Bodies, Beauty, and the Grace of the First Week

Sticking with the theme of new year’s resolutions, I’ve been thinking about a common one: getting fit.

It struck me yesterday, while watching a Boston College women’s basketball game with my two girls, 10 and 7.  Lots of talent on the floor, on both sides of the ball; it was fun to watch, especially with my ten year-old, who was watching with her own basketball team.

It’s kind of a truism that sports are good for kids–for girls, it helps their body image and has lots of other benefits.  What struck me yesterday was something that I’ve intuited for a while: namely, that part of what makes sports help with body image is that participation in them can re-shape the imagination of what constitutes beauty.  For so many girls, what constitutes beauty is Barbie-like perfection, and the results are unhealthy.  My wife Sue, who is a counselor, has dealt with many girls over the years who cut themselves, or who have eating disorders, because their bodies will never match that image.  Sports helps kids re-imagine what a beautiful body does: this tall one gets rebounds, this short quick one is great for ball-handling, and so on.

Now, full disclosure: I coached rowing for many years during graduate school, and those who’ve read my book The Ignatian Workout know that I use that experience to understand what Ignatius was doing in the Spiritual Exercises.  I understand the grace of the first week to be about coming to know the real me, the me that God sees–not the “me” that is poorly imagined when I absorb the wrong messages from my culture.  I consider Hans Christian Andersen’s story  “The Ugly Duckling” to be a good metaphor: if the world tells you that you should be a duck, then you’ll hate yourself for being a swan.

I see some of my students–usually women, but men too– thinking that they’ve got to do everything possible to be a duck.  My job as a parent and a teacher is to help kids understand the kind of swans God has made them to be.  One good argument for regular church attendance and regular prayer is that these are practices that help re-train the imagination away from those who want us to be ducks.  Much of our days are spent in duck-land; liturgy, I think, is about entering a world of swans.  It reminds us that the ambient messages in our culture are often designed to make us hate ourselves, so we’ll go out and purchase the products that will make us more duck-like.

There is a story about St. Nonnus and St. Pelagia which hints at this idea of re-imagining oneself.  Bishop Nonnus was traveling with other clergy and saw a beautiful prostitute.  The others looked away, but Nonnus gazed at her, lovingly.  No one had ever looked at her that way; she later sought him, found him, and converted to Christianity, later becoming known as Saint Pelagia.  Being looked at with love transforms us, makes us see ourselves differently: this is what we seek in the first week of the Exercises.  We are not perfect, but when God looks at us with love we want to love God back.

So, to return to getting fit: I think fitness is good when it is the way we love God back, when we exercise our bodies to care for that important dimension of who God has created us to be.  I love Eric Liddell’s line from Chariots of Fire: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”  If God has given us bodies for motion, we ought to move them.  Conversely, and importantly: if God has given us different gifts, gifts that make fitness difficult or impossible, then our joy is to be found not in critiquing ourselves for not being Jackie Joyner-Kersee.  Perhaps our inner swan looks more like Stephen Hawking.  In any case, the grace of the first week is about the realism of discerning who God has created me to be.

About Tim Muldoon 115 Articles
Tim Muldoon, Ph.D., is the author of a number of books, including The Ignatian Workout, Longing to Love, and Living Against the Grain, as well as many essays. He is the Director of Mission Education at Catholic Extension Society.

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