At sunrise thirty young people ran out into the clearing; they fanned out, their faces turned towards the sun, and began to bend down, to drop to their knees, to bow, to lie flat on their faces, to stretch out their arms, to lift up their hands, and then to drop back down on their knees again. All this lasted for a quarter of an hour.
From a distance you might have thought they were praying.
In this age, no one is surprised if people cherish their bodies patiently and attentively every day of their lives.
But they would be jeered at if they paid the same regard to their souls.
No, these people are not praying. They are doing their morning exercises.
-Alexander Solzhenitsyn, At the Start of the Day, from Stories and Prose Poems, p. 216
I went on a Solzhenitsyn binge a while back. I didn’t write much about it. But tonight, before the kids went to bed, we all huddled up while I read some of his poems (they’re really small meditations on various life events). This one struck me afresh. Perhaps it is because I’ve started a new exercise program. After dropping a bunch of weight a few years ago, I’ve tried to stay in good shape for a while now; but I’ve become rededicated. I find that physical discipline has helped my spiritual discipline tremendously over the years. At least, in my experience, physical discipline sets a rhythm that can be conducive to spiritual discipline. But I’ve always fought to keep priorities straight, keeping in minds the words of the apostle:
For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come (1 Tim. 4:8, KJV).
Solzhenitsyn reminds us just how much exercise can look like worship. He never denies that it is profitable. He only points out the great paradox that people will often admire physical exercise and discipline without giving any thought to spiritual devotion, or even jeering at those who are spiritually disciplined. If someone raise their hands up during yoga class, hooray. But if someone raises them up in worship, not so much. We lack balance.
Are we as active in the spiritual gymnasium of the Means of Grace as we are in the gyms of this world? As we long for a certain body type, a certain physique, a certain look, do we long to be built up spiritually into the image of Christ? If not, when we bow down, and prostrate ourselves, and raise our hands up in exercise, we really are involved in a sort of idolatrous prayer. When we press up heavy weights on the bench press or in the squat rack, we are only living out a strange parable – that the weight will always be there. No spotter can ease our burdens. The burden of the self-worshiper is so great that it will weigh him, and pound him, down to the very depths. As we meticulously plan each meal as though it were a holy sacrament offered up to the god of self, in remembrance of the law of macronutrients, do we remember that man does not live by bread alone? Do we remember that as the body is meant to live on food, so the soul is meant to live on Christ?
For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.
This is not to devalue physical exercise. Rather, it is to value it by putting it in its proper place. As Lewis was fond of saying, if you turn something into a god it will become a demon. Find balance.