who is always ready to forgive those who are penitent. So the sooner we say sorry to God and seek forgiveness, the shorter the time we have to worry about hiding our guilt. I can recall a story about a Roman Catholic lady in her mid-eighties who went to confession and said to the priest: ‘Father, I feel I have to confess to having committed adultery with a 18 year old.’ ‘When was this, Mary?’ asked the priest. ‘Fifty years ago’, said Mary. ‘I just felt it was high time I got it off my chest’. Let’s not leave it that long to confess our sins before God!

The important thing about any Lenten discipline which we may care to adopt is that it needs to be a regular commitment. But it need not be arduous. For example, it could be making a personal commitment as simple as spending just 5 minutes each day sitting in a quiet room, for reflection, prayer, or reading the Bible or a devotional work. It’s about making the effort, even when we don’t feel like it. A few days ago I was listening to a woman (an expert on mental health) talking on the television about the effects of the pandemic on people’s mental health. She said that when people get into a mental state where they don’t feel like talking to anybody, that is exactly the time when they should be talking to somebody. Perhaps we can apply that to a Lenten discipline. When we don’t feel like talking to God, that is exactly the time when we should be doing so.

So my suggestion today is that we all think about adopting some spiritual discipline during Lent, such as making time for reading the Bible, prayer, or confession. In these days when we are confined to our homes for most of the time, we ought to be able to find a few minutes a day for reflection and prayer.

Jesus said: “ . . . whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you . . .” (Matthew 6:6)

So if you decide to adopt a Lenten discipline – good luck, and stick with it! I am sure you will benefit spiritually from the exercise.

Fr. Ray