In these next few days, millions of Americans will make their New Year’s resolutions, setting optimistic self-improvement goals for the next twelve months. According to Nielsen, the most popular resolution that people commit themselves to is improving their health and fitness – getting in shape. Undoubtedly, many readers of this very blog will resolve to do just that in 2016. And, while the prospect of returning to the gym or losing a few pounds might seem pretty daunting, it is a profoundly holy endeavor.
Human beings, unique among all of created order, are body-soul composites. Animals only have bodies and angels only have souls; only humans have both. And while many early saints (notably St. Augustine) were, at times, highly skeptical of the value and dignity of our bodies, the Church in her infinite wisdom has come to acknowledge that our bodies are among God’s greatest gifts. In other words, it is imperative that Catholic men maintain a healthy balance, nurturing both body and soul through exercise and through prayer, respectively.
Any discussion of the significance of the body necessarily starts with the Mystery of the Incarnation. When the Second Person of the Holy Trinity became man, two things happened simultaneously: the divine condescended itself into the human and the human was elevated into the divine. Because God Himself took on human flesh (in all of its limitation and messiness; Christ is 100% human), we can say that there is something innately divine about dwelling in and having human flesh—God himself does! St. Thomas Aquinas points out that one of the ways in which humans are made in the image and likeness of God is that we have bodies just like His. If the infinite, omnipotent, omniscient creator of the cosmos freely chose to take on human flesh, we should take note: bodies are important; our bodies matter a great deal.
Stemming from this inherent value and the beauty of the human body, it only follows the tradition of the Church, for centuries, has held that intentional offenses against the body are morally impactful. What we do with and to our bodies affects our souls. Things like under-eating, overeating, disregarding our fitness, or self-harm all impact our relationship with God and our relationships with one another. Because our bodies and souls are both integral to who we are as human persons, it is vital that we nurture and care for our bodies just as we do our souls.
Going a step further, St. Ambrose of Milan, an early bishop and a doctor of the Church, argued that mastery over our body was necessary for the flourishing of our souls. And while his understanding may have been a bit extreme, it points toward a deeper truth: through discipline with our bodies (i.e. using them well and consciously maintaining them), we can attain discipline in our spiritual lives. By pursuing a healthy physical lifestyle, a healthy spiritual lifestyle is more likely to follow.
On a more practical level, exercising our bodies gives us a perfect time to also exercise our souls. Instead of listening to the latest pop hits on our iPhones while we run on the treadmill or push through those final sets of bicep curls, I would challenge men out there to inject a little prayer into their workouts. Exercising naturally lends itself to repetitive prayers, like the Holy Rosary or the Divine Mercy Chaplet. And who knows, maybe the Blessed Virgin will inspire you to push a little harder in your workouts! Additionally, there is a plethora of Catholic podcasts and speakers available to supplement your work out with spiritually enriching listening. Furthermore, for all the married men out there, getting back into shape or losing those few extra pounds can only enhance the conjugal joys of marriage. As St. Pope John Paul II explains in his classic text Love and Responsibility, it is a husband’s moral obligation to cater to the physical needs of his wife. A healthy body can only help men as they strive to live out that obligation. Finally, for the many men who struggle to form a habit of prayer, who find it difficult to make time for God in their daily routine, overlapping prayer with exercise is a perfect way to kill two birds with one stone. For example, a 30-minute walk around the neighborhood transforms into 30 quiet minutes with our Lord. By committing ourselves to a regular schedule of exercise, we should also be committing ourselves to a regular schedule of prayer!
Some might argue that exercising and fitness naturally lend themselves to vanity. But, if we work out our bodies so that our souls can also prosper—keeping in mind the eternal nature of our souls versus the temporal nature of our bodies—exercise and fitness can be extremely valuable spiritual tools.
Let’s make 2016 our healthiest year yet.
This January ThoseCatholicMen.com wants to launch a new project called EXODUS. EXODUS liberates men from many forms of addiction (e.g. pornography, technology, workaholism) so that they may love and serve their God, wives, and children in greater freedom. We need your help to make it happen. Share the link. Make a gift. Set men free: https://www.gofundme.com/TCMEXODUS.