Body and Soul
Modern society has a temptation to compartmentalize our lives, and, too often, modern Christianity succumbs to this temptation. Work, relationships, family, recreation, and worship are put into separate boxes, separate sphere of our lives, for better or for worse. For many Christians, this compartmentalization trickles into how they integrate faith into the rest of their lives. There exists a temptation, at least as I have perceived in my 25 years of Christian living, to divide the spiritual off from the other parts of our lives: the physical, the economical, the relational, and so on. Sometimes this separation is conscious; other times, it is an unconscious result of thinking that God has nothing to do with business, with sport, with food, with friends.
Rather than address the reasons for the separation of faith and the rest of life or to make a judgment call on whether compartmentalization is beneficial or detrimental, the purpose of my article today is to discuss the value of fusing together our physical life with our spiritual life in one particular manner: sport and exercise.
The Incarnation, that historical moment when God became man, teaches us an invaluable lesson about ourselves and our faith: human bodies matter to God. It is not just our souls that God cares about; our bodies matter, because Christ assumed a human body. If human bodies did not matter, Christ might have well arrived on earth as a bodiless spirit, a dog, or, as medieval theologians preferred to ponder, as a carrot. Christ arrived as a human, with a human body, through a verily bodily process (birth from the womb of a woman). Furthermore, when we profess the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed, we profess a belief in the resurrection of the body. Human bodies matter in Christianity.
You see the importance of human bodies in the liturgy. We stand, we sit, we kneel; we embrace one another with the sign of peace, we genuflect before the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, we open our mouths, taste with our tongues, and swallow his body and blood. Our physical actions are as important to the liturgy and worship as our spiritual actions are. This is also true for the sacraments, which demand both spiritual and physical participation: baptismal water is poured over our heads, the Eucharist is consumed, a marriage is sealed the exchange of rings and consummation, and oil smeared upon foreheads of the sick. The spiritual and the corporeal cooperate in the economy of salvation.
The cooperation of the spiritual and corporeal does not cease when we walk outside of the walls of church. Rather, the importance of the physical for our spiritual lives allows us and implores us to seek God in the most mundane aspects of human life, in the most repetitive of daily activities.
Exercise and sport provide a manner for us to nourish and strengthen our bodies. When we invite our spiritual side to become part of our physical life, when we stop separating the two, exercise can also provide us with a means for nourishing and strengthening our physical life.
As a runner, I spent an hour or more most days on the road by myself. These 45 minutes to two hours are silent, open for contemplation and the wandering of my mind. Except when harsh winter weather confines me to the treadmill, I am out in nature, encountering the beauty of God’s creation with each and every step I take.
Many theologians, notably Hans Ur von Balthasar, argue that the aesthetic is essential for experiencing God. Nature, the handiwork of our Creator, offers that aesthetic experience every single day for us. The trees wind towards the skies and lift our eyes to the heavens. The seasons change and the sun rises and sets, guided by the incredible physics of the universe. Runners, cyclists, hikers, and other athletes encounter this each and every day; whenever we venture to the outdoors to exercise our bodies, we receive the invitation to experience God through nature.
Within two or three miles of a run, I gain a sense of serenity and focus. The movement of my body stills the mind, so that I can, in the words of the Psalmist, be still and know that the Lord is God. I left all my stresses a few miles away, and the endorphins and other hormones released as I run remove negative emotions. Like the meditative state of prayer, running brings me into the proper frame of mind to encounter God. I feel focused, peaceful, and joyful; even without articulating any words, my footsteps and breathes become a prayer, a communion with the divine. God reaches out to me through nature, and I am in the state of mind and body to receive that encounter and rejoice in it. It’s ineffable, this encounter, as any encounter with God is. Even without any petitions or psalms, this is the prayer my soul needs each day.
When you are an endurance athlete, there are moments in your run, hike, ride, or the like where you begin to surpass your own presupposed boundaries. These moments push your limits, physically, mentally, and spiritually. It’s mile 22 of a marathon or mile 10 of a half marathon, where you’re not sure how much longer you can hold on. It’s when you’re ¾ of the way up the mountain, but you’re not sure if you have the strength to go the rest of the way. Those moments are spiritual moments, reminding us of two glorious facts: one, that we are always in need of God, but he is never far; two, that God created us with strong, powerful, and tough bodies, bodies that are made in his image.
Most of all, sport and exercise teach us to integrate our minds and bodies. When our legs hurt and our lungs burn, our minds remind us that discomfort is temporarily and keep us moving forward. When we feel physically tired, it’s our minds that remind us that three miles really is not far and we will feel much better afterwards. Sport and exercise teach our minds and bodies to cooperate, which then prepares us for a more holistic experience each Sunday at the liturgy.
Our bodies matter, just as our souls matter. To neglect the physical aspect of our spirituality is to neglect part of our search for God, part of our working out of our salvation, part of how we reflect the image of the divine. I’m not saying exercise and sport are essential to being a good Christian; I am saying that it may surprise you where and how you encounter God.