Physical Activity: An Aid to the Spiritual Journey
Louise McEwan, BA, BTh
Statement of Original Unpublished Work: By submitting this document to the Editor in Chief of CJSCF, I am making a Statement of Original Unpublished Work not submitted to another journal for publication.
In a competitive culture, physical activity can become overly focused on results. Frequently, the enjoyment of movement, which first manifests itself as play, morphs into sport and competition. But physical activity has another side. It can be an avenue for nurturing spirituality and a place of encounter with God. Both scripture and human experience support the role of physical activity in the quest to become a more mature, faith-filled individual.
A Definition of Spirituality
For the purposes of this discussion, a definition of spirituality is as follows. Spirituality is a receptiveness to the Holy Spirit at work in one’s life and the world. It involves an awareness of the transcendence and immanence of God. The spiritual journey is a quest to understand and deepen one’s relationship to the divine, to others, and to the world.
Wired to Move
The individual first experiences physical activity as movement within the womb. This movement includes small motions, such as swallowing and moving the eyes, to larger motions, such as vigorous kicking. After birth, the innate desire for physical activity manifests itself in the progression of basic gross motor skills, such as sitting, standing, crawling and walking. Young children experience physical activity in the form of exploration and play. Over time, exploration and play become more structured, and give rise to different dimensions of physical activity.
Physical Activity: A Good Gift from the Creator
The human person is made in the divine image. The human inclination to move reflects the creative energy of God. The opening chapters of the Book of Genesis describe the birth of creation. God speaks the cosmos and every living thing into being. “God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light” (Gn 1:3 NAB). This pattern repeats; God speaks and “so it happened”. Yet, the scriptures also describe God as making the dome of the sky, separating the waters, making and setting the sun and moon in place, making the great sea monsters, the animals, and last of all, man.
While one might envision God sitting passively, talking creation into existence like an armchair athlete coaching from the sideline, the work of creation entails an output of energy. The scriptures emphasize that God worked.
Thus the heavens and the earth and all their array were completed. Since on the seventh day God was finished with the work he had been doing, he rested on the seventh day from all the work he had undertaken. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work he had done in creation. (Gn 2:1-3)
The second account of creation portrays God as physically shaping man and then planting a garden. “The Lord God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being” (Gn 2:7). One might imagine God digging the clay, shaping it and bending over the lifeless mass; with an expenditure of breath, God gives the lump life. God takes the man and settles him in the garden of Eden, “to cultivate and care for it” (Gn 2:15). To use an athletic metaphor, God readies creation, sets the mark, and shoots the gun. It is as if God says to the man, “Go, be fruitful, and share my love with the world.”
In the Heart of God
I can think of no better example of the delight and joy to be found in physical activity than that observed in small children. I frequently pick up my five-year old granddaughter from school; one day, as we were walking along chatting, she asked me where her new baby cousin was before she was born. In an inspired moment, I replied, “She was in the heart of God.” With a jump in her step and a lilt in her voice, she responded with all certainty, “I’m in the heart of God.” She then grabbed my hand and began skipping with abandon, pulling me along.
Through her physical movements, she was expressing a joyful awareness of the transcendence and immanence of God. In grabbing my hand, she was sharing her insight that God was both beyond and within us. With the innate wisdom and innocence of childhood, she had intuitively connected physical activity, delight, and relationship with the presence of God.
My granddaughter is still “trailing clouds of glory … from God who is our home”, as William Wordsworth (1973) wrote of the natural inclination of children to recognize the sacredness in human existence and creation. For those of us who shook off those clouds of glory long ago, it may be more challenging to recognize the sacred intent behind physical activity.
Glorify God with Your Body
Frequently, physical activity is associated with results. Whether from the perspective of organized and competitive sport, or from an individual focus on fitness, most physical activity outside of childhood is purpose-driven and results-oriented. We play to win. We work out to achieve or maintain a healthy body weight. We exercise to feel good about our self. However, the lens of faith may help us re-orient some of our attitudes about physical activity.
Created in the image and likeness of God, the human person is a divine masterpiece, and enjoys an unparalleled dignity within creation. The psalmist sings of humankind, “Yet, you have made them little less than a god/ crowned them with glory and honour” (Psalm 8:6). The human person expresses this unique relationship to God through both body and spirit. Therefore, the spiritual life of the individual cannot be isolated from the physical body. Too much emphasis on the physical side of being human may endanger spiritual growth. Conversely, severe asceticism may harm the living, clay vessel that God lovingly breathed into existence.
In First Timothy 4, Paul warned against false asceticism. Although he specifically refers to deviations from the Christian message that prohibited marriage and required abstinence from certain foods (4:3), Paul also mentioned physical training.
Train yourselves for devotion, for while physical training is of limited value, devotion is valuable in every respect, since it holds a promise of life both for the present and the future (4:7,8).
Paul may be addressing an issue of strict asceticism of the body. Or, he may be using an athletic metaphor to drive home his message, as he does elsewhere.
In First Corinthians 9, for example, Paul used an athletic metaphor in defense of his rights as an apostle. Paul wrote,
Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. (9:24, 25)
On the surface, Paul appears to hold physical activity of little account. However, Paul’s theology is always concerned with the interface between faith and daily life. For Paul, the death and resurrection of Jesus had made all things new. The Christian was a new creation in Christ, whom Paul urged to live a life worthy of Christ. So, while Paul recognized the mortal nature and the limitations of the body, he also acknowledged the body as the dwelling place of the Spirit;
Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God and that you are not your own? For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore, glorify God with your body. (1 Cor. 6:19, 20)
The human person embodies the spirit of divinity. This spirit is a gift from God given at the time of creation. In the beginning, the man and woman walked in harmony with God in the coolness of the garden (Gn. 3.8). From the beginning, the human person was wired to walk with God, to move towards holiness. Thus, physical activity has a role in sanctification, in achieving the ‘imperishable crown’ to which Paul referred. Physical activity can be thought of as a spiritual practice. Spiritual practices render us more open and responsive to dynamic activities of grace, and move us towards greater spiritual maturity (Griffith 2009).
The Road to Emmaus
“The Road to Emmaus” (Lk 24:13-26) provides a starting point for understanding the role of physical activity in spiritual formation. In the passage, two disciples are walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, a distance of about seven miles. Along the way they encounter a stranger, the risen Jesus whom they do not recognize. The pair are struggling to make sense of Jesus’ crucifixion and death, and their own dashed hopes. The stranger elucidates the meaning of the scriptures as they relate to the Christ. When they arrive at their destination, they invite the stranger to dine, and in the breaking of bread they recognize Jesus. Once again, the pair set out walking; they return to Jerusalem to share their experience.
While there are multivalent levels to the passage, the point for us is that the physical act of walking is integral to the disciples’ spiritual development. Along the road, they experience the transcendence of God in the wisdom of Jesus. As they walk with Jesus, their hearts ‘burn within’; they also experience God dwelling in and among them. Enlightened with deeper understanding, they are able to go forth. In Christianity, as in other spiritual traditions, walking is often a feature of the spiritual journey.
Lessons from the Walking Monk
A few years ago, I had a chance encounter with a Krishna monk who was on his fourth walk across Canada. It was early one spring morning. My daughter and I were out for a run when we passed Bhaktimarga Swami (2014) walking along a back road, his orange robe flowing in the early morning breeze. Not wanting to break our stride and spoil our pace, we said “Hello”, but did not stop. Towards the end of the run, we crossed paths a second time with the ‘walking monk’, as he is known. He stopped us for directions, and we learned that he was walking across the country. A few weeks later, I interviewed Swami for a column I was writing.
For Swami (2014), walking is very much an essential component of spiritual maturation. At the core of the self,
… there is a passion to move about and pick up on all the little nuances the world has to offer. Walking brings about a lot of revelation and epiphany about the self and one’s place in the universe. You learn not to be so passionate about results. (Swami 2014)
As the disciples on the road to Emmaus had the presence of God with them in the stranger, Swami (2014) has the presence of the divine with him as he walks in the chanting of the mantra. The mantra frees the mind from focusing on “the acquisitions you’re trying to achieve”, and the tendency to wander in the past and the future. “The Absolute or the Divine is there with you in their sound … The mantra keeps the spiritual in your midst” (Swami 2014).
My own experience of walking jives with the lessons from the road to Emmaus and those of the walking monk. I have found walking helpful in keeping me grounded in the present moment, enlightening my understanding, and nurturing my spirituality.
The story of creation as recounted in the Book of Genesis demonstrates that physical activity is part of God’s plan for human thriving. The human person is naturally inclined towards movement, and initially intuits the unity of physical activity and spirituality, of body, mind, and spirit. Over time, we may lose this awareness as physical activity becomes more results-oriented.
A shift in thinking may help to recover the sacred intent inherent in physical activity. When viewed from a faith perspective, rather than as a means to an end, physical activity can become a spiritual exercise. It can move the individual towards greater spiritual maturity. As an aid to spiritual growth, physical activity, such as walking, can help us enter more profoundly into the heart of God who asks us to go skipping forth with joy and love.
Griffith, Colleen M. 2009. “Catholic Spirituality in Practice” C21 Resources. Spring: 1-2. Retrieved from https://www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/top/church21/pdf/Spring_2009.pdf (February 2, 2019)
Swami, Bhaktimarga. 2014. From interview transcript of Louise McEwan. Trail, B.C. (September 04, 2014).
Wordsworth, William. 1973. “Ode: Intimations of Immortality.” In Major British Poets of the Romantic Period, edited by William Heath, 257-259. New York; Macmillan Publishing Company.
Author Bio: Louise McEwan (BA, BTh) is a former elementary school teacher and catechist. She has a Bachelor of Arts (English Literature) from the University of British Columbia and a Bachelor of Theology from Newman Theological College, Edmonton, Alberta. Louise was a freelance religion columnist for ten years, writing for secular media on a broad range of topics from a faith-based perspective. Although retired, she continues to contribute opinion pieces on an occasional basis. Louise lives in Trail, B.C. with her husband, Chris. She is a mother of three, and grandmother of seven.