Three or Four Spiritual Paradoxes I Met at the Gym

It was Thanksgiving Day and this was not the first shower-sob of my twenties. But it was an important one. The thing about crying in the shower is that it in many ways resembles not-crying. If your pride is already wounded, if you are both upset and upset at being upset, if indeed you sort-of cannot believe this is all happening right now, the shower—its wet, its heat, its noise—can offer much needed camouflage and comfort. All those inconvenient fluids are neutralized. Any whimpers are covered in an innocent white noise. One’s emotional nakedness is hidden behind a locked door on the pretext of one’s bodily nakedness. It is the perfect illusion, the perfect hiding place.

It is, of course, the perfect hiding place from everyone except one’s self. And here I was, sitting in the tub, scalding water pouring over my head, my tears washing away, my sobs disguised, but confronted with myself. An hour earlier, my closest friends and the woman I would later marry had decided we should all go for a “short” 3-mile run ahead of the day’s gluttony. I protested. I had a rule about running: I did not do it. I swore I would not run unless chased by a bear or a man with a gun or (worst case scenario) a bear with a gun. This rule had its origins in my Junior High School gym classes, where forced runs proved tantamount to public humiliation while the lithe and coordinated waited for the portly and lumbering (among whom I could be counted) to finish their laps. I had responded by fashioning myself into what my friend John affectionately calls an “inside kid.”

But I loved these people. We were close. Somewhere at the back of my closet were running shoes I had purchased in a fit of college-aged optimism. I made an exception, blew the dust off my trainers, and laced them up. I only made it about three-quarters of a mile before I had to quit and wave my friends on without me. I walked back to my apartment alone, 13-years old again, shame like battery acid in my veins. Bitter tears were coming and, in that stage of my life, there was only one venue for such things.

Now toweling dry and getting dressed, no longer so wracked with intensity of feeling, I realized I had still with me a psychological injury incurred a decade before. Believing it healed with time, I had changed the posture of my personality to accommodate it and to avoid it. But it was time to stand up straight and deal with whatever was going on here or else it felt like it would be there forever.

In the near term, I resolved that the first thing I was going to do each day was run at least a little bit. That was a salutary practice for a while, but really only the very start of a journey that, a decade later, I still suspect I have just begun. And yet it has nevertheless taught me a great deal along the way. The lessons I have learned while reintroducing myself to exercise have had surprisingly wide reach into other areas of my life as well. Lately, I have realized they possess this reach because these lessons were spiritual.

The Paradox of Shame

It was at once shame that kept me from facing my aversion to exercise and also shame that drove me to confront it. This can seem like a paradox. The sense that I am not good enough—not athletic enough, not coordinated enough, not disciplined enough—had me favoring those parts of my life where I felt roughly adequate and refusing to put any weight on those parts that required I face my hurt, alienation, and weakness. I did not want to have to pay attention to those things. I did not want to have to think that I carried them around, part of me. But the truth was I did. I was not so whole, so together, or so strong as I had hoped, and I was ashamed.

At the same time, my hurt, alienation, and weakness, when I was forced to face them, included an implication: they were not absolute and immutable. What is wounded can be healed. What is alienated can be reconciled. What is atrophied can grow. My shame, as a result, was two-fold and the two aspects were opposed in an extremely important way. The first aspect of my shame—the one I have already described—was a toxic shame at being less-than. This first, toxic form of shame saw in these traits only a brute absence, one predicated on the premise that I was somehow inherently deficient.

But there was another shame, one that found in the negative space of these traits a whispered promise: “these are not the whole truth about you.” I was not ashamed in this way of what I was—namely, hurt, alienated, and weak—but ashamed that I had not taken responsibility for myself—for my whole self, including my hurt, my alienation, and my weakness. Instead, I had deceived myself, pretended I was someone I was not, someone more whole, more together, more potent.

Though I experienced them at the same time, these two aspects of my shame are not fundamentally compatible. They constitute mutually exclusive interpretations of “me.” The first makes me feel bad because (it would have me believe) the most fundamental truth about me is my deficiency. But the latter makes me feel bad because the most fundamental truth about me is that I have the freedom to be more than I am right now, I have just not laid hold of it (yet). Toxic shame cannot be resolved, because it already “knows” that I am insufficient to those things that would repair my deficiencies. The only path is avoidance—distraction, narcotization, and so on. But a healthier form of shame, like the pain that drives my hand from the hot stove top, can be what moves us to liberation, to redemption, to reconciliation, and so on. It reminds me of what Mr. Rogers knew about his television neighbors: there is something deep inside that helps us do what we can.

Nowhere to Start but Where You Are

Frustratingly, we do not change the way we live with the same haste that we yank our hands from the flame. The warp and weft of who we will have been is spread across hours, across days, across weeks, months, and years. Our bodies no less than our spirits are creatures of habit and both are nudged away from vice and towards virtue only with patience and persistence. As much as the shame I felt at the bottom of a shower one November morning initiated this peregrination of mine towards “physical fitness,” shame has not been what sustains it these years later. Shame (or its cousin, disgust) could propel me into brief paroxysms of exercise, but these did not last. No, there was another apparent paradox waiting for me on the journey: sustained and reliable forward progress required real, deep-seated acceptance of myself where and as I am now.

It turned out that if I was driven to the gym by my dissatisfaction with how my body moved, how it responded to movement, and how (if I am being totally honest) it looked,[1] all I met in the gym was an intensification of my dissatisfaction, my self-disgust, and my shame. And there is just only so much of that you can take over time, especially when healthy, motivating shame so often comes admixed with the other, toxic kind. The core of the practical paradox was that, somehow I had to, at a minimum, be able to tolerate for about an hour, several days a week that which I was there to change. After all (and this has become something of an axiom for me), there is nowhere to start but where I am right now. But really, essentially, even more paradoxically, I needed to find some joy in where I was starting, because the reality is—as is the case in matters both spiritual and physical—I was going to be there, at that starting point, for a while.

For me, this meant focusing on how well I could do an exercise, rather than how “much” of it. Finding my way to proper form, staying there as long as I can, and calling it quits when I am no longer able to maintain it has become my primary exercise goal. And this, more than anything, has taught me the spiritual lessons that physical exercise has to teach. If my attention wanders, so too will my knees from over my toes or my shoulders up to my ears and before long I am tweaked or pulled or pinched in some uncomfortable way that will take days to unwind itself. Lifting something very heavy over your head provides powerful evidence for the hylomorphic unity of spirit and body. Insufficient vigilance against spiritual distraction can lead to some particularly nasty forms of physical distention. So, as Simone Weil noted about school studies, this practice of sustained attention—in this case to my body rather than my geometry—can be preparation for prayer, that maintenance of attention to God. And like so many contemplative practices, the development of this attention begins with presence to my body, to my breath. I have to, as Anne Lamott puts it, be where my butt is.

But beyond distracting myself, if I deceive myself (which is really to say if I lack proper humility), I am liable to either workout too gently and mitigate my progress or too hard and hurt myself. Moreover, precisely because this enterprise is a progressive one, the benchmark of my true abilities is on the move by design. Therefore, this rigorous honesty with one’s self must go hand-in-hand with habits of discernment. My sense of what I can and cannot do, of where my limits really are must be not only accurate, but up to date.

I am Aristotelian enough to think this dynamic is not even just analogous, but essentially the same as that which governs the moral life in general. Much as I might imitate the workout strategies of a person whose athleticism I admire, so I imitate another virtuous person in pursuit of a good life. Still, for so many reasons, I cannot just mindlessly replicate the exercise regime that has produced so much strength and power and grace in Simone Biles, because—to make a point not any less fundamental for being obvious—I am not Simone Biles. So too the ultimate measure of courage or magnanimity in my living is me, the real proportion of my abilities or of my material resources. The good, Thomas Aquinas reminds us, is always concrete and so I need to know myself in order to know what I can do in order to know what I should do. The absence of this kind of discerning self-knowledge, both accurate and up to date, puts downward pressure on the odds I will do the right thing at the right time and in the right way. As my dad used to tell me growing up, the question is not so much “what would Jesus do?” as “what would Jesus have me do?”

Put Your Body in the Place

I teach Catholic theology for a living and I write about it as something between a vocation and a hobby. By the time Sunday rolls around, I am often pretty tired of Catholic stuff. The prospect of getting my family out the door to mass—another dense accretion of Catholic stuff—pretty regularly fills me with dread. Similarly, during the week, my aspirations to catch the lunch-time daily masses on campus run aground against the inertia of the day’s work. This mix of dread and inertia resemble nothing so much as the leaden feeling that accompanies the sound of a pre-dawn alarm waking me for the day’s workout. Although I am generally a morning person, still I never exactly bound out of bed. And, as you might imagine, that I have pull ups or squats or whatever waiting for me helps not at all.

I have resorted, in fact, to setting a second alarm in an adjacent room to force my feet to the floor. I have to get up, stumble in there, and turn it off before it can disturb my sleeping family. Still, once that is accomplished, nothing could really prevent me from getting back into bed. But it turns out that once I am up, I am up. My inertia is pointed in a new direction. No amount of night-before self-chastisement or earnest vows that “tomorrow morning will be different” had made a difference in breaking streaks of sleeping in. I never managed to think or talk my way to right action. I had to create a structure that nudged me into action, that literally got me on my feet, that put my body in the place.

Not infrequently do I find myself having to act my way to right thinking. When idly contemplating a long-anticipated change of course, my imagination seems prone to set out grand inaugural gestures. I am learning that this approach is more or less exactly wrong. Usually, it is better to start with just slightly more than nothing. I am dangerously negligent about stretching for someone who has begun to exercise somewhat intensely, but I am in a struggle to change that. To start, I opened YouTube and sought out a “bare minimum” mobility routine. The one I settled on consists of two movements, 30 seconds each, for a total of one minute a day. But, what do you know, every time I come to the end of this minute, suddenly I feel compelled to stretch at least a little bit more. My whole self-conception changes: in the twinkling of an eye, I am transformed into Someone Who Stretches.

I have been more successful in applying these lessons to exercise than prayer, but when I manage it, they serve just as surely. When I get my body up and moving and into mass, once through the door my urge to flee vanishes like the morning mist. When I stop looking at my rosary or breviary with that stagnant mix of ambition and shame, but instead decide to just pop off an Our Father or Hail Mary or even a single iteration of the Jesus Prayer, almost always I find I am happy to, if nothing else, stay a little while longer in this moment where I have remembered the presence of God. But as any good monk knows, spirituality is not just prayer, nor prayer just “saying one’s prayers.” The same spiritual principles—put your body in the place, act your way to right thinking, something is infinitely more than nothing—also govern my work, my responsibilities as a parent and a husband, and my duties as a citizen. I just happened to learn them under a pull-up bar.

An apparent paradox lurks in this lesson as well. While my incapacity to think my way to right acting is beyond question, how I am moved to right action in the first place can be something of a mystery. From the outside and in retrospect, I might be able to say that I was always capable of setting out on these courses of physical or spiritual growth. It is, after all, a metaphysical principle that actuality is logically prior to possibility, and so that I have-in-fact made it to the gym or to mass is decisive evidence that I always could. On the other hand, from within the horizon of my experience and before the fact, the impossibility of moving myself to exercise or to prayer is undeniable. My success depends on my liberty and my liberty is deficient too. So long as I am unwilling, I cannot.

And yet lately, most mornings, I find I can. So what can I call the appearance of this newfound willingness except a gift? Whatever lingering Pelagian flavor accompanies all my talk of progress, strength, freedom, and virtue must ultimately be washed away by the cool water of gratitude for how God has moved in me to heal my wounds, to reconcile me to my fellows, and to plant the seeds of strength in my weakness. It is a small, even somewhat vain liberation this grace effects, but as with every true liberation, I am returned, little by little, to myself and thereby also drawn closer to God. The gym, on the best days, becomes an observation post to scout the presence of God’s grace in my life.


Working out has perhaps become the one form of ascetic practice our culture seems comfortable with. We can bemoan, and maybe rightly, the variety of embodied spiritual practices it displaces. We can lament the forgetful secularity under which it is stifled. We can mock the suburban yogis and CrossFit evangelizers for being at once cultured despisers of religion and at the same time consumed by an obviously religious enthusiasm. And we will not be wrong exactly, but we risk being assholes.

What I have learned, more or less by accident, is that the people lifting weights and running on treadmills and balancing themselves on foam rollers beside me at the gym are having spiritual experiences. Now, they may not be paying attention to these spiritual experiences or, if they are paying attention, not very successfully making sense of them. But God is at work in the drama of their athletic pursuits and what God is doing can—if you will follow me on a short leap—provide evidence for the credibility of Christianity’s claims about God’s grace and God’s intimate presence to the mundane, sometimes vain minutiae of our lives. But even if our doctrinal claims fall on stony soil, we might do well to keep in mind the missionary principle that those we find our witness does not convert still we are obligated to help. Christian traditions of philosophical and theological reflection carry to us categories and insights and distinctions that can help our fellow travelers make sense of their spiritual lives for its own sake. If that starts with the spiritual demands of pursuing physical “fitness,” I speak from experience that we need not fear it will remain bounded there.

If, as Catholics, we desire to be more part of our culture’s conversations, rather than speaking more loudly, it might be more efficient and effective to simply move ourselves to where people already are. And, it turns out, a lot of them are at the gym.

[1] Body-image, the personal embodiment of one’s preferred aesthetic, and the various ways these can go wrong are deeply and importantly connected with this topic, but it is just an entire bag of cats and I will have to leave it for another day.

Featured Image: Photo by Jannes Glas on Unsplash.


Jonathan Heaps

Jonathan Heaps just completed a year as Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious and Theological Studies at St Edward’s University.

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