Practicing my “other religion”

By Donald Schell

Stacey Grossman is a priest colleague who rows with a women’s club on San Francisco Bay. She blogs as a rowing priest. We were talking about her practice of rowing and mine of Aikido, a martial art, and I described Aikido as “my other religion.” Stacey recognized the thought, said she was working on an article for her rowing club on “The Church of Rowing,” and observed that she has other Christian friends who use the phrase “my other religion” to speak of disciplined athletic practice.

Had Stacey or I been applying to a Commission on Ministry we might have used more cautious language, but we were talking of the joyful (and maybe professionally embarrassing) truth that for each of us, physical practice lives in the place of committed devotion and grace. Our conversation moved me to talk about physical practice in this season of celebrating Jesus, God’s Word made Flesh.

Aikido’s name combines three Japanese words that resonate with theology or spirituality. ‘Ai’ means ‘joining/reconciling/harmony/love.’ ‘Ki’ is ‘energy/power/Spirit.’ And a ‘Do’ is ‘a way,’ ‘a path,’ or ‘a practice.’

Hearing the name, I wondered if Aikido practice 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 can’t recall such a clear declaration that I would do it, because I’d fallen in love with Aikido, but was also so frightened that it took me a whole year of reading about it and talking to people who were practicing it to get up enough courage to begin myself. There may be a parable there, or at least an echo of what we read in the Epistle of James about people who see Jesus’ Gospel but don’t do anything different as a result. Yes, I was scared. Scared I somehow wouldn’t fit in with a dojo. Scared I might get hurt.

Maybe it’s the rich young ruler who gets what Jesus is inviting him to and walks away with a heavy heart.

I’ve gotten over most of my fear (and find what’s left a valuable study). I had guessed right that injuries were possible. I’ve banged both my shoulder sockets badly, and pulled a hamstring so 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 practice every morning at 7:30. An old friend who is now seventy-eight comes as regularly as I do. Younger Aikidoists (men and women in their mid- twenties to late thirties) fill out the morning’s practice group. I was a bit older than they are when I deprived myself of the daily choice 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 in the morning or going to church on Sunday whether I have any priest work that Sunday or not.

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 ourselves to submit to the sheer repetition and steady attention that would make anything we do together in church genuinely 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.

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 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 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


As a Christian priest, Aikido practice grounds my whole day in a more peaceful, forgiving encounter with people and a deeper longing for God.

Lots of touch, the freedom to strike and fall, getting thrown by guys who are smaller than me and by women including my 78 year old friend, and fearlessness (more or less) in the presence of strong onrushing energy all help me feel and know my own and other people’s God-given spirits and bodies, to live respectfully in the moment where God is present and acting and, in some small way daily, to risk openness to the Presence of Spirit animating God-given flesh.

I have known such practice moments in liturgy: in the deep communion of joining my voice to the congregation’s voice for an unaccompanied singing of the Beatitudes to a Russian chant, or in the settling of my restless mind sitting in silence with two hundred fellow Christians who have just listened to a scripture reading together, and when I preside at the Altar Table praying with my hands upraised, sometimes I can feel how a presider leading the Eucharist from the table is born up on the expectant, patient prayers of friends and strangers; and sometimes, presiding or standing with sisters and brothers while someone else is leading the prayer, I feel the mighty Breath turn our ocean swell into a breaker we’re surfing together.

Like Aikido practice, these are moments of incarnated, Spirit-inspired aliveness. In a coming piece I’ll be writing about such moments when Spirit fills practice and how liturgy opens us to such moments.

For now, while watching a video of my teacher’s teacher, Kato Sensei, my body feels and remembers the privilege of having him correct my practice one of the times he’s visited us from Japan. The generosity of his throw and the gratitude of receiving such energy literally knock me off my feet. Remembering such falls today as write for others walking in Jesus’ Way, I wonder if making an attack and then taking such a fall might resonate for an eager young Pharisee tossing Jesus a challenging question and getting one of the great parables in response.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

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