We live in a country and culture where physical exercise is a regular theme and some see it as a panacea for all ills. We are led to believe exercise is a most essential habit for a long and healthy life.
It wasn’t always that way. In times past, people engaged in far more physical labor. They got all the physical exercise they needed on the farm or in the factory. If they went running or swimming, they did it more for relaxation and enjoyment than for exercise.
I’m also a product of the exercise age. But I’ve resisted the call to join a fitness club.
There always seems to be enough exercise in my daily life and I try to keep it that way. These days it’s shoveling snow. When you live on a corner lot without a garage, there is plenty of exercise waiting (every morning, it seems), even if the neighbor helps with a snow blower. Then there’s seasonal mowing and leaf raking and gardening.
With today’s emphasis on physical health, if you’re a runner, you can run for any and every cause under the sun. There’s a race for every type of runner, young or old, male or female, fast or slow. Or if you get really serious, you could try a triathlon or become a titan and compete against others on television.
All of my grandchildren are physically active, participating in one sport or another. One of my grandsons got a pair of 5-pound dumbbells for Christmas. There was also a punching bag for the basement. Maybe these gifts were intended as a help in his training for soccer. Or perhaps they were a subtle hint he spent too much time sitting at his computer. Whatever the reason, he was amazed when I picked up the dumbbells and started doing a couple dozen curls and then arm lifts. Little did he know I have some weightier ones in my bedroom, ready for duty when the blood needs to circulate.
We’re also told it’s not only the body that needs to be exercised, so does the mind. As one ages in our society, there is always growing anxiety about illnesses like dementia and Alzheimer’s.
We’re told that a busy mind, exercised in serious ways, is one pathway to mental health. More and more elderly pass the time reading, doing crossword or jigsaw puzzles, playing Scrabble or Words With Friends. If the activities can be done with others, all the better. Social contact keeps the mind active. “Use it or lose it” becomes the mantra.
And what about the spirit? Doesn’t the human spirit need exercise as much as the body and the mind? And what does that spiritual exercise look like? How do we lift spiritual weights or play spiritual Scrabble?
Some would suggest traditional ways of deepening one’s spiritual life. One could develop a daily practice of prayer and meditation. One could do Lectio Divina, a traditional Benedictine practice of reading Scripture as alive. A friend called as I write this on his way to an eight day Ignatian retreat. One could immerse oneself in sacred music or regularly read about the prophets and saints. Or perhaps one experiences the presence of the Creator most in nature or wilderness, so one seeks out times of silence and solitude away from the daily distractions of life.
These are all ways one can exercise the spirit. But we need to be careful we don’t separate the spirit from the rest of life. It’s all connected, physical, mental and spiritual. Some runners experience “runner’s high,” a spiritual state similar to the ecstatic experience of the Sufi dancer. When swimming, with the rhythmic breathing of a crawl stroke or breast stroke, I’ve experienced the same meditative state I do when sitting in meditation. The temporal moves toward the eternal.
The mental and spiritual are also connected. Reading “Animal Dreams” by Barbara Kingsolver last evening, one sentence made me stop and ponder for several minutes on a spiritual issue she raised.
It made my mind dissolve into spirit. And our friends, family and community of faith, can stimulate our thinking in ways that leave us spiritually richer.
I have some doubts about the future of the Christian church. As more and more people say they are “spiritual” but not “religious,” as we find new language for the non-religious (the “nones”), we may need to recognize some exercise their spirituality in new and different ways than in church attendance. Spirit will flame out in the body and the mind, as all three are connected and make one whole. The life of the spirit cannot be suppressed.