God And The Gym: Unity And Community (Part 3)

by Holiness, Leadership, Self-Knowledge

I want to develop the theme of unity of body and soul, introduced at the end of my last article on God and the Gym. Here’s what the Catechism has to say about it:

Man, though made of body and soul, is a unity. … For this reason, man may not despise his bodily life. Rather he is obliged to regard his body as good and to hold it in honor since God has created it and will raise it up on the last day (233).

The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the “form” of the body: i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature (365)

It is in this regard that I would like to suggest that everyone should be working out physically as much as they should be working out spiritually; that equal effort ought to be given to the gym (or other physical pursuits) as to the church. Focusing solely on our spiritual lives for the good of our nature would be like concentrating on cardio to lose weight while ignoring our diet, or working out our biceps but neglecting the triceps. At best, we won’t function at our optimum and, at worst, we could do ourselves some damage.

The spiritual life not only requires discipline but the positive physical dispositions of alertness, energy, focus and stamina. We know only too well that if we feel sluggish and inert, we’re less likely to find the motivation to pray, to go to Mass or confession or to read the bible and so on. On the other hand, when our body is full of vitality (and I’m talking about those of us in naturally good health who have no excuse not to keep our bodies in shape), we find it so much easier to lift our spirits to a divine dimension. For myself, I would say that the commitment to my physical health has done far more for my commitment to the spiritual life than trying to commit to a spiritual life alone.

However, we seem to have an aversion to the idea of paying attention to our bodies, and think that those who emphasize the status the body are narcissists, hedonists or dualists. We can also feel disgusted, inconvenienced, threatened, excited or intimidated by the body and believe that it leads us into greater temptations or failures than those we meet in our spiritual lives. Pursuing physical perfection, then, seems to be a less pure activity than aiming for spiritual perfection. Yes, a preoccupation with one form of perfection over the other leads to aberrations, and the same can be said of those who obsess about the minutiae of their spiritual lives. This is exactly what Jesus berated the Pharisees for (Mt. 23). Yet St. Paul litters his epistles with sporting analogies, holding them up as examples of how we achieve perfection in our spiritual lives, not the other way around.

The sporting community (despite, in my experience, being comprised of a large percentage of atheists) has an intuitive understanding of the mystical nature of the body and the holistic approach required to keep it fit and healthy. Sure, it falls into the trap of venerating the body more than its Creator, or getting more caught up in the process of perfection than in looking towards the One who is perfect, but I generally get the impression that its approach to meeting the needs of the body has a great sense of purpose, enthusiasm and joy… an awareness that we could stand to learn a lot from. For most of the people at my gym, the focus isn’t on aesthetics but on functionality and mobility, and on discovering and honing the body’s amazing capabilities.

There is, too, some awareness of the religiosity and ritual surrounding the well-being of the body, and a healthy cognizance of the benefits of working as a community. More than once I’ve heard fellow members describe the gym as their church, and it’s easy to see why. Let me introduce you to a few reasons.

The Setting

Gym Crossfit setting

The venue of my gym is certainly church-like in size. When it’s full, there’s a buzz and a sense of purpose as everyone settles in to their routines. Each person works at his or her own level, and exercises are scaled for the novice or the less fit. This has given me some insight into my own spiritual efforts: I can only do what I am capable of doing at this moment in time, but I am constantly challenged to do better, especially when others around me demonstrate what people are actually capable of. Great background music lifts the spirits and provides momentum. When the place empty, however –  as it was when I took the photos – there’s a stillness that enables individuals to pay better attention their own physical needs. I often use this time for stretching out tight muscles or for quietly practicing some of the moves I’ve not mastered; it can be quite a contemplative occasion.

Each area, though not beautiful, has significance in terms of usage or provision. I feel I utilize each one rather like I use the facilities that our churches, chapels and shrines have to offer, according to their particular purpose and their benefits to my health. In the church, I might pray the Rosary in the Lady Chapel; light a candle at the statue to St Joseph; follow the Stations of the Cross, each forming the whole of my spiritual experience that visit. At the gym, I use the rowing machines to warm up, the barbells to sharpen my lifting skills, the kettlebells for accessory work to develop weaker muscles or movements. My experience wouldn’t be complete without the variety of physical exercises.

The struggle

hans pixabay struggle gym

One of the more unexpected things I’ve learned from attending the gym is that exercise is not really for the fit, but for the weak and injured. Everybody I speak to has some kind of ache, pain, injury, stiffness or mobility issue, or a part of the body that just doesn’t function as well as it should. These people are actually at the gym to rectify their physical problems and to keep themselves balanced in the best possible health. Before a session starts, it’s not unusual to see most of the participants warming up in odd postures related to whatever physical grievance they have, contorted or sprawled across the floor or up against the walls, rolling stiff muscles backwards and forwards on foam rollers or lacrosse balls, or stretched out by huge elastic bands, hanging from the rig in uncomfortable poses. Anyone would be forgiven for thinking they’d walked into a rehabilitation unit.

Everyone has their own physical deficit – I can deadlift and squat heavier weights than some of the bigger guys at my gym, but I struggle to lift weights above my shoulders, often lifting far less than the women. I find this positively and objectively humbling: there’s no place to hide at the gym; my deadlifts are embarrassingly good compared to some of the bigger men (I’ve done nothing to earn it, it’s just the way I’m built) and my overhead lifts are embarrassingly poor compared to the women, but it’s impossible to feel humiliated. Everybody knows we all have strengths and weaknesses, and we’re roundly congratulated for any small progress in both respects. My biggest victory has been successfully completing an overhead lift with an empty bar that I previously didn’t have the mobility for.

Imagine what the comparison would be like in a spiritual context. We all sin in different ways and feel compelled to hide our sins for fear of judgement. But imagine what it would be like if our churches, like the gym, were no places to hide; if our sins were on full view to everyone and theirs on full view to us. How humbling and how leveling that would be! At one and the same time, I would feel ashamed of my lies in the light of someone else’s honesty and embarrassed by my gift of generosity (which I’d done nothing to earn) compared to someone else’s parsimony. I would want the best for them while also trying to tackle my own sins, all the time realizing we were in this together, no better and no worse, striving for the same prize in different ways. How refreshing it would be, not having to constantly hide such a burden.

This thought occurred to me after one of the many conversations I regularly have with fellow members about the state of our physical health. It goes basically along these lines, with some variation in the details:

“Hey, how are things today?”

“Pretty good, but the shoulder’s still playing up, which is making today’s lifting difficult”

“Oh, still? Have you tried this particular mobility program? It’s worked really well for me”

“Actually, yes. But do you know what, I’ve found out it’s more to do with my posture. I always sit badly in the car and at work, and that twisted position has an impact on my shoulder. I’m working on it with a physio”.

“That’s great! I’ll keep an eye out and tell you if I see you falling back into that posture. I look forward to seeing the improvements in your lifts!”

So, thinking about what it would be like if our spiritual health were as openly and freely discussed, here’s the same conversation in a spiritual context:

“Hey, how are things today?”

“Pretty good, but I’m still struggling with watching porn, which is making my relationship difficult”

“Oh, still? Have you tried this particular program for helping porn addiction? It worked really well for me”.

“Actually, yes. But do you know what, I’ve found out it’s more to do with acedia. I sit around browsing the internet when I should be getting on with other things, and boredom and inertia have an impact on my browsing choices. I’m working with my spiritual director on this”.

“That’s great! Why don’t I check in with you every now and again, to help nudge you away from those habits? I look forward to seeing you in a happier relationship!”

Can you imagine the impact this would have on our spiritual health if we were as candid about our sins as we are about our injuries?

A final point: the sports therapy and massage rooms make me smile, as people sit outside them as if they’re waiting for confession. Inside the rooms, the physical ailments that hold them back are discussed in great detail and grappled with by someone qualified to understand the issues and to set them to rights, so they can emerge as better and more capable athletes. No one stands in judgement of the injury or of the reason you might have sustained it – it’s simply accepted that everyone has their ailments and the quicker they can be dealt with, the quicker we can get back out there and continue lifting weights. I’ve found this a great metaphor for the confessional.

The ornamentation

Brad Neathery unsplash ornamentation gym

The posters on the walls and the supplements on display are, generally, not for show – they’re to inform, motivate, stimulate and encourage us to be all-round better athletes. Protestant churches, with their bare walls and aversion to visual symbolism and iconography would do well to take note: the sporting community understands better than they the power of vivid imagery and strong symbols to inspire people towards their goals. The flags on the walls are a neat touch; they represent the nationalities of many of our members and remind us of the catholicity of sport.

The ritual

aaron blakely unsplash chalk gym ritual

Fitness sessions can have a liturgical nature to them, as routines, movement and adherence to form are all intrinsic parts of the program. A Bulgarian Complex, for example, involves a continuous alternation between exercises of heavy and light loads in the same session; or more specifically, alternating between a slow-speed strength exercise and a high-speed strength exercise. Working in a group of athletes and rotating from weight to weight and task to task has a rhythmic or liturgical choreography to it, as we move from a front squat at the rig, to a snatch movement from the floor, to a box jump, and from weight rack to weight rack. Everyone knows the routine; the movements are habitual from weeks of practice, but the repetition isn’t meaningless or merely for the sake of it. Habit – or ritual, if we want to put this in a more spiritual context – allows us to take our mind off the mechanics of a task and to concentrate on something more meaningful – or profound – and to let it work its way more deeply into our core.

The Rosary is a great example of this. When I find myself shrinking from the monotony of praying the Rosary, I recall the mental attitude I have towards doing, say, five sets of ten kettlebell swings, with pull-ups between each set. The physical context makes sense; I do the exercise with an end result in mind, and pace myself to sustain the effort all the way through so that I can concentrate on it being a meaningful exercise. Repetition allows me to focus on doing it better each time. This is a helpful framework for returning to the Rosary.

The accessories

skeeze pixabay accessories gym

Speaking of the Rosary and, as we did earlier, of Protestants, another criticism the latter lay at the door of Catholics is our preoccupation with religious objects – beads, medals, icons, crucifixes and the like – that purportedly distract us from an authentic and uninterrupted relationship with Jesus. Well, tell that to the athlete, who unquestionably understands the practical importance of such peripheral items. Even a niche sport such as powerlifting has its own paraphernalia: raised training shoes, wrist bands, leg guards, belts to name a few. Yes, the individual gains of using each object may only be marginal, and perhaps simply talismanic, but added together they provide confidence and familiarity, and focus the mind on propelling the athlete to even better gains. The same goes for our scapulars, statues, prayer cards or shrines. They focus our minds on the task of being faithful to our ultimate goal.

Commitment as a community

skeeze pixabay gym community

To conclude, then, have a look at the picture below, on the left. It’s from a recent Instagram post taken at my gym. For the record, I didn’t take it, and I don’t go to the gym on Sundays, but you can quickly see the point being made. Although there’s some fun in the deliberate comparison with going to church, there’s also a real seriousness to the idea: look at us, giving up our precious Sunday lie-ins; look at the commitment we’re making to our goals, while the ordinary man and woman are still in bed. We’re not your regular boys and girls, we’re Crossfit boys and girls – which, by implication, not only sets us apart from everyone else but clearly indicates the reason and manner we’re set apart.

There’s no embarrassment here, no hesitation in making it clear who they are and what they stand for.

Compare it with my mock-up on the right. Imagine if you or your church posted it. Does it make you cringe? Or groan inwardly at yet another Christian attempt to make itself relevant to the world? But hopefully you can see my point. We can be over-critical of those who are zealous about the health of the body, but wary of sharing our own enthusiasm for the spiritual life, despite believing in its profound importance to our eternal life. The sporting community puts us to shame in this regard.

Strengthening the unity of body and soul shouldn’t take place in isolation. It’s in community that we fully recognize our biggest weaknesses and realize our greatest accomplishments. We should neither neglect the fitness community nor the church community for the benefits they bring to our sense of unity and wholeness.


Featured image: Kyle Johnson / unsplash


Read parts 1 and 2 of this series:

God and the Gym (Part 1): The Rules of Conduct

God and the Gym (Part 2): False Starts and New Resolutions

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