The Academy rents its space from a convent, which means that, despite our charter through a public school district, we are often in contact with nuns and religious imagery. While most of the students have come to accept this as just part of the scenery, I still occasionally manage to look at the convent through Christian eyes.
My favorite part of the convent starts on the second floor and stretches up to the third: a big, beautiful Nineteenth Century chapel.
It has lovely stained glass windows, mosaic ceilings, a huge pipe organ back in the choir loft, a smaller pipe organ in the front, marble pillars and altar, the works. The acoustics inside are enough to make a singer like myself salivate. Stepping into the space inspires a strange mix of feelings in me: awe, wonder, insignificance, closeness to God.
The last time I stepped into the chapel (I snuck in for a few moments to listen to the organist practice), a strange thing happened, or rather almost happened. I felt an urge to bow as I went in. Not bow my head in prayer, mind you, but rei, the Japanese bow I perform when stepping into the dojo or onto the mat.
This opens up the floodgates for a staggering number of questions about how the martial arts have affected my thinking and my spirituality in the past year, but I'll start with the biggest and most important: have I begun to equate the martial arts with religion?
To be sure, my martial arts training, especially the aikido, has a spiritual element to it. The kneeling, the bowing, and the ritualized breathing exercises all seem to reach for something more than material. Even some of the warm-up exercises at the beginning of the aikido class are derived from Shinto ritual. But I don't pray to O Sensei (Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of aikido) and I don't go looking for salvation in a kotegaeshi or a side kick. I don't even buy into the more mystical interpretations of ki.
Still, it is clear that my martial arts spirituality is moving into space previously reserved for religious spirituality. If, as I concluded above, the problem isn't that I am affording the martial arts undue religious significance, then the problem must come from the other side, that is, my own observance of religion. There must be some kind of spiritual need I am not filling with Christianity as I am currently practicing it.
Not only have I poked an embarassing hole in my religious self-assuredness, but I have discovered a surprising power of the martial arts. I just used them as a sort of spiritual mirror, looking into them and seeing something about myself that I hadn't been able to see from inside my own head. It's a strange feeling.
What else might I accomplish this way? What else might I find in this new mirror? Maybe I don't want to know.