Like riding a bike…
Isn’t it amazing how riding a bike is like…well…riding a bike? You really don’t forget. After not owning a bike for decades, not doing any serious riding save for a quick jaunt around the ‘hood on Dennis’ bike maybe once or twice in about 20 years, I find it simply incredible that I can hop on my new set of wheels (over there on the left) and set off on an 18-mile ride as if I’ve been doing it every day of my life. Sure my legs were a little wobbly when I dismounted, but come on, what else in life has such staying power as those bike-riding skills?
I can tell you that rollerskating is not at all like riding a bike. Although I used to skate the three miles around Rockland Lake nightly when I was in college, I found myself clinging to the sidewall when I rolled out onto the rink for the first time in many years. And don’t even get me started on ice skating. So not like riding a bike.
So what is it about bike riding that makes it something we simply don’t forget how to do? Why does our muscle memory hold tight when it comes to that one activity? How I wish I could recall the Spanish I could speak almost fluently in college or the American Sign Language I took while living in Texas with the same speed and ease. Heck, I’d even settle for just being able to recall why I walked down to the basement. (Pssst…It was for a roll of Scotch tape, but don’t forget the eggs boiling on the stove upstairs!)
The fact that there is anything at all, even this one single thing that I can remember without effort is a gift. As I peddled and coasted from Malta to Halfmoon last week, wind in my hair, beautiful scenery all around me, Dennis riding quite a few paces ahead (show off), I felt giddy, like I did when I was a little girl and would ride down the hill near my home on Champ Avenue in Pearl River. Not so giddy coming back up, but life would be very dull – and dangerous – if it was all downhill.
My renewed love of bike riding got me thinking, and it occurred to me that, yes, there are some things in my life that are like riding a bike, spiritual things. Of course. You knew we’d get here eventually. I took the scenic route today, the bike path, if you will. There is no Catholic – or former Catholic – anywhere for whom childhood prayers aren’t second nature. It’s like saying your own name, like riding a bike. A little turbulence on a flight and suddenly the words of the Hail Mary tumble out of my mouth without the slightest bit of effort, or even any forethought. A request to join together in prayer at the spur of the moment, and the Our Father is on everyone’s lips, whether they are regular pray-ers or not. The Sign of the Cross, grace before meals, the Glory Be — they are part of Catholic DNA, a spiritual fingerprint we just can’t erase.
Those childhood prayers are the Catholic version of coasting downhill in a sense. No heavy lifting or pumping is required. But when we inevitably have to come back up the other side, it’s not always so easy or rewarding. Our lips may be moving but we can feel like we’re standing still, like our spiritual chain has slipped from the gears and left us stranded in the middle of nowhere. We don’t feel God’s presence, and the familiar words of childhood don’t seem to be helping. So what do we do?
Well, what would you do if you were on a bike and lost your chain or fell and broke arm or popped an inner tube and could no longer ride? You’d call for help – a family member, a friend, someone who could meet you where you are and carry you and your bike back home. And so it is with spiritual life. When we get stuck, when we feel lost, we need to call for help, not only from those people in our actual lives who can pray for us and with us and walk with us during the difficult part of our journey, but also those companions in the spiritual realm who will pull us along from the other side – saints and angels, Mary our Mother, and, of course, Father, Son, and Spirit.
It also helps to pay attention to your equipment, whether it’s a bike that needs tuning up or a prayer life that needs tending. If we don’t put in some time on a regular basis, our prayer life begins to stiffen up like a bicycle left out in the rain to rust. When that happens — and it happens to all of us at one point or another — we need to fall back on our spiritual muscle memory and just keep saying those familiar prayers of childhood until we are strong enough to attempt the big hills we’ve been avoiding.