“What has Sparta to do with Jerusalem?”
A few weeks ago I challenged the research assistant at Word on Fire to a contest. Could he beat my time in the completion of the so called “300” workout? The “300” workout is actually a fitness test that was administered to the actors from the blockbuster hit movie from 2006 about the ancient Battle of Thermopylae called “300”. It involves the performance of various exercises such as pull ups, push ups and dead lifts in rapid succession for a total 300 repetitions. One's performance is rated by not only one’s ability to complete the routine, but the time that it takes to finish. This gauntlet is intense in its demands of strength, endurance and psychological determination. It also demands a pre-existing level of physical fitness. At the completion of our contest, I noted that at the mid point of the competition, the thought occurred to me that I just might die doing this- a thought that I knew if I entertained for too long would sap me of the necessary focus needed to avoid giving up. At that moment I was faced with a decision: I could throw in the towel or, if I endured and understood that any hesitancy about my performance at that point was more about mind than body, I could finish what I had started. I chose to finish.
The experience also provoked me to think about the ambivalent understanding that Christianity has at times manifested in regards to humanity’s corporeal existence. It seems that we have inherited a dualism from our ancient forebears as far as the relationship of the body and the soul are concerned. From the earliest centuries of the Church’s life there has been an association of the destruction of the material with spiritual attainment. For example, the Desert Fathers were renowned for the extremity of their asceticism, practices which while being detrimental to their physicality were viewed as being of eternal benefit to the soul. Associations of extreme asceticism with spiritual accomplishment in regards to the Church’s saints remains one of the criteria in which holiness is measured and judged. It is important to note that we are not simply talking about the saint’s endurance of the sufferings that come naturally with the experiences of life, but of practices that are freely chosen and self imposed. We might admire the character and will manifested in the often times bewildering asceticism of the saints, but all of it does beg the question as to why the body must seemingly be so punished and how this is conducive to one’s salvation?
Athletes will engage in rigorous training in order to attain excellence in their given endeavors. For those who lack the drive or the prowess for athletic excellence, such discipline and preparations are best described as punishing. But we understand the athlete’s sufferings as something that is good because we understand how such pronounced attentiveness to their bodies enables them to accomplish their mission. The training of the soldier necessarily entails a rigorous attention to physical fitness that the civilian finds hard to take. Yet we admire soldiers for their dedication to achieve excellence in physical endurance because we understand that their mission requires it, and that mission is to the benefit of not only the soldier, but us as well. This kind of connection between what are clearly practices of asceticism, with the mission of athletes, soldiers, and other civil servants such as firefighters and police officers seems easier to accept. The religious ascetic is more problematic. The punishing routines of the athlete or soldier are seen as constructive because we can clearly understand the end towards which they are directed and can see concretely the positive benefits that accrue. In terms of the religious ascetic, we are less certain about what the goal is and with our lack certainty comes the sensibility that asks, “is such apparently destructive behavior really all that helpful.” The only reading that seems to make sense to us is that the saints are dualists, and their asceticism is the best evidence in this regard.
What has been lost in the association of Christian asceticism with dualism is the necessity and place of the body in terms of the Church’s mission. The body cannot be the enemy in Christian spirituality because of the dense irrefutable fact of the Incarnation of God in Christ, which has as its intended effect the sanctification of our bodies. Christ rises in the flesh and goes out of his way to demonstrate to his followers that his resurrected body is real, an insistence that the Church has always understood as the revelation that the fullest expression of communion with the Lord will be an embodied experience. If Christian asceticism punishes the body, it cannot properly have as its end the body’s destruction. Instead, what it must be about is an ordering of one’s physical desires so that through this discipline one can better accomplish the mission that Christ gives to his faithful. In this view, the apparently destructive practices of asceticism are actually constructive in their ultimate goal as they are meant to build up one’s body for mission by inhibiting those desires that make us unwilling to give ourselves over to the Lord’s purposes.
Might there be other ways by which one could prepare one’s body for mission other than those practices of asceticism commonly associated with the saints? It is in this regard that I would propose that we have some work to do. Most programs of spiritual formation for vocation and mission in the Church involve the mind and the spirit, but in terms of the body it seems we are missing the mark. Not only must one contend with a fear of the flesh as being reduced to an occasion of sin, but also the caricature of concern for physical fitness as evidence of narcissism. Further, many in the Church remain enamored of a therapeutic ethos which has so lionized interiority and a focus on psychological states of mind that the role of the body in regards to not only one’s spiritual but human formation is all but ignored. Another power of resistance to a constructive understanding of the body in Christian spirituality is that the missionary emphasis of the Faith has been overshadowed by an emphasis on administration. Ministry has become a largely sedentary affair of office work and meetings. All this means that if one was to propose that preparation for mission should be characterized with concerted efforts to remain in peak physical condition, one might legitimately be bewildered. Such an expectation just doesn’t seem to fit the current ethos, and we are diminished as a Church as a result.
A new asceticism might recognize that formalized physical training is as integral a component to preparation for mission as theological education, the development of so-called pastoral sensitivity and administrative competence. In fact, we might be surprised at how our capacity for apostolic endeavors increases in relation to improvements in the physical condition of our bodies. What also might increase is the Church’s perception that mission is not just about administration, but dedication to an evangelical witness that pushes us to the limits of our endurance and compels us to contend with the experience of moving beyond one’s perceived limitations. The experience of training for and then accomplishing something like the “300” workout reveals the rapport between the body, mind and spirit that all legitimate forms of asceticism seek to teach us. It also imparts an important lesson in regards to the limits that we impose on ourselves and how to overcome them. As such, I think that the time is right for the Church to discern the answer to the question: what has Sparta to do with Jerusalem?
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.