Maxim #22 of Father Thomas Hopko’s 55 Maxims for Christian Living brings us another topic that perhaps seems out of place in a discussion of Christian living: “Exercise Regularly.” But to demonstrate that assuming our incorrect thinking based on a false dichotomy of body and soul, we have a reflection of a fairly contemporary saint, speaking on the topic of athletics and physical exercise. St. Nektarios served in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and brings timeless, saintly wisdom to a seemingly modern topic.
The View of Saint Nektarios on Exercise and Fitness Clubs
by John Sanidopoulos
Saint Nektarios, Bishop of Pentapolis, in the year 1901 was situated in Athens, and he produced and published a text called On Exercise. This period is important, because as is known a few years prior, in 1896, the Olympic Games were held in Athens, and as might be expected it had cultivated a spirit of euphoria around athletics and many fitness clubs were founded for this purpose. Therefore, it is interesting to see the perspective of a Saint, the great Saint of our day, regarding this subject. In this way we will have a criterion by which to judge contemporary events in regards to athleticism and the Olympic Games. This text was republished by Metropolitan Makarios of Kenya and Eirenoupolis in his book Historical Annals of the Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa, Volume I, Nicosia 2002.
At the beginning of the text Saint Nektarios presents the words of Aristotle, who says: “For both excessive and insufficient exercise destroy one’s strength, and both eating and drinking too much or too little destroy health, whereas the right quantity produces, increases or preserves it.” By this Aristotelian dictum it becomes obvious that Saint Nektarios is in favor of balance, because every extreme creates problems in the soul of man, while the middle way is that which saves temperance. This, of course, as we shall see below, means that Saint Nektarios accepts exercise and the athleticism of the body, provided on the condition that it is balanced.
Saint Nektarios begins his analysis of the subject on the basis of this Aristotelian passage, which he calls a “wise saying,” considering measured physical exercise to be considered by all as the true character of every perfect education. He writes: “Measured physical exercise has been considered by all for centuries in every civilized nation as a necessary undertaking and integral to follow, and a companion of every free and well-behaved citizen, and the true character of perfect education.”
He then proceeds to substantiate this view, with the important argument that there is a close association between the soul and the body and therefore an interaction between these two aspects of man. Everything that happens to the human body responds to the one person, and the same thing happens with the mental world of man. When the body suffers, man says “I’m suffering”. The same, of course, is with the passions of the soul “of the one person.” Thus, both aspects get sick and both are healthy in the interaction of one with the other. So “man must think ahead for the aid of both.” The conclusion to this point, according to Saint Nektarios, is that “the exercise and fitness of the body and spirit, as everyone knows, have the same inherent duties, levied under the same nature and destination, because the body serves the soul willingly and tirelessly, and the soul, having developed its own powers, tempers and heals the bodily powers in a temperate manner.” According to Saint Nektarios, not only does the mental health of a person help the body, but the bodily health of a person helps in the health of the soul.
After this general observation, Saint Nektarios proceeds to highlight the truth that the development of both, the soul and the body, requires great care and provision so as not to bring a person to extremes. Indeed, the provision and exercise of the body must be reasonable, because excessive exercise of the body wears out the soul. In general, “the extreme to this provision will be towards the negligence of the other.” He particularly insists on the damage caused by excessive exercise of the human body. Such excessive exercise damages the soul in two ways. The first is the indirect damage to the soul with sickness, and the second takes place with the excessive strength of the body, because excessive strength of the body “is unbearable and unfitting as well as insubordinate and insolent and encourages the soul towards disobedience.” And because in this instance the soul is not exercised in parallel it has thus become ill, which is why such excessive exercise and athletics of the body provides “the audacity for it to rebel against the spirit and seek to subdue it and place it under its rule.”
These views lead Saint Nektarios to accurately record what ultimately is the purpose of fitness, or of bodily exercise. His words are clear. He writes: “Wherefore by fitness achievable athletic vigor is not sought, nor indomitable and untamable muscle strength, but the strengthening of physical power towards the ready satisfaction of the demands of the spirit and the fulfillment of its prescribed tasks; for the intended purpose of exercise is not to promote the athleticism of the sportsman, but men perfectly formed, capable of all endeavors; which is why exercise makes one most ready for the games and industrious through appropriate pains. Thus the middle path of exercise is to preserve prudence, namely the harmonious growth of the powers of the soul and body, as well as sovereignty over the body, in order to be ready to fulfill the journeys.”