A Priest Finds His Other Religion
The word aikido combines three Japanese words that resonate with theology or spirituality. “Ai” means “joining/reconciling/harmony/love”; “ki” is “energy/power/-spirit”; and “do” is “a way/a path/a practice.”
Hearing the word, I wondered if the practice of aikido might reinforce aspects of my faith, but seeing aikido converted me. In 1980, the year Ellen and I moved to San Francisco to help start St. Gregory’s Church, a musician friend invited me to an aikido demonstration. Ellen says I came home from that demonstration saying, “I’ve got to do this thing I saw today. I’m getting a black belt.” I do remember feeling love at first sight, but I was also so frightened that it took me a whole year to get up enough courage to begin.
I’ve gotten over most of my fear (and find what’s left is a valuable study). I had guessed correctly that injuries were possible. I’ve banged both my shoulder sockets badly and pulled a hamstring in such a way that I could barely walk, so there’s risk — but nothing too bad. And what do we ask people to risk in church?
I’m there at aikido practice every morning at 7:30. An old friend, who is now 78 years old, comes as regularly as I do. Younger Aikidoists (men and women in their mid-20s to late 30s) fill out the morning’s practice group. I was a bit older than they are when I deprived myself of the daily choice of whether to attend practice and simply began going every day. I’m not talking about a firm resolution or a declared commitment but something I’ve chosen to make as habitual as brushing my teeth or going to church on Sunday.
A mark of practice is regular discipline and open attention to oft-repeated core forms. The point isn’t to figure something out but to learn it well enough to pay attention and find continuing surprises in doing it.
As some Christian clergy and laity work to reclaim a language of Christian practice for the sake of Christian formation and community, I wonder how willing we are to ask ourselves and our congregations to submit to the sheer repetition and steady attention that would make anything we do together in church genuinely a practice? Is our church culture too expert-driven and so focused on what we know and what we’ve been taught that it separates us from the learning opportunities (and confusion and frustration) that come with real practice?
“Practice” in professions and religion also suggests continual learning and the humility (and humiliation) that acknowledges and accepts provisional proficiency. What I have discovered is that my two religions do shape and inform each other.
Aikido is a fiercely gentle martial art; it’s fast, aerobic peacemaking. The declared context is universal love. Our goal is to partner with an attacker and take him harmlessly to the ground. I sometimes joke that aikido is my daily study in conflict resolution. Physically, the practice echoes loving our enemies and turning the other cheek. Rather than blocking or stopping an attack, we practice joining with the attacking energy, taking straight lines of momentum to big, dance-like circles, and landing the attacker harmlessly on the ground. When we’re the attacking partner, we practice making strong, sincere attacks and then giving ourselves to the fall that our own energy has generated. In the basics, aikido feels quite congenial to Christianity.
As a Christian priest, aikido practice grounds my whole day in a more peaceful, forgiving encounter with people and a deeper longing for God.