I have been training in Okinawan karate for about twelve years. This training has been highly formative for me physically, mentally, socially, and even spiritually. After all,Saint Pauluses disciplined physical training as a major metaphor for the Christian life. “I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” (1 Cor 9:26-27). In my freshman year of college, shortly after receiving my black belt, I became strongly convicted of the truth of these words: “While bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” (1 Tim 4:8). This conviction led me into the spiritual disciplines, desiring to pursue the life of prayer with an even greater focus and sustained effort than I had used to pursue the black belt.
Our karate school recently received a letter from our Grandmaster. One particular paragraph been thought-provoking for me, as it is quite analogous with our spiritual “training” as Christians. Bear with me, as I need to develop some philosophy of training before I can draw out this analogy.
Like science that reaches new understandings through the accumulation of multiple experiments and then puts forth a fresh theory, kata came before theory in karatedo. In a practice of trial and error over thousands of years of repetitive physical motions, kata arose as effective training for the mind and body, and then theories were developed and brought into the present day. Like science, karatedo did not begin with theory; it developed theories through accumulated training of the body. In short, it is important to be aware of what you are experiencing.
These words describe a sort of living tradition, in which movements have been repeated and perfected over thousands of years. Various theories about body dynamics, power, strength, fight science, etc. have emerged out of this training, but the training itself pre-dates all these theories and explanations.
The difficulty with this concept is that this does not fit well with our “Question Everything” cultural predisposition. Before we are willing to try something, we want to know why we are doing it. However, often the true rationale for a technique only comes out after repeating and perfecting it for years. I remember my frustration when I asked my instructor to explain a technique to me, only to be told to keep practicing it until I could explain it to him. Because of this, you only learn karate through a relationship with an instructor who you trust to faithfully pass down the system.
This is where many of the distortions to our system begin, because students and instructors make modifications, slight at first but then more significant, changing the movements so that they make more sense to them. The point of this letter, however, is to encourage us to faithfully maintain the system in its original, tried-and-true form. This could sound like mindless conformity, but I think otherwise. Since I have seen the quality of martial artists produced by this traditional training and strive to reach their level, the best way to do it is to continue training as they have trained… after all, isn’t it a truism that the methods we use are perfectly designed to get the results we’re getting? If I want my karate to approximate theirs, I need to use their methods.
The consistent application of this principle is countercultural for contemporary Americans, whether the principle is applied in physical training or in our eternally significant spiritual training. Our inclination is to reject whatever practice (or belief) does not make sense to us. The discipline of fasting is a great example of this. It is a discipline that I find highly valuable. I could explain to you, in theory, the benefits, both spiritual and physical, that it offers. They would make some sense, but very few people who hear this explanation would truly understand these benefits without having practiced the discipline itself. For those who don’t practice it, I may be compelling enough to convince them to try it, or I may not. But it won’t really begin to make sense until it has become a regular practice. My explanation is actually of more value to somebody who is practicing it already, as it helps them to make sense of and give language to their own experiences. Theorizing about fasting is only profitable for those who practice fasting.
The same could be said of sacramental confession, the daily office, weekly attendance at Eucharist, tithing, meditation, and many other tried and true spiritual practices. Most people have never tried them because they do not see the benefit. We even say things like, “I don’t need to ____ to be a good Christian,” citing the liberty that we have as children of God. Yet, generations of Christians have been spiritually formed by these disciplines… what will form us?
Imagine if we had the humility to undergo the classical spiritual disciplines, not because we claim to understand them, but because we desire to experience the same formation as our spiritual fathers and mothers who practiced these disciplines. If we said things like, “I don’t necessarily understand these things, but I know the kind of Christians that this training can produce, so I’ll give it a go” or “I don’t really understand tithing, but let me try it for two years and see if I can make some sense of it then.” We aren’t giving up on understanding or entering into mindless conformity. We are still seeking to understand, but we aren’t making our own understanding the ultimate criteria of what we will and will not do. Rather, we are humbling ourselves to imitate those who imitate Christ, participating in the living tradition of the Church.
The following is the closing line of the Grandmaster’s letter:
A famous sword is evaluated by the number of times it has been hammered in the forging process. Uechi-ryu Karatedo, which has been tempered by training, bears a strong resemblance to the process by which a famous sword is produced. Swords that have not been hammered, or imitation swords, break easily because they are brittle. A sword heated and hammered repeatedly having its impurities removed will bend flexibly but not break.