Reflect Emmanuel is a series of Advent meditations on Emmanuel, our God with us
December 11, 2014Lisa Stepanski, Ph.D., Professor of English
“The afflicted and needy seek water in vain,” laments the prophet Isaiah in today’s first reading (Isaiah 41: 13-20). Unlike the wandering Israelites, I don’t travel far in search of refreshing “rivers on the bare heights” and “fountains in the broad valleys.” The pool at my gym is my life-giving water source. There, several mornings a week, all year round, I lap swim for 30 minutes.
We all know the physical benefits of regular exercise: weight control, stress reduction, improved cardiovascular health, better sleep, and increased energy. Less well-known are findings linking similar benefits to the regular practice of prayer and meditation. The National Institutes of Health reported subjects who prayed every day were 40% less likely to suffer from high blood pressure, while a University of Pennsylvania study concluded prayer increases levels of dopamine, the so-called “happiness chemical” associated with feelings of joy and contentment. Increasingly, scientific evidence suggests a strong correlation between spiritual practice and stress reduction, a key factor for improving health and well-being.
My experience supports these findings. When I miss a few mornings in the pool, I’m creakier and crankier. Swimming is my physical and spiritual exercise. I don my vestments— black swimsuit and purple goggles—and head for the muffled quiet of my watery retreat. Then the ritual: stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe, 7 times, touch the wall, flip, repeat 20 times. Each lap is a prayer for a friend, an intention for the day. Every ten is a decade on the rosary. It’s a total body-soul workout.
During hectic December, I’m often tempted to eschew my swim. Then, recognizing the truth of St. Francis de Sales’ observation, “Every Christian needs a half hour of prayer every day; when he is busy, he needs an hour,” I head first to the water, my wellspring of health, happiness, and Advent joy.