“Gym in the AM. Party in the PM. “
I saw a woman sporting a shirt with this message in the gym recently and I had to chuckle. That’s life, huh? The gym and partying? Lather, rinse, repeat.
I like to lift heavy things (and then put them down) a few times a week, but lately I’ve observed an almost religious devotion in the “gym rats” around me. The outfits are carefully picked out. The men all have fresh pompadours and make sure that the electric green hat matches perfectly with the socks. The ladies have set their stretchy pants to the “ridiculously tight” setting. And the oversized headphones are polished just to perfection.
There’s something to be said for fitness, absolutely. But the unhealthy veneration of the “perfect physique,” the countless magazines and supplement guides that exist now to achieve this figure, and the overall obsession with appearance that marks our generation is an unhealthy end in itself. Only a culture that is spiritually starving would worship the human body to the vain glory that we do.
Vanity of Vanities
“Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” –Ecclesiastes 1:2
Working at an all-boys’ school, I’m reminded about the importance of “getting jacked” on a daily basis. We are spiritual and bodily beings, so I understand the importance of cultivating both realities, but it seems like the emphasis upon spiritual growth often takes a clear backseat. We’re all children of modernity and often unknowingly concede by our actions that the body is “more real” than the spirit (and thus more important to fortify). I sometimes ask the young men why they’re so focused on developing their physical strength (sorry, I meant: “getting swol”) and the answers I receive range from the practical, “to perform at my best” to the snarky, “to fight zombies” to the oddly self-reflective, “I don’t know”—I call the last group the junior philosophers.
The Hebrew word used over and over in Ecclesiastes, hebel (“vanity”), conveys a deeper meaning of “emptiness” or “futility.” Even if we achieve a temporary status of fame, wealth, notoriety, or those coveted six-pack abs, death will level it all to nothing. Among the many idols that pull at our attention today, bodybuilding/weight lifting can easily become an obsession that deters us from moral and spiritual growth.
In itself, vanity is quite silly. “Vanity is the peacock showing off the feathers that it didn’t create,” wrote the now-deceased Fr. Benedict Groeschel. Most of us (author included) enjoy receiving affirmations or praise from others. Everyone appreciates, and to some extent needs, validation of their work. The danger of vanity is that it encloses the person within themselves and we become oblivious to the needs of others. Vanity also can lead to more deadly temptations: narcissism, the compulsive need for recognition, envy of others’ success, and a lack of generosity.
“The vain person wants praise, applause, admiration, too much and is always angling for it. It is a fault, but a child-like and even (in an odd way) a humble fault. It shows that you are not yet completely contented with your own admiration. You value other people enough to want them to look at you. You are, in fact, still human. The real black, diabolical Pride, comes when you look down on others so much that you do not care what they think of you.”
-C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
Humility is the Cure
“To receive the grace of God into our hearts, they must be void of our own glory.”
—St. Francis de Sales
Humility is elusive—it’s a gift of grace. We can’t achieve humility in the same manner as we acquire knowledge. As soon as you think you’re humble enough, you lose it. A friend once defined humility to me as, “seeing ourselves as God sees us; nothing more and nothing less.” We think of ourselves as neither pieces of junk nor God’s greatest creation.
Ironically, a major obstacle to growing in humility can be our strength…which is probably why God allows it to be removed from us so often. The machismo that claims, I don’t need anyone, I don’t need to ask for help, I can handle this all by myself, will one day fall. Who will I be then? Humble men and women realize their limitations, frailty, and faults, and recognize that we daily need all the help from God we can get.
A word of warning: the higher we climb, the higher the devil climbs after us. If we make spiritual progress, he gets all the more tricky and cunning. The demonic tactic is to substitute a worse vice for a lesser one, and so vanity in the gym easily can become obsessive to the point of neglecting other responsibilities (say, to family or studies) and lead to a deeper-seated pride that relies on physical strength and self-aggrandizement. I’ve cut down on my time weight lifting for this reason, knowing that my time in the gym needs to serve my family, not come at the expense of them.
I hate the gym in the AM and I have little energy to party in the PM. I’m all for the increasing the strength of our bodies, but let us never neglect fortifying our souls.
St. Francis de Sales on exterior humility:
“That which is truly good is known in the same way as balm: balm is tested by dropping it into water, for it goes to the bottom and takes the lowest place, it is judged to be the finest and the most precious. Even so, to know a man be truly wise, learned, generous, noble, we must see if the good things in him tend to humility, modesty, and submission, for then they will be truly good; but if they float on the surface, and seek to appear, then, the more conspicuous they are, the less they will be truly good.” (Introduction to the Devout Life, Pt. 3, #4)
Litany of Humility
O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.
From the desire of being esteemed, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being loved, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being extolled, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being honored, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being praised, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being preferred to others, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being consulted, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being approved, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being humiliated, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being despised, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of suffering rebukes, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being calumniated, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being forgotten, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being ridiculed, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being wronged, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being suspected, Deliver me, Jesus.
That others may be loved more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be esteemed more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be chosen and I set aside, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be praised and I unnoticed, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be preferred to me in everything, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.