Back in 2013 while I was attending Franciscan University of Steubenville, Dr. John Bergsma gave an excellent talk entitled “Body Building and Temple Growing” playing off St. Paul’s language of building up the Body of Christ in Ephesians 4:12 and the members of the Church are members of the household of God which “grows into a temple sacred in the Lord” (Ephesians 2:21). Bergsma pointed out the interesting choice of words by St. Paul; usually, it would be a temple that was built and a body that was grown.
St. Paul’s intentional confusion of language is used to point to the reality that the People of God, the Church, both make up the Mystical Body of Christ and the Holy Temple. This is beautiful imagery on the level of the theology of the Church, but it also points to the connection between the soul and the body in each of us.
Joe Weider’s Reasons to Be Fit
In today’s culture, the phrase “bodybuilding” is thrown around regularly. It was made popular by Joe Weider’s creation of the International Federation of Bodybuilders and the Mr. Olympia contest. Bodybuilding superstars like Arnold Schwarzenegger became household names as he moved from the bodybuilding stage to the movie screens.
Many today consider things like bodybuilding to be entirely vain and egocentric. How could bodybuilding offer something to the faithful Catholic of today? But even Joe Weider himself had a list of wholesome reasons to diligently work toward fitness goals. His seventeen reasons to train are:
1. For physical and mental health
2. For self-improvement
3. To challenge yourself physically and mentally
4. To develop the bite that may help you through difficult times
5. To honor all the men who have fought before you; it is part of your DNA to fight
6. To show/prove to yourself that you can change through will
7. In a world of easy, it keeps your teeth sharp
8. Because you don’t have to chop wood anymore
9. Being stronger is always better
10. To understand that there is cause and effect to action; and inaction
11. A stronger body can equal a stronger mind can equal a stronger body
12. There is zero negative consequence to being a stronger man
13. To be a great example to your children; [unhealthy/out of shape]*, weak and ignorant is not a good role model
14. To exhaust your body and mind so as to put up with weak fools and ignorant beggars who demand what you have earned
15. To learn self-reliance
16. To understand that compassion and empathy is noble but not given lightly
17. Because a mentally and physically dangerous man will always be needed
Obviously not all of these fall perfectly in line with the Catholic Faith, but many apply to our growth in holiness. As men and women (yes, he wrote these to bodybuilding men, but they apply equally to women), we are created as body and soul: our being consists of both. With Original Sin, we experience a rupture in the relationship between body and soul, where the passions and emotions lead us to make hasty and imprudent, even sinful decisions rather than having our will and intellect controlling our bodies.
Made to Work
Utilizing physical discipline helps us to adjust this balance. Forming good habits (a.k.a. virtues) strengthens our willpower; our minds are able to tell the body what to do and the body listens. Over time, physical activities become easier, our energy levels increase, our mental alertness becomes sharper. These are only the positive physical effects!
The spiritual growth we achieve through this process is astonishing. Many of the sins and vices we struggle with involve our flesh. This could be anything: problems with food, sexuality, laziness, lack of zeal, things rooted in anxieties, etc. Physical exercise assists in a similar way to fasting: if we can say no to the flesh, then our spirit will have the victory. If we can tell the flesh what to do, the flesh will not dictate our actions.
There are many practical steps here. I’m not saying that everyone needs to go out and begin bodybuilding, but I am certainly saying that some physically-disciplined activity should inch its way up to a higher place on our list of priorities in trying to grow in our faith. We are made to work, and just as Joe Weider said, we do not have to chop wood anymore.
Good Workout Habits
When you go to add this to your routine, remember these few things:
1. Make a plan: Set a specific time and activity to accomplish. Do not make a list larger than you can accomplish. It is better to do more than you planned than less. In the event that you do not have enough time to make it for your entire workout, go for at least part of it! It is better to stay on track without missing a day and have a shorter workout than to fall out of your routine.
2. Set a goal: Give yourself a goal to work toward and track your progress. You will be amazed to see how you will slowly but surely improve. Then take this same principle to your prayer life.
3. Push yourself: Work toward improving. If you are better in a month than you are today, the numbers don’t matter.
4. Be intentional: Do this on purpose! Remember your goal? Don’t just go through the motions but do each part of your workout on purpose. It is better to do fewer things well than to be sloppy with more things. Make those reps count!
5. Focus on the mind/muscle connection: Be aware of what you are doing and why. This goes along with being intentional, but goes a step further. Focus on the connection between the mental and physical growth, even make this a prayer to incorporate body, mind, and soul. If you grow in physical discipline, then you grow in mental discipline with your focus. This can then be applied to growing in spiritual discipline.
6. Apply all the above to your spiritual life: These points may be great for your workout, but they also apply to your entire life.
Healthy Spiritual Habits
As we work to grow in our faith we need to have a plan for how to come to know God more (this is where the great spiritual writers and devotions come to our aid).
We need to set a goal for overcoming our sins and vices, growing in virtue, and conforming our lives to Christ (this may be hard to measure, but you can do it, trust me! You need to be able to see how you are growing closer to God because if you aren’t going forwards, you’re going backwards).
1. Push yourself forward! This isn’t semi-pelagianism; we don’t earn our grace, but we do play a part in cooperating with grace to grow in holiness.
2. Be intentional in your prayer life. Don’t just go through the motions. Pray as if you are genuinely trying to encounter God and be changed by your relationship with Him.
3. Focus on the connection between your actions and your prayers. Live your prayer life, don’t just incorporate[MJ1] it into your life. Here we can see how we continually improve through our small actions.
4. Also remember that we are engaged in the battle between good and evil. If we want to or not, we are in a fight. Every means for equipping ourselves is essentially. Pick up your spiritual weapons of prayer, Scripture, the Sacraments, and the rosary, but also arm yourselves physically with the discipline of the flesh through hard work, exercise, and healthy eating habits.
Fit for the Kingdom
As we work hard to accomplish our goals, we come to know the intimacy of the experience. This will help us move forward in all things in our lives, understand the difficulties others must be going through in order to have compassion on them, and also have the knowledge to teach others how to overcome obstacles.
Together, as the Mystical Body of Christ, we can grow these temples of the Holy Spirit to build up the body. As we grow in body, mind, and soul, we become fit for the Kingdom!
*Joe Weider’s original word was “fat”, but was changed for sensitivities.
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Joshua Mazrin is a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in theology. He is currently working on a PhD in systematic theology at Ave Maria University. He also serves as Director of Evangelization for the Catholic Diocese of Venice in Florida and is a member of the Catholic Speakers Organization.