Study Notes (13 JAN 2015)
In his introduction to our doctoral cohort, one of the speakers mentioned that many people in America are preoccupied with their bodies more than they are with their souls. The example he gave is of people who religiously go to the gym, spend many more hours working out than they do praying or attending church services, and spend a lot more money on gym memberships than they donate to the church. By these actions, the speaker proposed, they show what their true priorities are. And perhaps, some people truly do devote their lives to worshiping their own flesh by becoming “health nuts”; but it seems that workouts and gym memberships are not the only ways that people reveal their true priorities.
For some reason which I do not understand there is a custom among some Orthodox Christians to look down on people who take care of their health. But the same people do not seem to find it un-Orthodox when someone ruins his or her health. For whatever reason which I also do not understand it is considered perfectly Orthodox to consume large amounts of starchy, greasy, sugary foods–even during Great Lent (dark chocolate is lenten, is it not?). People can spend more money on nutritionally-empty products that ruin their health than they donate to their church and spend more time on the couch than they do in prayer or at church, and somehow no one accuses them of having wrong priorities. Or what about people who buy luxury cars instead of giving more money to their church or helping the poor? Or what about people who buy many more clothes than they actually need? Or what about people whose television sets are the latest and the largest (and the most expensive)? There are so many ways that people waste their time and money instead of praying or feeding the poor or helping the church, that it is rather odd that those trying to stay healthy and take proper care of the body God gave to them are singled-out as having wrong priorities.
When people do not take care of their health or even damage it through their lifestyle choices we do not accuse them of being un-Orthodox. But when people eat healthy foods and go for a jog every morning or workout at the gym we accuse them of loving their flesh too much. Something is wrong with this thinking. It seems to me that it is the people who suffer from gluttony and laziness who are the ones that love their flesh too much. They give in to its desires and pleasures. But healthy eating and exercise take a lot of discipline of the body, denial of the body, willpower to fight against the demands and urges of the body, asceticism, if you will. Everyone who tries to follow a healthy diet will attest to how difficult it is, and how much willpower it takes, and how it is very much like fasting. Everyone who regularly exercises knows how much effort it takes and how much energy it gives in return for being able to pray and attend services. But how much effort or willpower does it takes to eat a donut or to sit on the couch? And what spiritual benefit is gained from being overweight or from owning a large-screen television set?
Of course, the seminary speaker was not talking about people who just eat broccoli or go for a light jog in the morning. Also interestingly enough, the seminary has a very nice gym right on campus, and both of my professors this term regularly go to the gym. But I think that comments like that should be moderated lest these comments are misunderstood by the faithful to mean that exercise is bad and candy bars are good. Perhaps, there can be promoted an understanding that moderation is best in everything–time spent at the gym as well as amounts of cakes or french fries eaten or unnecessary clothing, or gadgets purchased. Balance and moderation may be a much better pastoral approach than the customary pseudo-monastic vilification of those Christians who choose go to the gym or the questioning of their priorities. Otherwise, what is next? Will we proclaim that people should not brush their teeth because that means that they value their flesh too much? And maybe cavities in the teeth should be seen as sent or allowed by God just like obesity, hypertension and diabetes? According to the CDC, adult obesity rate in the U.S. is 34.9% (that is more than one in every three people!). Perhaps, rather than questioning the priorities of those who choose to exercise in order to remain healthy and productive members of the Church, pastors could turn their efforts toward promoting the understanding of the human body as a gift from God to be respected and properly cared for.