I always wanted to be dancer. I loved Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire movies as a kid–there’s just something about the kinetic energy of dancing and the hours upon hours of practice the dancer must put in to make even the most challenging routine seem effortless. Alas, though, I was born with no sense of rhythm, below average coordination, and (it must be said) a lack of self-discipline.
But I still love dancers. I love the skill and the dedication that allows them to master such an intricate and challenging art form. So, naturally, I was captivated by this video that came out of Australia earlier this week (ok, it’s a much older video, but it was new to me this week):
It seems such a simple thing–dedicating a whole mini-documentary to ballerinas and their shoes. Of course, anyone who has been to a ballet *knows* that pointe shoes are an integral part of the dance. But how many of us are aware of the detailed effort which goes into making sure the shoe fits the ballerina’s foot exactly as she needs it to? Indeed, who knew the wide range of characteristics a particular dancer might want from her footwear–to the precise level of flexibility to the best level of support? I know it struck me to see the range of very technical instruments the dancers used, often, to break and re-make their shoes to conform to their precise specifications.
The relationship of dancer and shoe might be something we take for granted during an evening at the ballet. But, on reflection, it makes absolute sense. The shoe is the foundation of the ballerina’s whole art form. It must function as no less than an extension of her own body, so naturally she would develop the skills over years of practice to know exactly what she needs out of her shoes in any given performance–and she would know how to craft the shoes to produce that result.
It is in fact that practiced, effortless ability each dancer shows in conforming a standard pointe shoe to her needs which captivated me about the video. For each dancer, the knowledge of her art form and the technical skill pertaining to her shoes transcended a level of mere intellectual knowledge. As I watch the dancers perform what were clearly oft-repeated task, it was clear these women were operating on a level of muscle memory honed over years of discipled practice.
I dare say, it is a bit like prayer.
We often fall down the spiritual trap of thinking that Christianity is primarily an intellectual faith. That the defining characteristic of our spiritual lives is how well we understand God, or whether we believe all the “right” things about the church/the Bible/Jesus, etc. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am a theology nerd. I believe their are timeless truths of our faith, and we do well to continue to wrestle with them and to do our best to understand the spiritual tradition we have inherited from those who have gone before us. But, when it comes to God, the mind can only take us so far. I can’t help wondering if there is something perhaps more important when it comes to our own spiritual vitality. Is faith something we have to work at, and indeed practice, with something akin to the discipline of a dancer? What if we worked at our faith in such a way that we *didn’t* have to think about “how to be a Christian”–we just lived out love of God and neighbour in our everyday lives as if it were second nature to us. So that our faith “fit” naturally like the most perfect pointe shoes?
When I think about it in terms of faith, the video immediately conjures for me images of the Eucharist. I have not been ordained that long, in the grand scheme of things, but already I approach performing the sacraments with something akin to such meditative, repetitive actions. There is something spiritually nourishing in the practiced actions of setting up the elements for communion, ritually preparing the altar during the offertory and the various manual acts I perform during the consecration. It reminds me that acts of prayer and acts of worship are not just about what is going on inside my head. These disciplines are known in my body on a level that goes deeper than mere intellectual understanding.
Maybe not everyone is a priest, and maybe not everyone worships on a regular basis in an organized religious community. But it is worth considering the notion of spiritual discipline as a means of forming communion and relationship with God who has this aggravating way of eluding our capacity to comprehend. Making a point of setting aside just a few minutes a day to look for God in the everyday world can be a fantastic way to train our souls to become attuned to the divine presence that so often passes us by. And, before we know it, communion with God will become as natural to us as a ballerina tying on her pointe shoes.