August 26, 2010

A Great "Kardio" Workout

“The present life is a wrestling school, a gymnasium, a battle, a smelting furnace, and a dyer’s house of virtue” – St John Chrysostom Saint John has such a great way of putting things...no wonder they call him the Golden-Mouthed one. Being an exercise junkie myself, I cannot help but continually make the comparison between physical exercise of the body with the spiritual exercise of the soul. Of course, because the body and soul are united, the comparison cannot exclude the fact that both affect each other. We are called to love God "with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength." (Mark 12:30) This undoubtedly means that we must love our Lord with our entire being, both body AND soul, as indicated by all four words. Speaking of exercise, I love running and spinning. Not spinning wool, but spinning as in indoor cycling, a form of group exercise you can find at any respectable YMCA or local gym. Although it has been a regular part of my exercise routine for the last 5 years, it is now officially the cross-training portion of my training plan to run a full marathon in the spring (with the Lord's help of course!) I cannot help but enter into the theological parallel to this goal for the rest of this post. I find it so inspirational and helpful to be challenged to do better at every spin class or outdoor run. The spin class instructors encourage the participants to challenge themselves by turning the resistance knob to a load that is heavier than what they've previously had, to explore a more difficult level, even though they may not think they can bear it. This always reminds me of life, in the sense that we are constantly being pushed to carry a heavier load, according to the difficult circumstances in which we may find ourselves, often unexpectedly and quite reluctantly. The difference in spin class is that you have the 'option' to NOT turn up the resistance knob, keeping the load at a more bearable level. In dealing with the trials of life, however, we cannot choose the difficult circumstance that places a burden on our soul. But we DO have the choice in how we approach this new challenge level. We could just 'get off the bike' and simply give up because we fear the challenge of carrying a potentially heavy burden; OR, we can courageously follow Christ's loving and encouraging coaching words from the Gospel of Saint Matthew 11:28-30--"Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and My burden is light." One of the quotes in my YMCA's spin room is the following: "Pain is temporary. Quitting lasts forever." (interestingly, it was said by Lance Armstrong) This can be applied to how we should approach our difficulties in life, perhaps in a more Godly way. The pain of this life's challenges is only temporary, and if we quit our struggle against sin, which is to despair and lose our hope in God because of our trials, then that will last forever, for eternity. The purpose of physical exercise is to improve our bodily health so that we live longer in this life. But, the purpose of living a life in Christ is to eventually enter into union with Him. The Orthodox Church provides a 'work out schedule' for us by teaching us how to live a sacramental and ascetical life, one that cleanses our heart and improves the health of our soul. Ascesis is another awesome Greek word (ἀσκησης) that literally means 'emptying'; but in common use, it means 'exercise', or 'labor'. A great example of this is seen in the Mystery of marriage, where the couple is crowned as victors, in anticipation of their eternal crowns as rewards for their ascetic labor of sacrificial love for each other throughout their life together in this world. One of the hymns during the Orthodox marriage service reminds us of the Holy Martyrs, who we should look to as our role models, the true professional athletes for Christ. They engaged not only in physical labors, but battled until death with great endurance that was built up through their love for Christ in their daily practice and 'work out sessions' that included prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and witness to the true faith. They too have received their 'crowns of glory', similar to the winners in the sporting events of the Olympics. Saint Paul also tells us about this analogy when he speaks in I Corinthians 9:25, "and everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown." Examples of such saints are shown below (the Holy 40 Virgin Martyrs, celebrated on September 1 and the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste, celebrated on March 9) Let us not forget some scientific principles of bodily exercise, which also can be seen as parallels to the Christian life. The all-or-none law states that a muscle will contract completely, or not at all, depending on whether the stimulus reaches the proper threshold. We cannot perform our ascetic labors reluctantly or without attention, but with love, joy, and peace, because Christ is our stimulus, who motivates us to put in 100% of our effort. Our bodies need proper nourishment and nutrition during our exercise training in order to grow and perform better. The same is true when we receive the nourishment of our faith from the Church through her sacraments, through unceasing prayer, through reading and hearing the words of Christ through the Scriptures and the Fathers. The famous professional athletes are good stewards of their bodies and employ much discipline to training for their sport. As Christ's athletes in training in the gymnasium of life, we should also be good stewards of both our souls and our bodies, and also be disciplined and focused in our spiritual life. Let us follow Saint Paul, one of the best coaches to have in Christ, when he advises Saint Timothy to follow his lead: "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." (II Tim 4:7) Now let's hope I get to finally say this after finishing a certain 26.2 mile race...prayers are greatly welcome during these next few months of training. :)

4 comments:

  1. Well done, ΔΗΜΗΤΡΑ (Glory to God!)!

    Any chance I can rope you into an interview on the subject?

    Hope you are well.

    God bless,

    fr anthony

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  2. Very thought-provoking....well done.

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  3. I just saw this wonderful quote in relation to this last post. And, it answers Father Anthony's question in the OrthoAnalytika interview we did back in August.

    “Is there nobody who enjoys comfort both here in this life and hereafter? This cannot be, O man, it is impossible…how then does He say, ‘My yoke is easy, and my burden is light’? For if the road is narrow and difficult, how can He also call it light and easy? He says one thing because of the nature of the trials, but the other because of the willingness of the travelers. It is possible for even what is unendurable by nature to become light when we accept it with eagerness; just as the apostles who had been scourged returned rejoicing that they had been found worthy to be dishonored for the name of the Lord.”

    St. John Chrysostom, Homily 3 On Lazarus

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  4. Good luck on your marathon...you're such a determined person! :)

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