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On the Paradox of What We Call Balance and What it Means for the Spiritual Life

October 3, 2011

In the video at the bottom of this post is a remarkable display of poise and balance as four women ride tall unicycles and perform increasingly astonishing feats. Yet is it proper to say that they display balance? Is it not, rather, a consistent lack of balance, within a range, that they actually display and accomplish? At no one moment can any of them be said to have perfect equilibrium. Frankly if they did have such equilibrium, they would fall. What they actually do is sway, and move back and forth to keep from falling.

What we call “balance” seems often and actually to be the on-going destruction of equilibrium within a manageable range. Without some “flexibility,” some ability to “teeter,” a fall is inevitable.

I learned this riding a bike, as I am sure you did. When I rigidly tried to avoid falling by maintaining perfect equilibrium, I fell at once. Only when I learned to accept a range of motion, and to lean and sway into turns, did I discover that balance is a range more than a fixed point. I learned the same with ice skating, roller skating too. True skating is a graceful and on-going destruction of balance within a range, a kind of perpetual falling forward and leaning sideways.

If you’ve never ridden a bike or skated, consider walking. When I am standing still I am at equilibrium, I am balanced. But I am also getting nowhere. If I want to get somewhere, I have to walk. Now walking involves leaning and imbalance. When I walk I lean and begin falling forward. I then catch myself with my foot,  before a complete fall. And the process continues: leaning, falling, catching…..leaning, falling, catching. Only in this way can I walk or run and get somewhere. So equilibrium has its place but sometimes it gets in the way or progress.

And all of this presents a spiritual picture.

Believing is Leaning – Most of us, if asked, would like everything in our life to be in perfect equilibrium, perfect balance. To loose our balance physically, we think,  is the prelude to a fall. Hence balance tends to be valued, not only in the physical sense, but also as a a symbol for emotional, spiritual and mental equilibrium. To become mentally or emotionally “unbalanced” is a euphemism for mental illness or distress. But the fact is, perfect equilibrium, perfect balance,  is seldom to be found in the human person. And perhaps that is good, especially in the spiritual life. The spiritual life is really about leaning.

Consider for a moment that one of the most common words we use to indicate belief is  “Amen.” Most people say it means “I believe” or “It is so.” But more fundamentally the root meaning of the Hebrew word Aman (from which we get Amen)  is that something is sturdy, firm, or sure. As such, “Amen” signifies a leaning action. Amen, implies we are leaning over on something, or depending on something for support, we are “basing” our life on God, and the truths of God.

The word Amen signifies, not only leaning, but also what is leaned on. Balance, as we have discussed, requires a graceful “imbalance” within a range. But it also needs at least one thing (usually the ground) which is steady, firm and constant. In the spiritual walk, this firm, steady and constant ground is God himself, and by extension the doctrines of faith he has revealed through the Church and Scripture.

Thus, in an extended sense when we say amen, we mean,  “I am leaning so far over on this truth of faith, and on God himself, that if He does not uphold me with it I’ll fall flat on my face.”

So faith is not so much about the control of equilibrium,  it is about the trust of leaning, confident that God will provide the steady support we need so we can lean.

Consider walking then as an image for spiritual growth. We progress in the spiritual life not merely by standing still with the familiar and the easily understood, but also by leaning forward into the unknown and mysterious. As we do so, we are confident that God is true and  reliable and will uphold us if we lean forward on him and what he teaches. God often asks us to lean on Him as he leads us out of our comfort zone and challenges us with new things and experiences. The future that lies ahead of us in often unknown. There are new challenges that await us. God asks us to trust by leaning forward on Him in a kind of spiritual walk knowing that he is a steady and firm support. But as with physical walking, we can only make progress spiritually if we are willing to lean and step out in faith.

We can also learn that some flexibility is necessary in the spiritual life, along with limits beyond which we ought not go. In the video, the women unicyclists can and must lean, but only so far. If they lean too far, they fall. If they lean not at all they also fall. Hence in the spiritual life, the doctrines of faith taught by the Lord, and through the Scriptures and the Church, present a kind of “range of motion.” Within the Church there are varying interpretations and applications of teachings, there are permissible varieties in terms of liturgy and authentic spiritual reflection, there are a permissible range of of what we call “schools of thought” and theological traditions. Flexibility permits such variety and a leaning toward them or away. However, there is a range to leaning beyond which we should not go, lest we fall. The Church rightfully thus sets forth the limits and designates a range for our leaning, lest we fall.

True spiritual growth is a journey and a journey requires walking, and walking requires some degree of “imbalance” and trust. In physical walking we “catch” ourselves and walking is a self-controlled fall. But in spiritual walking it is God who catches and who is in control. Do you want to get to heaven? Do you want to journey home? Then you have to walk. Lean, trust and keep saying “Amen!”

Photo Credit from The New York Daily News

Enjoy this video and consider that the paradox of true balance and motion is to permit a proper degree of imbalance and leaning.

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Comments (8)

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  1. Rebecca says:

    Such an excellent article!!!

  2. jj says:

    Who can know the Lord? His ways are not are ways, neither are His thoughts. Two thumbs up! Amen. Amen. Amen. Amen. Amen. Amen. AMEN!!!”

  3. Nick O'dEmmus says:

    Great food for thought, Monsignor! It sheds more light for me on why the Bible so often refers to being “upright” and “walking in the way of God”. Interestingly, it is also a very apt metaphor for what distinguishes us biped humans from e.g. quadruped animals. We do not cling to the earth on all fours, but tread on it much like unicyclists with our heads striving for the heavens, and only God’s balance from preventing us falling to the earth again.

  4. Tom T says:

    Your idea or perception of balance is, in my humble view, the liberal idea of balance. Benedictine monastic balance is maintaning your steady path not to excess in any part of your life that will lead you away from the traditions and faith that has been the culmination of two thousand years of Catholicism. What may tend to throw you off balance is the engagement of thoughts and practices that lead you away from the narrow path that has been laid out for you to follow. Scandals in the Church, directives issued by left leaning bishops that are not following norms that are directed from Rome or are in direct conflict of Catholic teaching, can throw a devout Catholic off balance. Balance of faith requires discipline based on truths and beliefs you already know and follow
    and apply to your daily life. Work is good. Too much work that takes away from family, Mass and other important moments in your life is off balance, one example of many. Trust in the Lord is most certainly needed to help maintain balance when lifes surprises come along. As far as religion, Catholic religion, the path is already
    there to follow. In other words it is what it is and always has been. Nothing is new or changed. Dogma is what it is and the magistarium pretty much laid out the narrow path and as long as we don`t stray to far off it, we will
    maintain balance. Anyway, that my view. Pax

    • Funny to be called liberal. Also in reading your thoughts, I am not sure where we disagree.

      • Tom T says:

        We don`t. Your not a liberal Monsignor. I beg your pardon. I also like very much your Bishop. He is very outspoken on Catholic teaching. I just thought the idea of change is liberal. To give you an example of what I mean. The supreme court is made up of liberal justices and conservative justices. There ideas pretty much run the same way many in religious thought run. Justice Breyer believes the Constitution is a living document that changes with times and he looks to world court settled cases to write his opinions whereas Justice Anthony Scalia ( a Catholic form N.Y.) believes the constitution is what it is and must be interpretated the way it was written. In the Church we have those who believe the Church must change to accomodate the times we live,
        ie; woman priests to fill the shortage etc. and I suppose the code word here that I am refering to is change.
        If you read my post again, I did`nt call you liberal and I am sorry if it seemed that way. I have been reading to long to know better. Pax.

        • Tom T says:

          Msgr. Pope, Please allow me to correct a statement I made from yesterday about your Bishop. I stand stand
          corrected about your Card. Wuerl until I learn more about the 2012 Catholic Voters guide. I am not sure where he is on “Faithful Citizenship,” however the guide itself fits the typical definition of insanity. Doing the same thing
          over and over and expecting different resuts. Either that or the book is just more of Archbishop Dolan`s back slapping, double talking, hand shaking political campaining that will leave Catholics just as confused mixing economics with the fixed doctrines of views on gay marriage and abortion. I don`t personaly know how much influence the good Cardinal had in all this, but I do know that he is a member of the group that produced it. Pax