Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Jeremiah 31:31-34) transports me to my weekly Pilates exercise session, known affectionately by the four of us who participate as the “Old Farts Class.” Jessica Sehested Mark, in her graceful way, moving always like a ballerina in Swan Lake, leads this group of less than graceful groaners through an hour long workout designed to strengthen our core and improve our balance and flexibility. She has her work cut out for her. I appreciate the effort, and while I can’t exactly say I enjoy the workout, I do enjoy the effects, and I enjoy the short snatches of conversation that surround this class, with Mahan Siler and Ken Sehested and Peter Boggs. I remember one particular after-class chat when Mahan was telling Jessica about some of his latest reading on neuroscience, revealing how we integrate new learning into our lives. He felt like Pilates was a good illustration of the article he had read, which talked about how we initially have to use our frontal cortex a lot to learn a new skill; we have to focus and practice and repeat the movement over and over, and then, at some point, the acquired knowledge and skill moves from the “new brain” of the frontal cortex into the “old brain,” the reptilian brain, the limbic system of instinct and reflex. It’s what happens in military training when they teach soldiers not to think, but to react. It’s what happens in Pilates class when Jessica teaches a bunch of old farts to bend and move in ways our bodies aren’t used to, but hopefully, over time and with much practice, our old brains will kick in and the moves and stretches will be more instinctive and natural. When I heard Mahan talk about this, it reminded me of something I had read from Guy Sayles, who talked about a wonderful phrase we heard a lot in childhood: learning something by heart. Today the neuroscientists might translate this into learning by old brain.
Jeremiah would have made a good Pilates instructor. He was addressing a nation of old farts, strengthening their core and teaching them to breathe new life into their community and stretch the body politic beyond what they thought possible. He talked in an earlier chapter about how the people had become stiff-necked in their disobedience, so he was leading them through some exercises to make them more flexible and pliable in the hands of grace. And in one of the most beautiful passages in all of scripture, the prophet promises them that the new covenant, the new learning based on their new understanding of mercy and forgiveness and new life, would eventually be written on their hearts. They would learn it by heart. The ways of God would move from the highly focused teaching and learning of the frontal cortex down into the old brain, where they would act and react naturally with with the flexibility of forgiveness and mercy. In short, they would cease to be groaners, and would become grace-full.
The neuroscience folks might just be teaching us something important about the process God uses to write love and grace and mercy and peace on our hearts. This divine writing, this imprinting of the Way of the Lord onto our hearts, does not preclude practice. In fact, that’s how it happens. God gives us a practice. The practice of peacemaking. The practice of forgiveness. Jesus gave us a practice of remembering, every time we break bread and drink wine. Remember. Practice. Forgive. Repeat. Seventy times seven. It’s why we call it faith and practice. And over time, the prophet tells us, we will learn it by heart. It will become second nature. Imprinted onto the old brain. A natural reflex. It all reminds me of Rilke’s poem about the swan, who moves as awkwardly and stiffly as an old fart when he is waddling around on dry land. But when he is finally able to let go of all that laboring and falls into the lake, into that deep limbic region where he does exactly what he was created to do, the water receives him gently and as though with reverence and joy, draws back past him in streams on either side, while infinitely silent and aware, in his full majesty, he glides. Old farts take courage! Swan lake here we come!
How about you? Where does this Prophetic Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.