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One of the best things you can do for your spiritual health

woman working out outside

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Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 03/12/23

Even St. Ignatius of Loyola believed that treating the body well helps the soul.

I’m on a spiritual quest to increase the number of push-ups I can do. I know, it sounds strange to declare that my middle-aged struggle to be slightly stronger is in any way spiritual endeavor, but in my mind it really is.

When he was young and overzealous, St. Ignatius of Loyola engaged in harsh physical penances. These penances weakened his body and he later regretted what he’d done to himself. In a letter to St. Francis Borgia, he advised him also to cease the destructive penances he was submitting himself to which were harming his body. Ignatius writes, “We should cherish and love the body to the extent that it obeys and helps the soul, and to the extent that the soul, obeyed and helped in this way, is better fitted for the service and praise of our Creator and Lord.” His point is simple, the healthier our bodies are, the more we are able to give to God.

In the Catholic Church, a number of men’s groups that, along with increased prayer and fasting, also layer in exercise and routine workouts for the men, have recently been gaining popularity. To be in these groups, the men must commit to eating healthier and keeping up their training. In this endeavor, they support each other through encouragement and accountability. Many of the men I know who have participated have been pleasantly surprised by the spiritual benefits of being physically healthier.

This is why I always encourage men and women alike who make Lenten resolutions to include exercise. It may not seem like a spiritual goal but, by strengthening the body, exercise also strengthens the soul.

You are that temple

Catholic author Kevin Vost recently wrote a book called You Are That Temple about how spirituality and physical health are connected (full disclosure, Kevin is a friend and I have a short essay in the book about the spirituality of cycling and long-distance running). He quotes St. Thomas Aquinas, who says, “Virtue, inasmuch as it is a suitable disposition of the soul, is like health and beauty, which are suitable dispositions of the body.” What he means is that, if we want to train ourselves in virtue and acquire a habit for the good, we will do so in a similar manner to the way we might train our bodies through exercise.

When I first began long-distance running, every second of it felt like torture. My knees and feet hurt. My whole body was sore. I couldn’t breathe. It was an unpleasant experience. But I kept at it and after a few months my body adapted. Suddenly, I was looking forward to my runs. They were fun. On days when it’s raining or too cold I’m actually disappointed. What changed? Well, my running became a habit. It was no longer a struggle but a joy. It remains a joy to this very day.

From this experience, I learned also how to make progress in the spiritual life. I needed to set modest but clear goals and I needed to stick with them. At first, like running, it’s an uncomfortable process. Everything in us fights against developing a new virtue, simply because we aren’t acclimated to it. The struggle is real, but it’s also temporary. The trick is to push through to the other side because, if you do, your heart will turn toward the good and you will begin to love it.

So often, though, I weary and give up to soon. This is another area where physical exercise is helpful. Not only does it provide a blueprint for how to discipline ourselves spiritually but it also develops the one virtue that is supremely helpful in maintaining that discipline – the virtue of fortitude.

The difference fortitude makes

Vost says that fortitude enhances our ability to stick with difficulties on the path to achieving our goals. The more fortitude we have, the greater our capacity to endure. Even though I love running, there are days out on the pavement that are sweltering hot or my muscles don’t feel so good. There are days I cast around for an excuse to skip my workout. It takes fortitude to overcome my natural laziness. So many times, this virtue has come to my rescue. It overcomes my tendency to apathy, gets me out and started on the workout, and it’s a rare day that I’m not happy after the workout is completed.

If we’re being honest, we have the same hesitancy when it comes to progress in the spiritual life. If trying to develop virtue is similar to a physical workout, there are days we want to skip the workout. There are days we want to give up. This is when fortitude is so helpful. It gets us through those first uncomfortable months until the new discipline becomes easier and then it helps us maintain the new habit when we have moments of weakness.

I can still barely do any push-ups, but I’m giving it my best. The interior development the workout assists with is equally if not more important. The virtue of fortitude, I know, will pay dividends as I tackle interior discipline as well.

Health and WellnessSpirituality
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