Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Martial Church

Although it may not seem like it at first, this post presents one view about being faithfully orthodox in the Episcopal Church.

In 1985, after many years of practicing gymnastics, I began studying martial arts, primarily in Tang Soo Do (the same martial art that the actor Chuck Norris practices). I also practiced Tesshin Gi-en, Aikido, Tae Kwon Do, Iaido, Bo-jitsu, and a little Tai Chi. These arts are Korean, Japanese, and Chinese. In November 2005 I tested for fourth degree black belt in Tang Soo Do and achieved master’s rank.

The elements of training in martial arts include basic motions and techniques, which are the individual blocks, punches, kicks, etc.; breaking boards, bricks, roof tiles, and sheets of ice with hands and feet; sparring, or engaging one or more opponents in freestyle “fighting” with rules of engagement; self-defense techniques in which there are no rules; internal techniques such as meditation and focusing inner power into one’s movements; and kata, or forms—patterns of basic motions put together into classical routines, many of which are several hundred years old.

The motto of The Society of the Holy Cross, No Surrender, No Desertion, begins with the assumption that faithful, orthodox Christians are engaged in a battle. We are. We have been from the days of the Apostles. Therefore martial principles apply to the situation orthodox believers encounter in the Episcopal Church.

As mentioned in a previous blogpost, when I first began studying martial arts, someone asked me how often I expected to use what I was learning, and I responded “every day”. That meant, of course, that I expected that the internalization of the arts would shape how I think, react, and relate to others—not that I anticipated being in a fistfight every day. Now that I have been training for nearly 22 years, I have indeed learned some lessons about practicing the martial arts that also apply to daily Christian living including bearing testimony in the Episcopal Church. Here are some of them:

The basics are the most important techniques.
No matter how advanced a martial artist may be, he must practice the basics regularly. Though flashy techniques are fun, they are almost always ineffective in real life encounters. The grounding for success is knowing the basics very well. If one wants to be effective in the Episcopal Church—not to mention just being a faithful Christian—one must simply focus on the basics: say one’s prayers, read the Bible, go to church, study the Faith, serve others, follow the saints, give alms, make one’s confession, evangelize, etc.

Be completely committed.
Whenever one breaks a stack of boards or bricks, he must do so with total commitment. If there is any hesitation or doubt, he can be injured. The application for Church life should be obvious. Half-committed, timid actions will be ineffective and probably do more harm than good. In times of controversy, one must be bold and confident when it comes time to make a stand.

Be confident regardless of the situation.
In John Keble’s famous Assize Sermon preached in July 1833, generally recognized as the incident that ignited the Catholic renewal within the Anglican Communion, he said that the faithful orthodox Christian “knows that his is the winning side.”

In the essay I wrote as partial fulfillment of the requirements for achieving first degree black belt, Jesus as Warrior, I said, “the best defense is to be invincible.” Confidence is the first ingredient necessary for victory. In sparring, always look into your opponent’s eyes. Doing so exudes confidence. Very often one’s expression can determine the outcome of a sparring match before it begins.

One application for Christian life is always to keep in mind that one must be “squeaky clean” morally and in one’s knowledge of Jesus. Don’t set yourself up for defeat. Allow no unnecessary opening to your opponent. Always remember that you belong to Jesus and he is already triumphant. Don’t succumb to bitterness, anger, or despair. Pay no attention to rumors.

Avoid all unnecessary conflict, but always be ready to defend yourself and the Faith when it becomes necessary.
As Mr. Miyagi said in the movie Karate Kid II, “Karate for defense only”—but this does not mean that one cannot defend oneself decisively when necessary. Long before martial arts came to the United States, an American president advised that one should “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Defensive moves can be as devastating as an attack.

Advanced martial artists must know how to spar on different kinds of terrain. People may spar on mats, grass, asphalt, gravel, etc. Be adept in all these possibilities. You cannot always choose the setting of engagement, so try to be skillful with all of them. In the Church, be ready, therefore, to give testimony in writing and in speaking; in preaching and teaching; in debating; in small groups and large; one-on-one; in deeds; and whenever people are angry, abusive, hurting, confused, or conciliatory. Be firm but never vicious, gentle but never wimpy.

Do not underestimate your attackers. You don’t really ever know how good they are until you engage them. Your opponent may also be as skilled as yourself. Keep in mind that, no matter how good you may be, you’re still going to get hit sometimes. Being invincible means you can’t be conquered, but that does not mean that you are invulnerable. Learn how to absorb blows as well as how to deflect them. In both instances, move to the counter-attack quickly and decisively.

Don’t anticipate your attacker’s aggressive moves. Let him begin what he’s going to do and then respond quickly. If you anticipate, you’ll probably miss the real attack and will then be blindsided.

Do not be intimidated by a show of power or a threat. Often a show of power is made because the attacker wants you to think that he has more power than he does. A house made of cards can be very large, but it’s still cards. “Saber rattling” is just rattling a saber—it is not drawing the sword.

Pick your battles—you don’t have to address every assault. Many of them are unimportant. Advanced martial artists know that more often than not, the best way to handle an attack is simply to avoid a blow rather than block it—just step out of the way. Learn how to decide which battles are important and then go in to win.

Realize that an advanced martial artist will spend most of his time with people who are less skilled than he. In applying that to the Church, that means that very often those who are dedicated to bearing witness or fidelity, with the best of intentions and much courage, may not be as effective as you would like. They may let you down or even misunderstand your strategy. They are still on your side.

Never forget that in every attack the attacker becomes vulnerable. Take advantage of that weakness. As soon as someone attacks you, he has made himself vulnerable to your response. Of course, the instant you yourself make a move, you also expose yourself to counter-attack.

Never forget that every strength has a weakness. For example, those who are strong on holding fast to the truth are often weak on love. Never flag in trying to maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses, but realize that you will never fully succeed.

Never turn your back on your opponents. Do not give them the chance to attack you unawares. It has seemed to me that the strategy of many of the faithful for years has been to “retreat”—to look for a way out, to look for self-preservation. In other words, we haven’t lost the war, we have forfeited it. We are looking for survival, not victory. To put it another way, we are looking for safety for ourselves and not the conversion of our opponents. And often a corollary of that strategy is that some of the faithful do not hesitate to attack those on our side who have not retreated. I have been attacked by many traditionalists who have left the Episcopal Church because I have not done so. Where I believe that I am bearing testimony, they see compromise and collaboration. Where they think they have taken the high ground, I consider that they have abandoned the field and increased the burden on those who continue the battle.

Follow the “rules” of engagement. In Christianity there is no such thing as “no holds barred”. Even in secular war there is usually some sort of rules (don’t blow up hospitals, etc.). We are commanded to love our enemies. We are not exempted from that command when we have to engage our opponents.

Take responsibility for your attacker. The devil is our ultimate enemy, not other Christians no matter how much we consider that they have abandoned the faith. They think they are being faithful, and their confidence must be recognized and honored. When you are attacked, try to win your opponent over by love; don’t strive to vanquish him by using verbal or any other kind of violence. Some of the greatest martial artists were trained to heal the opponent as soon as they had vanquished him.

Never forget what must come before any action.
The first lesson one learns in martial arts is how and why to bow, i.e. to show respect—to one’s instructor, to other students, to the place where one trains. Always treat others, including those with whom you will spar, with respect. “Love your enemies.” “Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus.”

Try always to stay in mokuso—that is, a state of meditation. Because he is trained always to be at peace, an advanced martial artist usually has a very low startle response. That means that he cannot easily be taken by surprise and will almost always be “in control” and able to respond quickly to an attack.

Remember that your training is dependent on those who have gone before you and on those who are your partners today. You are part of a vast community of the living and the dead in Christ, and should never act as a lone ranger.

Do not worry about victory or defeat.
Just do your best. Consider what I call “the Gideon Principle”: Gideon began with 20,000 soldiers to fight a host of Midianites, but God said that with so many, when victory came they would give the credit to themselves and not to him. So he whittled the number down to a laughably low 300 who were the bravest and most willing to fight the enemy. But because of their willingness to fight in the Lord, they didn’t have to. What they needed most and only was trust in God.

When the engagement finally happened, they fought only with three things: trumpets, torches, and shouts. That means they fought with joy and exultation and confidence (trumpets), with truth (light—the Gospel is a light that attracts, not a weapon that kills), and with fidelity and a sense of commonality and joyful public dedication to orthodoxy and obedience to God and human authority (shouts “for the Lord and for Gideon”). And the Lord did the rest. He always wins. His soldiers don’t have to worry about the outcome.

Remember that you have only one calling.
All aspects of martial training find their consummation in the kata, or forms. Practicing forms is where I now put the focus of my own training. When my students have competed in tournaments, in forms they have usually taken first or second place or both in all the divisions. There is only one calling that all Christians have, and that is to nothing less or other than holiness. Be dedicated to holiness above all. Everything else that is worthwhile is included in that pursuit. “Seek first the kingdom of God.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a terrific and helpful post. Thank you. Particularly convicting is your exhortation to be completely committed and confident. That's a challenge these days.