Wednesday, December 19, 2012

No Razor Shall Touch His Head

              Today's first reading is a remembrance of the Old Testament tragic hero, Samson. It's interesting that the Church places this birth story during our preparation in the season of Advent. If you have read my book, you would know that Samson is one of my favorite biblical characters as his story teaches us much about the beauty and also the possible downfall of being a bodybuilder. As many might know who Samson ended up becoming, many forget who he was in the beginning of his life.

"The boy grew up and the LORD blessed him;
the Spirit of the LORD stirred him."
- Judges13: 24-25

              Samson was a precursor of the deliverer of God's chosen people. As a warrior, he was unstoppable. His strength was sufficient enough to break the jaw of a lion. Before he truly understood what his mission was to be, he kept this killing of a lion a secret. This alludes to the fact that he began as a humble servant of the Lord, and the Lord smiled upon him with continual inhuman strength. Samson was raised to be a good Jewish man. I am reminded of the story of Superman, coming from a humble home, not knowing his purpose or the reason for his powers, he heeds the call to become something great, something 'super'. Samson, just like Superman, I am sure had times where he wished to just fit in and be one of the normal people, but God had other plans and in order to follow the will of God a man must humbly accept his position, either as leader, father or priest.

              Samson personally took out 1,000 Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey. Needless to say, this Herculean character was blessed in abundance from a God who loved him. Unfortunately, pride got the best of our hero. Samson began to believe that he was the source of his strength and not God. In doing this, God removed his hedge of protection and the enemies of the chosen people were able to take Samson's strength away. Through the sinful acts of lust and pride Samson was no longer the He-man that God created him to be. Samson became the self-absorbed egoist who, though he still claimed to be manly, allowed a women (who was from the race of the enemy) to lead him around as a 'puppy-like' servant. When Samson's eyes veered away from pleasing God, it ultimately led to his destruction.  He was the bodybuilder of the Old Testament, and in saying this his story acts as a reminder to us who love growing in strength that we must never forget where that strength comes from. There is much to learn from Samson and I highly recommend reading the book of Judges to hear the amazing feats of manliness and strength, yet also weakness and concupiscence.

             It is also worthy to note that the Gospel today reflects on the announcement of the conception of John the Baptist. Zechariah, John's father, doubted the abilities of God. His intellectual pride loomed over his punishment of muteness. In both of our biblical instances a neglection of duty and a disbelief in the overarching power of the Creator, caused men to fall and thus are justly punished. Men were created to be great, to be leaders and Samson's story works perfectly for our Advent season, I believe especially for men, to prepare our hearts, to humbly accept the will of the Father, and to embrace the incarnation of Christ as the new Hero of mankind.

Friday, December 14, 2012

St. John of the Cross and Fitness

             What can a saint like John of the Cross teach a bodybuilder? How can we thoroughly apply his teachings to our daily acts of fitness? John of the Cross was a profound thinker, poet and man. His writings have influenced the Church to such a degree that he was deemed Doctor of the Church in 1926. While most of his writings and poetry are focused purely on the state of the soul there is much for an athlete to learn from him. A quote, while rather lengthy, from his prolific work The Ascent of Mt. Carmel, reaches into the soul of what the new Catholic movement in the fitness world is all about. Before I delve into what I mean here, I will let you read it:

"For they think that it suffices to deny themselves worldly things without annihilating and purifying themselves of spiritual attachment. Wherefore it comes to pass that, when there presents itself to them any of this solid and perfect spirituality, consisting in the annihilation of all sweetness in God, in aridity, distaste and trial, which is the true spiritual cross, and the detachment of the spiritual poverty of Christ, they flee from it as from death, and seek only sweetness and delectable communion with God. This is not self-denial and detachment of spirit, but spiritual gluttony. Herein, spiritually, they become enemies of the Cross of Christ; for true spirituality seeks for God’s sake that which is distasteful rather than that which is delectable; and inclines itself rather to suffering than to consolation; and desires to go without all blessings for God’s sake rather than to possess them; and to endure aridity and afflictions rather than to enjoy sweet communications, knowing that this is to follow Christ and to deny oneself, and that the other is perchance to seek oneself in God, which is clean contrary to love."

            Here St. John of the Cross is explaining in explicit detail how a person can create crosses for himself, while good in itself, yet forget to detach himself from the want for spiritual supplication or spiritual attachment. He writes eloquently on that fact that the 'true spiritual cross' of authentic spiritual aridity, a gift from God, is that which truly unites us the the crucified Christ. Seeking only the 'sweetness and delectable communion with God' is, as he says, 'spiritual gluttony'. This applies so perfectly with the new fitness evangelization of today. While many might know that working out and eating right are good in and of themselves, it is not only to bring our bodies to perfection but train our wills to desire suffering and detachment. Though there will always be joy in the act of bodybuilding there must also be a spiritual search for pleasing God. Without this search the act of bodybuilding is only surface deep and thus unacceptable in the path of perfection.

         St. John of the Cross is calling us to a depth which few have tread. A depth of no desire for consolation or feelings of any kind. Almost inviting the 'Dark Night of the Soul' from God in order to love Him ever more. The fitness culture and the individual embracing it can take this ideal and apply it to his time in the weight room. While we voluntarily suffer for the greater mission of saving souls, we can also cry out to God and pray that we do not become selfish in desiring only the emotional comforts from the sweet and delectable fire of Love. We must desire that while always knowing through faith that God loves us, he will give and take those comforts as He pleases. It is in the act of surrendering our wills that we come to fruition in suffering for Christ. While regular workouts, refraining from sweets, eating for function rather than joy, and pushing through hard goals are all noble and sure ways to serve Christ, we must not miss the bigger picture of surrendering our wills, our actions, our very joys and sorrows to the will of God. This passage is not to downplay the salvific acts of mortification, rather it is to keep the soul operative away from the danger of performing those mortifcations solely for the pleasure we receive in the solaces of God.

        The deeper point of lifting weights and exercising is not to only build a fit instrument for the glory of God and to be used by God but instead is to search, without succor or relief, how to best find true union with the crucified Christ. Next time you are lifting, praise God for His goodness and mercy and let Him know that no matter what feelings of reprise or dryness we may feel the mission will continue. Pray for the grace that what we learn in the weight room will teach us to have the grit to move toward the end goal when the going gets tough. It is akin to lifting on a regular basis yet never seeing real progress but knowing that in the end, this dry period of no muscle growth will lead to bigger and better things. St. John of the Cross was a soulbuilder unlike most any other I have ever read. His insightfulness and talent of writing can bring a bodybuilder to the true heart of the fitness movement, that being Christ Himself.

Our Lady of Good Health, Pray for us!

Check out this video of Fr. Robert Barron and Fr. Steve Grunow about St. John of the Cross at his tomb on today's Word of Fire blog:

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Vain Irony

                     I have been a bodybuilder for well over 11 years now. In my time of falling more deeply in love with the whole aspect of muscle growth, the pain, the diet, even writing a book about it, I have come to realize that there is a major sector within our Catholic Faith who still only view this as vanity and nothing less. Viewing the fitness culture from the outside I can rightly agree with said arguments, but knowing what I know and have discovered about the heart and beauty of what the lifestyle offers I must heartily disagree with anyone who claims that vanity is the only outcome. One odd irony is that if I were to ask most individuals if it is vanity for a professional (or high school for that matter) athlete to consistently work on their physiques and to properly order their diets most would answer: Of course not. Yet when a layperson (an athlete not in competition) works hard to bring their physique to its pinnacle it is viewed as either daft or a waste of time. Why is that? Is it because competing athletes have a more tangible purpose for their focus? Or is it because we live in such a competitive culture that we see the end goal of winning worth it all?

                    St. Ignatius of Loyola considered his fellow Jesuits as athletes for Christ. Striving for perfection in themselves in order to effectively spread the Word of God. As human beings we have one purpose in this world: to know, love and serve God. Is it vanity to want to serve him with a well-oiled machine? From the statements of many who believe the fitness and bodybuilding culture are purely vain trappings, it can be deduced that there is a misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the fitness culture. By using the judgments attached to 'muscelheads' one could even go so far as to say that reading a book would be vanity. Both reading and lifting are actions for the betterment of the individual, yet muscle growth is not seen in that light.  In recognizing our physical weaknesses we also recognize our spiritual weaknesses. As long as the focus of the exercising individual is on the Light of Christ and not the limelight of admirers, bodybuilding can give that which the world hates, i.e. self-knowledge and self-control. Two virtues which surely do not bring about vanity but just the opposite, humility. Hard work and dedication to having a body fit for our purpose consistently creates an atmosphere of humility unlike much else.

                    I recently read an article about the link between young men quitting the vice of smoking through the therapeutic nature of exercise. The boys who exercised surpassed all the other groups in improvement. The virtuous nature of lifting weights helped these young men move past their vice. So, is it still vain when the regular use of physical activity can help us grow past our struggles? I think not. Though vanity might be a struggle for many in the mainstream of bodybuilding, this stamp should not be connected with the sport or the culture, but the individuals representing it. What is in crucial need today is men and women of The Church stepping up and becoming that representing individual. This way when those who doubt the virtuous aspect of the fitness culture no longer see the egomaniac but instead the face of Christ Himself. What the fitness culture offers is vast new territories for The Church to evangelize. So, the incorrect notion that it is a lost cause of vanity should be repealed with divine, reckless abandon.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Iron Philosophy: Boldness

              We live in a world where more often than not, people are afraid. Whether it be fear of failure, of standing out, of being truly different or of their own shadows, most men and women today have a very tough time going against the grain of society. While many 'individualists' known for numerous tattoos or piercings claim the title of bold, new or different, they look the same as everyone else trying to be 'individualistc'. True boldness and individuality is not found in embracing or retracting from fear, instead it is found in accepting its presence but not allowing it to take effect. The famous quote of Edmund Burke, the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing, explains the dire necessity of boldness in the face of evil and in times like ours, evils' gristly face is no longer hiding, thus the need for bold men of virtue. Such boldness, such strength of heart, can be discovered and excavated in the gym.

              The gym offers a world where each goal and each repetition is only as good as the exertion of energy of which you put forth. If you don't have a mind ready and willing to push through whatever difficulty you may have, then growth is simply not an option. That ability to regularly challenge yourself and to push past any possible hardships creates boldness. Because if you are in a daily routine of either denying yourself something (sweets) or putting more weight on your back (quite literally), you are training not only your body, but your mind and soul as well to see these as simply part of life. So, daily creating a more and more bold spirit will expunge any fear of standing out. Compared to the fear of not getting back up or possibly dropping weight on yourself, standing in front of others and boldly proclaiming truth will be easier. Holding onto something as small as fear of judging eyes will seem obtuse and unreasonable because the end goal is worth so much more than the shrinking unknown.

            In order to become a successful evangelist, boldness is an indispensable virtue. It takes grit to stand in defiance of spiritual tyranny and secular humanism. Learning and training to fight our own weaknesses, growing authentic spiritual muscles, allows for a man to see things for what they are, obstacles meant to be overcome. The greatest saints in history were BOLD. The New Evangelization is going to take men with enough sand to hold their own in a room of pagans and heretics. The gym is where that sand can be found and grown. In my time as a weightlifter, fear of standing out has slowly dissipated. If you or someone you know is having a hard time being the face of Christ in a broken world, perhaps The Iron is the solution through which the Holy Spirit will work its wonders.