Charlie's Blog: Exercise as Corporal Mortification


Exercise as Corporal Mortification

The heroic minute. It is the time fixed for getting up. Without hesitation: a supernatural reflection and ... up! The heroic minute: here you have a mortification that strengthens your will and does no harm to your body. If, with God’s help, you conquer yourself, you will be well ahead for the rest of the day. It’s so discouraging to find oneself beaten at the first skirmish.

I am what is known as an "early riser." This is a consequence of having a day job that requires me to be at work at a time when most people are still in the bed. Sleep and I have been on bad terms for a decade, but we make up on weekends, holidays, and days off. I am up at 4 a.m, and I am out the door by 5ish. I like to think I have some kind of discipline, but I am humbled as I drive to work and see people out on the streets wearing their lights and vests as they pound the pavement in devotion to their training. I only have to drag myself out of bed and stumble into work as I quaff coffee to give some kind of jolt to my system. These people are out there punishing their bodies in the dark, the cold, the rain, and what have you. I have to abandon comfort each morning for the sake of my living. These people choose to abandon comfort. They choose to suffer each morning. This begs a question. Why?

Some years ago, I managed to infuriate some people in the pages of this blog. This would be the old blog that now sits in an electronic dustbin, so don't waste your time googling for the article. The blog post was a review about a documentary I watched from Netflix about ultrarunners and the infamous Badwater Ultramarathon where runners complete a 135 mile course in Death Valley in the middle of summer. Temperatures exceed 120 degrees, and the pavement becomes so hot that the runners stay on the white line of the road to keep their shoes from melting. This isn't a race you struggle to win so much as just finish. Once again, people choose to do this. This is not the Bataan Death March. This is a recreational endeavor. Once again, this begs a question. Why?

The ultrarunning crowd was not pleased with my questioning their sanity. They told me in various ways both nice and profane that I just didn't get it. I admit it. I didn't get it. This sort of behavior struck me as being unbalanced especially when some of the risks are kidney failure and death. Yet, people do this. They also do other things like enroll in Navy SEAL training for a weekend or run the Sahara desert over the course of a week. We could offer the possibility that people do these things for fun sort of like surfing, fly fishing, or hunting. But this overlooks the obvious fact that there is no fun in suffering. Pain is always pain. You have to ask yourself one question. Why?

I can venture an answer to the question. It is obvious that these people are not choosing to suffer for the sake of money since they are not getting paid to do it. I can also say that they are not doing it for the sake of health since many of the health benefits of exercise can be had on a much less strenuous regimen. We could say it is pride except you don't actually win anything. I think people willingly endure this pain for a spiritual reason. Most probably don't even realize it. But when you read about Indian ascetics fasting and meditating, ancient Stoics embracing cold statues and sleeping on boards, and nuns and monks wearing hairshirts and using disciplines on their bodies, it is easy to see the connection. These people punish their bodies for the sake of their souls. Modern day exercise makes such odd behavior acceptable in our times.

St. Francis of Assisi referred to his body as "Brother Ass," and he practiced severe corporal mortification in disciplining that stubborn body. Francis fasted, wore rough garments, fasted often, denied himself many physical comforts, and even beat himself with a cord. We can admire this saint's devotion to these mortifications, but if you were to duplicate his example today, they would have you committed to an institution for the insane. Those who follow in the footsteps of St. Francis must do their mortifications in secret. Even Francis lamented that he may have been too severe with Brother Ass and praised restraint in the practice of corporal mortification.

St. Josemaria Escriva also practiced corporal mortification and recommended it for others. But his most basic spiritual direction in this regard is the heroic minute. This is the moment when you wake up in the morning and reach for the snooze button on the alarm clock. This is the first battle of the day, and it is won or lost depending on your decision to hit that button. The reason the heroic minute is so important is because it determines whether you will spend time in prayer or not. It doesn't take long to discover that sleep is the biggest enemy to the disciplined life. It can break your entire day if you let it command you. I take to heart this advice from Escriva since that battle is a daily thing for me. But I also like the rejoinder that "here you have a mortification that strengthens your will and does no harm to your body."

Exercise has this same effect on people. It strengthens the will without harming the body. The problem with old school corporal mortifications is that they do damage to the body. This is why St. Francis of Assisi lamented that he may have been too severe with Brother Ass because his mortifications damaged his health.
The advantage of exercising daily and hitting the gym is that these mortifications exercise the will very effectively, but your body becomes fitter as a result. This is what they call a "win-win" deal. Before you reach for the cilice, try the jump rope and the free weights first.

Some may argue that the severe exercisers are not seeking a spiritual benefit in their trials. I can admit that most gym rats seem motivated more by vanity than spiritual welfare. But those who exercise away from the mirrors seem to take on the character of the God haunted monks of old.

Ultrarunners describe their self-appointed trials in virtually spiritual terms as they descend into an area of internal darkness to come out on the other side. They sound like St. John of the Cross with his dark night of the soul. Many of these people probably have no religion whatsoever, yet they scratch that invisible itch. People desire suffering not because they are masochists but because of what they discover about themselves in those trials. When the body is beaten, the spirit can roam free.

Pain is painful, and you should avoid it if you can. But if you have a soul, pain is something you can't avoid. I used to think that the willing sufferers were stupid, but I was an atheist then. Atheists don't like pain and suffering unless they can brag about it like Nietzsche. Suffering is pointless to the atheist. For the atheist, you should take care of your body until depression or disease force you into the arms of euthanasia. As a believer, I see value in suffering. We are more than just our bodies, and it is in suffering that we learn this most essential lesson. As everyone else reaches for the prescription meds and the Jim Beam, those who embrace the suffering and the darkness find the comfort their souls need.  When we hurt on the outside, it helps us to stop hurting on the inside. What the world sees as agony is really relief. The only real pain is in the soul.