With the new year beginning today, we offer Jared Zimmerer's reflection on Blessed John Henry Newman, fitness, and the necessity of asceticism for true spiritual growth.
New Year’s resolutions are said to die off within the first month of the year. Before the pumpkin pies, Christmas cookies, and mounds of fudge fully digest most people are already off their fad diet and exercise programs. Approximately 75% of New Year’s resolutions are based around growth in health, wanting to either lose weight or gain muscle. Could this be because people naturally, and rather subconsciously, know that in order to grow in willpower the physical nature must be put in its place first before any other change can be afforded? Perhaps this isn’t the only way to become a better person than the year before, but there is much to be said about what exercise and proper diet can do for a person– mentally, physically and most important spiritually. Exercise opens the soul to the fundamentals of discipline, virtue, humility and the growing desire to consistently change for the better.
Exercise also creates long-term and short-term goals for us to constantly work towards, as we can always run harder, lift more or eat more perfectly. It is akin to a flight of stairs where the goal is at the top but each step must be given due attention or you might trip and come tumbling down to the bottom. Just as with the spiritual life, if your goal is to be like Christ resurrected then you must be born in a manger first, grow in your mission, and be crucified.
Blessed John Henry Newman, an intellectual giant of more recent times, truly understood what must be done in order for real change and holiness to occur. In one of his sermons entitled ‘The Yoke of Christ’ he explains what it is that physical discipline can do for the soul operative: “Let us set it down then, as a first principle in religion, that all of us must come to Christ, in some sense or other, through things naturally unpleasant to us; it may be even through bodily suffering, such as the Apostles endured, or it may be nothing more than the subduing of our natural infirmities and the sacrifice of our natural wishes; it may be pain greater or pain less, on a public stage or a private one; but, till the words "yoke" and "cross" can stand for something pleasant, the bearing of our yoke and cross is something not pleasant; and though rest is promised as our reward, yet the way to rest must lie through discomfort and distress of heart…A man who is poor in spirit, meek, pure in heart, merciful, peace-making, penitent, and eager after righteousness, is truly a mortified man. He is of a character which does not please us by nature even to see, and much less to imitate. We do not even approve or love the character itself, till we have some portion of the grace of God. We do not like the look of mortification till we are used to it, and associate pleasant thoughts with it.” To become a man or woman of the beatitudes, mortification is a necessity, and hence New Year’s resolutions are typically difficult, alluding to the fact that through difficulties we mature. Exercise and proper diet offer such mortifications for the typical person of today.
While growing in health is vitally important, the overall goal is not the health itself. But, what exercise can create is overwhelming progress in the most important part of who we are— our souls. Just as Newman stated that we cannot truly mortify ourselves until we are used to it, the weight room, after a certain number of hard fought hours, offers a pleasurable pain which we can then turn into the love of spiritual mortification. The tangible aspect of working out and actually seeing and feeling the growth turns the outside effects inside. What I mean is that while a person experiences the change on their physical health there grows a challenge to improve the spiritual health as well. If you want to quit an addiction, it is senseless to only emphasize one aspect of the whole human being. Therefore those who decide to solely change their physical well-being and not their spiritual are missing the whole point. New Year’s resolutions should be about real change, not just momentary goals.
The average person, even one of little faith, knows that there is something life-altering about a change in the year. While I would like to challenge my readers to grow in their health, the real change, even if you only want to lose weight, can only come about as something lasting when Christ and the entire heavenly choir are cheering you on. Do not leave the saints or the Faith out of your New Year’s fitness resolution; instead, grab hold of their legacy and join them. Whatever your goal might be, the end result of joining the Church Triumphant must always be before you, shining like the light in the darkness, or the North Star when lost in the forest of confusion.
“Nothing short of suffering, except in rare cases, makes us what we should be; gentle instead of harsh, meek instead of violent, conceding instead of arrogant, lowly instead of proud, pure-hearted instead of sensual, sensitive of sin instead of carnal. This is the especial object which is set before us, to become holy as He who has called us is holy, and to discipline and chasten ourselves in order that we may become so; and we may be quite sure, that unless we chasten ourselves, God will chasten us.”
-Blessed John Henry Newman
Jared Zimmerer is an author and father of 4 from Denton, Texas, whose apostolate, "Strength for the Kingdom," teaches about the inherent connection between spiritual and physical fitness.
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We also wish you a blessed Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God. Listen to a classic homily from Father Barron on this holy day here.