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Suffering, Group Fitness, and Unity

March 4, 2019


Seeds of the love of God are found everywhere. We encounter him in the most unexpected places. I’ve written previously about the presence of true leisure during a visit to Disney World, and how I found glimpses of him in an episode of The Flashand The Greatest Showman film. And, tonight, I found him in another unexpected place: in a group fitness class.

One of my friends roped me into going. I was late but my friend had set up my area with all the goods (weight plates, bar, some step thing). The class had already begun so I jumped right in to the routine.

People came and went. There were different fitness levels in the room: the guy who clearly is a bodybuilder, the ladies who regularly take this class and it shows, the folks who keep moving when they feel like dying. Everyone was trying to get on the same rhythm, achieve the same level of ease, of difficulty, of resistance. And I was surrounded by so many glimpses of liturgy, spirituality, and evangelization.


The unified movement of the class reminded me of the liturgy of the Mass. Prayers, Mass parts…one voice. We set up our “areas” the same way (cue the sound of the kneelers hitting the ground and the rustling of missals and hymnals opening). We follow instruction. All the while, we are all on different levels. We are all bringing different “weight” with us.

There’s something about moving together that allows our hearts to open up a bit more. Like a concert, when that song that everyone knows comes on, we sway to the same beat and sing the lyrics as loud as possible. When its over, that’s the moment that we remember—when everyone was together as one. That’s how the Lord intends it to be: united community.

There’s also a great lesson in evangelization here. The person leading the fitness class is usually in incredible shape, like they stepped off of a Muscle and Fitness magazine cover just to help you get your heart rate up. Watching their enthusiasm, you have three choices: be indifferent, disdain them, or join them.

Think of St. Padre Pio. He had people that joined him on his pursuit of heaven and many skeptics of his devotion. A select few will really understand your desire for Christian perfection, and at times, an even greater few will sacrificially walk with you through it.

Often the instructor was transformed and encouraged by the very thing they teach. They took the class first, experienced positive change, and decided they could teach it and share the inspiration. Isn’t it the same way with God?

Encountering him changes our lives and inspires us to share the Good News, but the gift of evangelization truly lies in having been evangelized yourself.

Then you have the person who attends. All walks of life are represented, and the reasons for their attendance are vast, but I would conclude that each of them wants to be there. Each of them desires lasting change.

Do our encounters with God often happen when we are fed up and ready to change? We allow a strict focus on what matters most because we’ve realized that nothing matters at all without him.

And the most obvious offering of the group fitness class (CrossFit, Les Mills, etc.) is our desire for communion and the gift it offers to the human heart. I’ve watched the classes dismiss, and no one actually leaves. Groups gather outside the room, and conversations erupt—much of which have nothing to do with the class. They share about their jobs, their families, their faith. It’s incredible. Friendships flourish.

St. Thomas Aquinas wrote in the Summa: “It is reckoned a sign of friendship if people ‘make choice of the same things.’” A class, fitness or not, predisposes the students to commonality, and it makes easier the process of communion.

Lastly, communion properly orders our invitation into suffering by making it not only suffering within but also the suffering without—with the other and for the other.

Even the science behind the physical suffering of “working out” mirrors the suffering of spirit. When you reach the “fight or flight” phase of a workout, it marks the threshold of muscle and stamina breakdown. The muscle is shredded or the stamina is conquered. It’s horrible and painful, but after the pain subsides, the muscle is rebuilt stronger and stamina rises. As goes spiritual suffering.

We desire Christian perfection, but we do not desire the suffering; however, there is no resurrection without the cross. Thus, perfection presupposes error, failure, suffering. After the suffering subsides, the heart is stronger and the spirit higher.

Ultimately, the love of God when well-received doesn’t mean that suffering ends. With the love of God suffering is redemptive, and the most perfect response for suffering is compassion. Compatiis means to “suffer with,” requiring the presence of the other.

Group fitness classes are about much more than getting in shape. We are drawn there because they also answer some of the deepest longings of our hearts: encouragement, hope, communion, and suffering.