The importance of exercise and being physically fit is something you’re more likely to hear about at the doctor’s office than in church, but Fr. Stephen Gadberry says physical and spiritual well-being are intertwined.
Fr. Gadberry, a pastor at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Batesville, Arkansas, and St. Cecilia’s Catholic Church in Newport, Arkansas, says he’s been blessed with “a double-dose of the Holy Ghost.” Raised on a farm in Arkansas, he learned the value of physical labor and played sports growing up. He served in the U.S. Air Force before entering seminary, and has been doing CrossFit since 2007. He recently shared with us his advice and expertise on how we can make working out a spiritual exercise:
How is our physical and spiritual well-being related?
Fr. Gadberry: Our physical and spiritual well-being are intimately connected. Attention, dedication, and patience are required for fully developing both. The virtues gained in one area of life affect how I live other areas of life. For example, having a disciplined and structured prayer life makes it easier to follow a disciplined and structured exercise program. On the other side of the coin, what I learn about patience, hard work, and focus through exercise helps me to stay focused in daily tasks that are more spiritual, emotional, and psychological.
This is true of our vices, too. If I cannot practice moderation with food, drink, internet, sleep, or other daily actions, I will likely be unable to focus in prayer or persevere in times of spiritual and emotional desolation.
Since ordination to the priesthood, I’ve become more keenly aware of this physio-spiritual relationship. Priesthood is not the most physically taxing vocation; rather, it requires a lot of spiritual, psychological, and emotional energy. After a long day of ministry, I feel a great imbalance of being spiritually spent while still having a fair amount of physical energy. Exercising and expending that physical energy puts me back in balance.
We try to keep our churches beautiful, well-maintained, and conducive to prayer because they are the “house of God.” If the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Cor 6:19), oughtn’t we try to keep it beautiful, well-maintained and conducive to prayer? If my soul is out of order, my body feels the stress. If I am in a poor state exteriorly, I am likely in a poor state interiorly. Soul strong. Body strong.
Do you incorporate prayer into your workouts?
FG: I rarely begin or finish exercise with a formal prayer like an Our Father or Hail Mary. That doesn’t mean I don’t pray, though. Quite the contrary. Many saints have spoken of prayer as being a conversation with God. During my workouts, I am praying almost non-stop, talking with the Lord. I will often recall events from earlier in the day or the days before and talk to Him about those events. I will consider upcoming ministerial events and ask for guidance about those.
I keep a crucifix in my garage gym and often gaze on it during my workouts. It helps me to keep moving and pushing on even when I want to stop. I may not be able to take up an actual cross and follow Christ, but I can surely pick up a barbell and sweat alongside him!
Do you have any tricks for motivating ourselves to exercise?
FG: I like to play games when I exercise. Most often, it concerns the way I count my reps or how I number the workout routine. 3, 7, 10, 12, and 33 are common numbers I use because of their scriptural occurrences. Also, 3 Persons of the Trinity, 7 days of Creation, 7 sacraments, 10 Commandments, 12 apostles, Christ was roughly 33 years old when he died for you and me.
I will also “count” by saying names … so I don’t think about doing something 10 times, instead I will “count” by saying “Father, Son, Spirit, Mary, Joseph” two times. It’s fun, keeps me distracted, and counts as a prayer. Also, I am currently 31 years old. I will do things for 31 reps in gratitude for my life.
Working out can be like suffering sometimes! Do you use that in some way spiritually?
FG: Absolutely. Kneeling down is not the only posture for prayer. Anything can be offered to the Lord as prayer and oblation. When exercising, particularly during a hard day of exercise, I will offer up “the burn,” the pain, and the sweat for individuals and for various petitions and intercessions. Also, I am aware of many people who cannot undertake physical activities for various reason so I’ll exercise for their good and well-being.
In 2012, I tore a ligament and broke a bone in my ankle and busted my eardrum within a two-month period. Not being able to walk or hear properly for a while really affected me. Through those physical setbacks, I found myself at the lowest point of my emotional and spiritual life. The injuries in themselves were indifferent. Through them, though, the Lord taught me a lot about gratitude, joy, and love. The Lord invited me to do a lot of soul-searching in those months. They were brutal, but I had more spiritual and emotional growth then than I ever have.
During that time, I began to notice how others were stewards of their physical well-being. Those who appeared to be “good stewards” gave me great hope, while others who appeared to be “bad stewards” discouraged me. How I live affects others. Christ carried his Cross to Calvary. Although he fell three times, he did not give up and finally reached his goal. Others are watching: What am I doing?
Are there particular saints who exercised or were active that you look up to?
FG: Absolutely! Just as I have countless sport heroes, I have a number of saints and blesseds that I call on: St. Joseph, because he likely lifted heavy stuff while working; Blessed Fr. Stanley Rother, because of his pastoral determination, zeal, and selflessness. Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati and Servant of God Frank Parater, because of their youthful zeal and joy. St. Sebastian, because he is my patron saint from Confirmation as well as the patron of athletes.
Any concluding thoughts?
FG: Please do not underestimate the importance of living a balanced, healthy life. God created us to have happy, holy, healthy lives. We can only be truly happy and joyful if we are truly holy and healthy. The health of our soul is greatly affected by the health of our body and vice-versa. Time spent working on our physical well-being is never wasted time. Intentional discipleship requires attention and dedication. Dropping our nets does not require much physical exertion, but following Christ will take a lot out of you. Our bodies will all pass away, but our souls will live on. The healthier we are, the longer we will likely live. This will give us more time to love and to be the hands and feet of Christ, more time to be his disciples here on earth so that we may be with him for eternity!
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