Physical and Spiritual Fitness

With the coming presidential inauguration, there have been newspaper columns, magazine articles and TV specials looking back at the Obama years. Part of this reflection has been not only reflecting on the presidency of Barack Obama but on the influence of First Lady Michelle. She championed several important causes, but the most well-known was her fight against childhood obesity. With all of the lifelong physical ailments related to this epidemic, we may see the benefit of her work for years or even decades to come.

Her message wasn’t unique or revolutionary. It was the standard prescription for healthy eating and sufficient exercise. But her effectiveness was in helping people see these goals as attainable, for them. She made millions of people believe they, too, could make healthy choices.

Just as Michelle Obama has preached about physical fitness, our Orthodox Christian faith emphasizes “spiritual fitness.” The Holy Tradition of the Church tells us that our spiritual fitness works in the same way as our physical fitness: So much is related to what we consume (or take in through any of our senses) and how will we exercise our souls.

I have shared in sermons and writings the uniqueness of Orthodoxy within a fractured and diverse Christianity. One of the most profound (but sadly, unique) qualities of Orthodoxy is the insistence on spiritual fitness. The fancy Greek word is askesis (as-KEY-sis) which simply means “exercise.” It’s where we get the words asceticism (meaning the practice of exercise) or an ascetic (one who exercises).  As those in Charlie Makhoul’s Sunday morning class know from their study of the book “The Way of the Ascetics”, real Christianity is the way of the ascetics: It is a life of exercise. Our prayer (both corporate liturgical worship in Church and our personal prayer at home), our fasting and our works of mercy are all vital components to spiritual health.

Just as with our phmichelleysical health, there are degrees to our spiritual fitness. But also just like with our bodies, if we ignore good spiritual “eating” and don’t exercise, we’re going to be spiritually sick. And without treatment and a return to spiritual fitness, this illness can eventually even become terminal. Sadly, virtually all of Christianity outside of Orthodoxy has removed asceticism from the spiritual life, in contrast to our view, which sees them as one and the same. Even our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, with whom we share so much, find the ascetic life less and less a part of their spirituality. Catholics used to fast virtually the same way Orthodox do, and now their fasting is reduced to abstaining from meat ONLY on the Fridays of Lent and the 30 minutes before Communion. This virtual absence of this ascetic life in Western Christianity is due mostly to their leaders’ underestimation of the ability of their faithful to practice these spiritual disciplines. This is one reason why in the future, I think more and more people will be seeking Orthodoxy, but I’ll leave that to another blog post.

The good news is that just as Michelle Obama made millions think they too could become physically fit, our Orthodox faith tells us the same: We all can live the ascetic life. Sure, there are levels of fitness, and we don’t all need to be “Olympic-level” spiritual athletes. But we can all work towards fitness starting from where we are right now.

In a few weeks, we begin the run-up to Great Lent—a time of focused spiritual training. The message of the Church during this time is the same one that Michelle Obama has been preaching for the last eight years: Fitness is for EVERYONE and that good nutrition and exercise are vital if we want to live and live healthy. But it all begins with believing that we can do it. My last two sermons and my next three will all focus on small changes and habits that will have big effects on our lives. We can all begin with these small choices and gradually add onto them—working towards a spiritually fit lives. Yes, we can!