Four Reasons Exercise Is Important For Christians

If you like to run or work out . . . 

If you're on a sports team . . . 

Or if you've ever struggled with body image, like me . . .

. . . You might be interested to know what the Church has to say about exercise. 

A lot of fitness gurus talk about exercising for a "bikini body" or to get six-pack abs. Somewhere along the way, I decided that wasn't motivation enough for me. There had to be a better reason to exercise. And, after all, the Church teaches that the body is a good thing. 

The human body shares in the dignity of ‘the image of God’: it is a human body precisely because it is animated by a spiritual soul, and it is the whole human person that is intended to become, in the body of Christ, a temple of the Spirit.” (CCC 364)
I was so interested to know what the Church teaches about exercise that I actually wrote my senior thesis on the topic. Here are some of the benefits to exercise I found from a Christian perspective:

1) Exercise helps you grow in discipline—an essential part of the Christian life.

In his letters to the early Christians, St. Paul often compares the self-control required for Christians to athletic training. It's no coincidence—both athletes and Christians have to be extremely disciplined. If I want to be a great athlete, I have to train every day. If I want to have a vibrant prayer life, I have to pray every day.

“Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” (1 Cor. 9:25-27)

Exercise and prayer both require constant discipline, which can be painful at times (early morning workouts, for instance, or finding a Mass to attend while traveling), but both are extremely beneficial for body and soul in the long run. In both, perseverance is key.

2) Community naturally comes from exercising with others.

There sometimes comes a point during a workout when you've pushed yourself so far that your inhibitions vanish. You're dripping sweat, panting, and suddenly you don't care anymore what the person next to you thinks about you. 

Exercise breaks down barriers. You have to be authentic in some manner when you are pushing your physical body to its limits. And when you experience others at their weakest points, you naturally create camaraderie with them.

Any runner who has participated in a marathon naturally feels camaraderie with other marathoners. When I'm hiking up a particularly difficult slope, I often end up talking to strangers who are climbing alongside me, simply because we understand each other at that moment.

Which leads me into number three...

3) Group exercise and sports can help Christians lead others to Christ.

St. John Paul II spoke of the “universal language” of sporting which brings people of all nations and backgrounds together. He believed that the vast reaches of the sporting world, and its educational value, offered an ideal platform for Christian evangelization.

Even athletes not on a sports team can encounter the phenomenon of community simply because they share similar experiences, like I mentioned above. And because exercise breaks down barriers, it naturally creates a space for evangelization.

John Paul II knew of the community that exercise fosters. He would often lead groups of young people on hiking and kayaking trips, then listen to their struggles and preach the Gospel to them. He brought countless souls to Christ in that way.

4) Exercise can be a prayer.

I've met several priests and religious sisters who offer up their workouts for specific intentions—like struggling or ill friends and family members. I have friends who pray the Rosary or listen to prayers while running. I find it helpful to keep a certain person in mind and offer my workout for the day as a prayer for him or her. That way, when the workout gets tough, I have a purpose to finishing it beyond myself, a small sacrificial offering. 

“Athletic activity can help every man and woman to recall that moment when God the Creator gave origin to the human person, the masterpiece of his creative work." —Pope St. John Paul II

What would you add to this list?

Until death do us part

My head whipped back and forth as I found a rare gap in the rush-hour traffic barreling down the road. I ran across the street and rushed inside the church, forgetting to catch the door closing loudly behind me. My fingers hastily swiped at the holy water font. I made the Sign of the Cross in one short, fluid movement. I threw myself on to a single-person kneeler, my forearms sticky on the back of the chair in front of me. 

I hadn't come to the church to pray. In the shuffle of cars that comes with having five drivers and not as many vehicles in the family, I was plunked there to wait for my ride. But there I was at my parish, in an unwarranted rush to the tiny chapel at the back of the church building, staring up at the golden tabernacle crowed by St. Faustina's Divine Mercy image. 

I silently launched myself into my usual pre-prayer routine of inadvertently thinking of all the incomplete tasks on my to-do list and simultaneously trying to catch my breath from my always-hurried entrance. 

As I tried to enter into a prayerful state, I became easily distracted. A window's reflection afforded me the view of a uniquely captivating scene. 

Behind me, a stooped old woman mightily traversed the church, struggling to push a walker that seemed nearly her height. Her feathery white hair framed droopy eyes, and her pleated pants, patterned with delicate white flowers, looked small enough to fit a child. 

She approached the tabernacle deliberately.

In between distracted prayers, I had been stealing glances at her out of my peripheral vision, but as she advanced closer I abandoned attempts to pray. I watched, enthralled, as she shakily parked her walker and grasped a chair. She lowered herself carefully onto the kneeler directly beneath the tabernacle. 

And there she remained. 

I knelt there in stunned silence. This woman was my opposite. She was a perfectly purposeful foil to abrupt, rash little me. Yet what struck me most was not her patience, prayerfulness, or contrast to me, but her steadfastness in the face of illness and old age. I was merely passing through this church, completely able to walk and kneel without difficulty or pain. She seemed almost a permanent fixture once she settled. Jesus and she were old friends.

I've seen this scene play out in dozens of churches, in many states and countries. The old woman might have been my one-time confessor whose heart stopped twice--whose multiple medical deaths did not prevent him from returning to minister the sacraments to the Church's faithful. 

She might have been the ancient man with huge, fuzzy white eyebrows who never misses a daily Mass at my parish. 

She might have been my grandmother, praying Rosary after Rosary to fill her days because she has the Christian hope and patience of St. Monica

She might have been the faithful deacon at my parish who never left the church after his retirement from work and his deacon's duties, who performed as an altar server nearly until his death at 95 just a few months ago. 

All these faithful and many more bind together the Body of Christ. They are the ones who, like St. Monica, pray for years for the conversion of hearts. They have been through years of heartache and turmoil. They have asked God "Why?" time and time again. They have encountered countless seemingly-unanswered prayers. They have seen children and grandchildren grow up and move out and move on from a faith that appears to them as antiquated as their parents and grandparents. 

They have used crutches, canes, walkers, and wheelchairs as their slow-moving vehicles of transportation to the Eucharistic table. 

Younger ones, like me, will flit and waver in faith. For all but a blessed few, it will take years until we find ourselves rooted in Christ and strengthened by the faith (Col. 2:6-7). We rely on the prayers and sacrifices the more seasoned faithful offer for us. 

Their sacrifice of love sustains us. 

Their example inspires us. 
"I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you all the days of my life." -Catholic Rite of Marriage

I'll Never Be Saint Monica

I have a problem with persistent prayer. 

I don't mean constant prayer, or even making time for prayer, although I find both of those difficult. I mean perseverance in prayer. Despite turmoil and distraction, despite droves of prayer requests and passing time, I want to be persistent in asking the Lord to move hearts. 

Most long-term illnesses are not suddenly relieved by some miracle. Financial struggles rarely end in a windfall. People do not convert to Catholicism overnight. Few make complete turnovers when they do convert or come home to the Church. For most of us, it is a daily struggle to pursue the way of the Lord amidst trial. As Catholic author Colleen Carroll Campbell wrote in her novel My Sisters the Saints: 
"The waiting is the cross."

Fortunately, the saints in Heaven have already run the race, to borrow the words of St. Paul. One particular saint heroically endured years of seemingly unanswered prayers before calmly and graciously receiving immeasurable blessings from God. She inspires me to grow in sanctity myself by praying for others. 

That heroic woman is St. Monica, mother of St. Augustine (and patron saint of patience). 

St. Augustine, now a giant among saints and a Doctor of the Church, once led a life of sin and heresy. For years, he traveled around northern Africa and southern Europe partying, pursuing worldly ambitions, studying, actively promoting heretical beliefs, and eventually converting to Christianity and becoming a priest, then bishop. 

St. Monica prayed vigilantly during the many years that her son was gallivanting around the Mediterranean. She even followed her son during his travels and advocated on his behalf. How was she able to trust wholeheartedly in the Lord while watching her son stray farther and farther from the Church?

She was confident in the Lord. She never despaired. She knew that God would prevail in her son's heart. After sharing with her that he had turned from the Manichean heresy, St. Augustine said of Monica's disposition that 
"[h]er heart was not shaken with some tumultuous exultation when she heard that what she had sought of the Lord daily with so many tears was in so great a part already accomplished...she was confident that you [God], who had promised the whole, would one day give the rest, she replied to me most calmly and with a heart full of faith, that she believed in Christ that before she departed this life she would see me a Catholic believer." 
And she did. 

She sought help from other Christians. St. Ambrose, for one. Monica knew she couldn't do this alone. A mother grieving for her son's eternal soul, Monica wept "copious tears," according to Augustine. It was for this reason that St. Ambrose spoke to her his iconic words: 
"The child of those tears shall never perish." 
She kept her request at the forefront of her mind. She was physically close to her son during his trials and struggles to embrace the faith. Augustine wrote of this time in his Confessions, addressed to the Lord: 
"I sought you outside myself and did not find the God of my heart. I had come into the depths of the sea, and distrusted and despaired of ever discovering the truth. By this time my mother had come to me, strengthened by her piety, following me over sea and land, and trusting you through all danger."
In her lifetime, Monica saw her son through a hundred evils before she saw him turn from them to sacrifice his life in priestly service. Shortly after Augustine's conversion and baptism, she said to him: "Son, nothing in this world now affords me delight. I do not know what there is now left for me to do or why I am still here, all my hopes in this world being now fulfilled." 

I draw strength from St. Monica, whose infinite patience and hope came to fruition in St. Augustine's conversion and priesthood. Someday she and I will be great friends. I encourage anyone struggling with a long-term trial, especially the lack of faith in family members, to ask St. Monica for her intercession. 

And, as always, ask for the Blessed Virgin Mary's intercession. She, another model of hope, trust, and patience, awaits the pleas of her children. Unite yourself to Mary, from whom "we learn to trust even when all hope seems gone," says St. John Paul II. 


Waiting on a Voice

Though I've heard and read dozens of so-called "vocation stories" wherein religious and priests relate how they came to realize their vocation, I cling to one such story of a religious sister in particular. We'll call her Sister Rose. 

Sister Rose was blessed to attend World Youth Day in Madrid. She traveled across the ocean with a group of pilgrims from her parish to attend this gathering. Several days of festivities and prayer followed. At the heart of the city, thousands jostled each other as they moved in great herds toward an event one day. Sister Rose kept in pace with her group, though it was sometimes difficult to stay together because of the chaos. Suddenly, from the vast crowd came a solitary yell, barreling over the heads of thousands of pilgrims:

"Where's Rose?"

Once more, the disembodied voice called to Sister:

"Where's Rose?"

Rose whipped around, shocked that someone could be calling to her in this foreign city amongst the crowds. It turned out that a religious sister from home recognized Rose's parish group halfway across the world. But the sister did not see Rose amongst the crowd, and so called out to her. Rose remembers this as a turning point in recognizing God's call in her life. That single voice called her, only her, from among thousands of people. Rose saw that moment as God calling her by name to the religious life. Obviously, her vocational discernment was not quite so simple, but this incident was pivotal in her story. 

When I heard Sister Rose tell her story, I was moved deep within. I had an intense desire to be called by God by name, just as Sister Rose had been called years ago. I waited for the day when God would call to me so clearly. I envisioned an instant vocational clarity. I sincerely believed God had to call me by name, His voice cutting through the crowd to choose me and me alone. I would hear His mighty voice despite all the chaos around me. I would answer His loving call. 

That hasn't happened yet. 

That's not to say God won't call me by name. He has already done so; He is calling to me and me alone. I think of the woman in the Bible who touched Jesus' cloak in faith so that she might be healed (Mark 5:30). He knew her; he felt her touch despite the crowd pressing in around him. He knows everything about us, even that which we do not know ourselves. And therein lies a key human desire: to be known. 

I want to be known and called by name. I want to be known through and through, to be turned inside out and upside down and to have someone anticipate my every need, want, and sway of the heart. I want someone to discover the mystery of me. This is a natural desire that can only be fulfilled by His Love. We are all, after all, made in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26), and our Trinitarian God is an infinite mystery waiting for us to discover Him. 

However, I and others often mistakenly expect those around us to know us in a way that only He does. I find myself annoyed when my friends or family members struggle to remember that my favorite color is green or that I value alone time after a tiring day. It is unfair of me to hold my friends and family to such unrealistic standards. 

If God calls me to the vocation of marriage, even my husband will never be able to anticipate my every desire, thought, reaction, or sorrow. Only the Lord will ever know everything about me! And what a comfort that is; surely, no man can do such a thing, and it is foolish for me to think he could. Yet I do, because I entertain a heavenly desire while on Earth. 

Sister Rose heard God calling her name in a tangible way, on the streets of Madrid so far from home. God may not call us by the same means, but He wants us to delight in Him just as He delights in us. He calls us all by name to Him, even if I do not hear "Where's Rebecca?" in some foreign country halfway across the world. He calls me right here in Steubenville, or wherever I am. He knows me and loves me, and He does the same for you. 

But now, thus says the Lord,    who created you, Jacob, and formed you, Israel:Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;    I have called you by name: you are mine. (Is. 43:1) 

Let Me Go Back to Bed, Lord: Reflections on Today's Readings

I was struck by the readings at Mass this morning. If you have not had a chance to read them or hear them at Mass, you can find them here; I will be pulling excerpts below. 

In the first reading, we hear of the calling of Samuel. Samuel is studying under Eli, who has grown old and whose "eyes had lately grown so weak that he could not see." Thrice in one night, the Lord calls to Samuel. However, Samuel, being unfamiliar with the Lord, and living in a time when "a revelation of the LORD was uncommon and vision infrequent," thinks that the one calling to him is Eli. Three times, Samuel rises from his bed and answers at his name. 

Then, we hear the Gospel. Jesus cures Simon's mother-in-law; that evening, the disciples bring "the whole town" to the home of Simon and Andrew so that Jesus can cure their sick. The next morning, Jesus wakes to pray:
Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed. Simon and those who were with him pursued him and on finding him said, “Everyone is looking for you.”
Jesus' prayer is cut short by his persistent followers. The disciples spent the previous night bringing dozens of sick and possessed to Jesus for healing; Jesus likely had little sleep between the healings and "rising very early"; Jesus intentionally goes off to a deserted place to be away from everyone. Jesus is probably exhausted and in need of some private time. But here are his disciples, urging him on. Jesus could tell them to go away, but instead he recognizes that he needs to do the Father's will and, at this point, His will is that Jesus evangelize the surrounding towns. So Jesus does. 

I understand that Jesus is Lord, but he is also human, and humans become tired. In the first reading, Samuel awakes three times at his name. How do we feel after a night of restless sleep? Or, as in the Gospel, a night of little sleep? Certainly not refreshed and prepared to do the Lord's will! Both of these readings sing to me, a tired soul. The Christian life can be downright tiring. To do God's will is rarely the easiest path. This morning, as I dressed for a busy day of preparing for my return to school, I listened to the song Worn by Tenth Avenue North, which speaks of tired and heavy hearts:
My prayers are wearing thin/Yeah, I’m worn/Even before the day begins/Yeah, I’m worn/I’ve lost my will to fight/I’m worn/So, heaven come and flood my eyes  
The most important part of this song is not the lament of exhaustion, but rather the decision to look to Heaven in our tiredness. Samuel is shaken from sleep by Heaven's call; Jesus must relinquish his precious alone time, prayer time, to do his Father's will. I have a lot to learn from these two readings. I am tired, but I must find rest in the Lord. 

Worn // Tenth Avenue North

Prayer Is a Battle

For years, my parents had this worksheet from my younger sister's religious education class hanging in the house's upstairs hallway:

Growing up, this little poster reminded me that living a Catholic life meant "praying without ceasing" (1 Thess. 5:17). As I grew older, however, I found it more difficult to do just that. Surely the Christian life is not meant to be easy, but to pray constantly often seems inconvenient or even impossible. 

Why do we receive this impression of prayer? 

Because prayer is a battle. I did not make that up; that's an exact quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Take a look:
The great figures of prayer of the Old Covenant before Christ, as well as the Mother of God, the saints, and he himself, all teach us this: prayer is a battle. Against whom? Against ourselves and against the wiles of the tempter who does all he can to turn man away from prayer, away from union with God. (CCC 2725)
I've alluded to the battle of prayer in several earlier posts (like this one). Now, I would like to share with you some practical strategies for keeping prayer a priority. Obviously, most of us pray at "chrich" and maybe even "befor" we eat. But how often do we pray "in the car" or "at the movies"? Do we make prayer a priority in our lives, or do we feel as though we don't have time to pray? Here are some ways I set aside time for personal prayer even when I'm swamped with responsibility:

Pray in the car or on your way to class. When I'm home for breaks from school, it's difficult to have a quiet space to myself. I take advantage of those quiet times I have while driving alone. Sometimes I'd prefer to listen to the radio, but I have to remind myself that prayer takes precedence and that these few minutes in the car might be the only quiet time I have that day. When I'm at school, I might pray while walking to class (although I must admit that I don't do this as often as I should). As I drive/walk somewhere, I'm preparing for the next event of my day. What better way to begin than in prayer? Even a few minutes of prayer can change my disposition for the day.

Pray in the shower. This one might seem strange, but we all need to shower! Instead of letting your thoughts wander or singing at the top of your lungs, use that time to pray. (Of course, don't forget that St. Augustine said: "He who sings prays twice.") Once, a priest suggested that I pray every time I go to the bathroom. After I got over the initial shock that an elderly male had acknowledged my restroom habits, I decided his idea wasn't half-bad. Whether it's showering or brushing your teeth, we all need to complete certain tasks on a regular basis; why not turn them into moments of prayer? 

Pray while completing household chores. I hate doing the dishes. It may be my least favorite chore. However, it gives me an excuse to pray even when I have a thousand other tasks to complete. Pray while vacuuming, dusting, or making dinner. If I am not praying while cleaning or cooking, I'm usually worrying or indulging in wandering thoughts. Prayer is more productive. 

Stop thinking about it. Just pray. Do I have time to go to the chapel? It doesn't matter; I can pray right here. While there is something indescribable about sitting in the physical presence of Jesus Christ, sometimes all we can manage is a two-minute-long teeth-brushing prayer. God appreciates both forms of prayer. 

The Catechism instructs us thus:
It is always possible to pray: The time of the Christian is that of the risen Christ who is with us always, no matter what tempests may arise. 
The time of the Christian is now. Pray! 


Stay tuned to one more catholic for updates on the Marian Virtue Project during this month of profound humility. 

The Marian Virtue Project

Way back in September, I had a bit of fun creating this post on what I thought the "Marian virtues" were when I first heard of them. All gifs aside, however, we can learn a lot from Mary, especially through each specific Marian virtue. 

In order to learn about these virtues, let's talk about the man who first enumerated them: Saint Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort. 

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