Years ago I decided to try some classes in taekwondo, a form of martial arts from South Korea. I learned a number of things over the course of the summer that I took the classes. First, while the uniforms for taekwondo are very comfortable and make nice lounge pants, they are not worth the effort involved to become a black belt. (I am speaking strictly for myself here — no pro-martial arts/black belts comments necessary!) Secondly, and more importantly, I learned about muscle memory. The idea with muscle memory is that by repeatedly practicing a particular movement we can train our muscles to respond to a situation almost automatically. For example, spending 10 minutes a day practicing a “block” with your forearm would theoretically help you respond quickly in an emergency situation, when you don’t always have time to think. The muscle “remembers” the proper movement from all of the practice.
While I long ago gave up on martial arts, I’ve tried to keep that concept as a part of my spiritual life. We can, through repeated daily practice, develop our own kind of moral muscle memory. Each day, through making our small decisions about how to live as a disciple, we can train ourselves to react in particular ways to moral choices. So by being honest in small matters, even when uncomfortable, I train myself to be honest in large matters as well. Moral muscle memory is particularly important since some of the larger moral decisions we make can happen quickly, without the benefit of longer periods of time for discernment. The opportunity to cheat on a final exam in college may present itself at the last minute, during a time of high stress. Establishing a moral muscle memory about how to respond to the temptation to cheat prior to the day of the exam helps resist the urge at the moment of greatest stress.
Lent is a time for me to do a little check in on how my moral muscle memory training is going. How did I do this first week of Lent? Are there lingering weaknesses in my choices that are setting up a pattern of muscle memory I would like to change? What can I do to alter those choices? Can I be more honest, kinder or more compassionate in small matters so that when I need to I can be those things in larger matters? I find Lent to be the perfect time to focus on this kind of training, and it’s certainly a training where I will always have room to grow! So I will always be grateful for my brief time trying taekwondo. And not just for the comfy lounge pants.