Physical play and exercise can help us stay connected to God and the world.
“Why’d you do that?” I asked my wife, Ellie.
In a five-mile race, she’d slowed in the last mile, allowing a friend to beat her to the finish.
“It meant more to her to get there first,” she said.
Ellie’s response brought to mind a saying of Trappist monk Matthew Kelty: “To see God in all things you have only to play . . . with an unselfish heart.”
Wholesome spirituality must include the body to help us move toward a holistic union with God. Physical play, whether running, playing basketball, biking, rock climbing, swimming, or dancing, is tied to the human spirit.
If we put physical play and exercise in a spiritual dimension, it will help us accept absolute concepts—winning and losing, discipline, hard work—and understand life better. It will reveal character and grace, enlist intelligence and challenge, and teach respect for limits and laws. Author and philosopher Albert Camus said, “Sport is where I had my only lessons in ethics.”
Play nourishes the soul, making time wonderfully irrelevant, allowing us to escape from temporal and secular struggles—bills, workplace stress, desecration of the environment, and crime.
Play allows us to escape, reflect, and awaken innocence that often gets lost in becoming adults. It helps us keep our lives from becoming merely about pleasure, power, and wealth. My running is a celebration of body and soul. I run in environments where tall timbers, vast rivers, geese, or the sun dropping like a gold coin bring both physical and spiritual poetry to my surroundings.
Embracing the Journey
The physical-spiritual journey is intentional and purposeful from start to finish. It will not go adrift, subject to the whims of luck or chance. One autumn day long ago, I looked for my name on the locker-room door at my high school. It wasn’t there. I’d failed to make the basketball team.
Father Walter Conway noticed my dejected look when I shuffled into Latin class.
“What’s wrong, son?” he asked.
“I got cut from the basketball team,” I said.
He pulled me aside, saying: “Son, you’re going to have to accept suffering and challenge as part of the search for fulfillment. Accept the suffering, then accept the challenge and pray that God will show you the way to do something that will earn you a spot on the team next year.”
Those words stuck in my psyche like a first kiss sticks to your lips.
I came to a decision: I would fuse the physical and the spiritual. While running four miles a day, I prayed to be as prepared as possible, so that by the following fall, when basketball tryouts came around, I’d be both in superior physical condition and in good shape spiritually. I worked on my ball-handling and shooting as well.
I ran in Fairmount Park, a piece of paradise in the city of Philadelphia. The autumn leaves along the Schuylkill River had turned to carrot orange, saffron gold, and scarlet red. The sun shimmered on the water. The air was crisp as celery. God provided this refuge for me. I even ran in the winter there, when it was so cold that icicles formed on my eyebrows. (I guess that was part of the suffering!)
When springtime arrived, so did blossoming cherry trees, gentle breezes coming off the water, and the rhythmic slicing of scullers’ oars, keeping time with my rhythms of prayer.
Summer came with its intense heat. (Again, the suffering!) But I kept reflecting on my Latin teacher’s words: “Accept suffering and challenge as part of the search for fulfillment.”
In autumn, I once again stood before the locker-room door, reading the names of those who’d made the basketball team. My name was there! I’d arrived at my physical and spiritual destination, and the journey was as important as the arrival.
My physical-spiritual journey continued: I became a starter and exceeded my dreams by earning all-league honors and leading our division in scoring. More important—at least to my pop—basketball led to a college scholarship.
Making a Spiritual Connection
It’s not easy to sit down and write. Or perhaps the sitting down is easy but the writing is hard. I was having trouble coming up with ideas for this essay— writer’s block. I needed to free myself, feel a sense of abandonment, and do something physical to unlock myself mentally.
So I headed for Valley Green, an outdoor monastery that can silence the ticking of the clock and block out the irrelevant things that spin around us. It’s where I came when my parents died, to release my sorrow, talk to them, commune with God, and ask God to brace me for life without them. The solitude and peace I find there is a physical prayer.
This day I wanted to be released from the curse of the blank page. I ran and was able to work out ideas that pounded life into words. I sprinted back to my car, where I keep a pad and pen for just such revelations, and scrawled down my ideas.
Know this: physical exercise is not simply an investment in one’s health. Sure, it enriches muscle strength, bone density, and brain stimulus—those parts of the body that steadily tend to decline as we age. But also know this: physical play and exercise can help us stay connected to God and the world. This can lead to a physical and spiritual ripening rather than a rotting.
What Murray Bodo, OFM, wrote in Surrounded by Love: Seven Teachings of Saint Francis rings true: “I am a whole person, and until I love my body as much as my soul, I will not be a truly complete human being.”